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Editorial: Panton’s shock is Vt.’s conundrum

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Posted on October 7, 2013 |
By Angelo S. Lynn



After four years of relatively stable property taxes, Panton residents received a shocker when they saw the upcoming tax rates in late September: an approximate 18-cent hike in 2014. The news, naturally, prompted a robust showing of angry taxpayers at the next selectboard meeting. State tax officials were on hand to explain the reasons why the increase was so high. Their answers were straightforward: local school spending was up, accounting for 8.39 cents, or about 47 percent of the hike; and Panton’s Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) dropped from 104.21 percent to 96.7 percent, resulting in the remaining 9.49-cent increase.

That explanation, however, wasn’t good enough for many taxpayers at the Sept. 24 meeting upset with the tax increase. They wanted action; they wanted change.

“Our group cut them short on these explanations because we don’t care about the reasons,” said Panton resident Beverly Biello. “We’ve been hearing for years how complex it is… Our angry reply back at the meeting was, ‘Don’t give us any more reasons, just fix it.”

Add Stowe residents to that angry cry. And Windham’s And Dorset’s, along with residents of towns with high-value properties like Charlotte, Dover and many others.

The problem is that while property owners throughout the state can sympathize, they can’t agree how to make the education funding law less burdensome to high value property owners and still be equitable.

Ask anyone who’s complaining about high property taxes, and they’ll tell you the root of the problem is Act 60, the basis of the school funding law.

Act 60 was passed in 1997 at the bequest of a State Supreme Court decision that mandated in Brigham v. State of Vermont that the state must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all Vermont students.It was a legal challenge on behalf of a Whiting student that alleged the state’s system was unconstitutional because a student from a property poor town, like Whiting, did not have equal access to a quality education.

Act 60 — called the Equal Educational Opportunity Act — was the outcome of the concerted legislative effort to devise a funding formula that leveled the playing field and met the court’s constitutional mandate. Since then, modifications have been made, including a substantial change with Act 68 in 2005, each with the intent of making the funding formula as equitable as possible.

The premise of Act 60 is that school funding is based on one’s ability to pay the property taxes imposed. If the taxes are too great a burden based on one’s household income, that household is entitled to a rebate. Of the many good things Act 60 did, it eliminated the threat for those living on fixed incomes (like Social Security) of losing their homes because they couldn’t afford to pay rising property taxes — that was one of the injustices happening in the rising housing market of the late 1980s and during the booming 1990s before Act 60 became law.

But one of the drawbacks is that the income eligibility for rebates is set so high that many families are exempt from paying school taxes; that not only puts the burden on the relative few, but also means those who receive substantial rebates have become disengaged from the school budgeting process. If a rising school budget doesn’t affect a person’s pocketbook, then it’s easier to vote for better schools and not worry about the cost.

Despite what critics might want to hear, education funding is a complex issue and it’ll require steady persistence to come up with a better funding formula that still reaches the high bar of the state’s constitutional objective. To that end, Panton residents — and others in Addison County — should be encouraged to join the effort to help change the law. Few believe it’s perfect, most believe it could use improvement.

The Legislature has committees looking at the issue that are charged with providing recommended changes by 2015, but you can bet that for each suggested change there will be a chorus of opposition from those being asked to pay more.

Angelo S. Lynn

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