Editorial: Good reasons for a tax bump

Tough budgets, progressive thinkingAs Middlebury’s board of selectmen hone in on a draft 2011-2012 municipal budget, we urge community residents to get involved in the budgeting process by reading and understanding the issues as thoroughly as possible. To the extent that is done, area residents will be reminded how frugal this board has been over the past couple of years, while still respecting the town’s need for progress and a consistent approach to infrastructure repair and maintenance.In the aggregate, if anything, the select board has been overly cautious in its reluctance to raise taxes to keep up with inflation. For the past two years, the town has seen no increase in its property tax rates, even though health care insurance costs for its 54 employees have gone up more than 20 percent, inflation has averaged over 2 percent each year and the grand list has been stagnant. To achieve that frugality, any “fat” or “extras” in the budget that could be found, has been, and operations are running close to the bone for a town Middlebury’s size.To expect no property tax increase in this current budget cycle is to invite degradation of existing town services. The initial draft budget of $8,302,283, in fact, would require $250,000 more in local tax revenues over current rates to balance the budget. That would mean raising the existing tax rate of 80.9 cents by about 4 cents, or about $37 more per $100,000 valuation on a Middlebury home.To punctuate the need for a slight increase in taxation, consider this: • Employee benefits are expected to increase $161,000, mostly because of health insurance benefits which are expected to jump 17 percent this year and 10 percent the year after. That’s more than half of the $250,000 projected hike, and no added value to employees.• The grand list has been stagnant for the past few years and there is little reason to expect growth in the grand list in 2011, though East View at Middlebury retirement community and another building in South Village will add to the grand list for the 2012 budget year.• The increase includes a request for $814,324 in capital improvements. That’s the same amount spent in the current budget year, but last year the town received federal money related to flood damage awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that helped defray gravel road expenses. This year’s capital expenses will be all ours.Knowing this, taxpayers have to consider the available options: cut spending and programs, increase revenues by hiking the tax rate, or grow the grand list. (One other factor is that tax rates have been going up recently because of school budgets, not the town budget. While the town budget is expected to go up this year, schools are under the gun to reduce spending by about 2 percent — thus the combined town-school tax rate could be down or level-funded.)Of the options, the best long-term solution is to grow the town’s grand list, and Middlebury has the potential to do that if we respond pro-actively in an environment in which the rest of the nation is pulling back.As other towns and states across the country diminish their public schools, cut back on public safety, spoil their environment by withdrawing regulations and incentives to stimulate growth, Middlebury could stand apart by offering quality public schools, superior town services, a safe and culturally stimulating community and town foresight in its ability to use state and federal avenues to attract new businesses and industries. With Middlebury College officials willing to help the town attract new jobs through its extensive network of contacts, and promote unique job opportunities, Middlebury could aggressively work to create new jobs and the new infrastructure those jobs will require.That will require a small investment in terms of personnel or direct funding to partner organizations, though it could be done on a short-term basis with the assurance that a direct payback was evident I order for the funding to continue. Not to make that investment, on the other hand, locks the town in a downward cycle of continual cuts followed by a worsening of town services.No doubt, these are tough issues to deal with; but here, at least, the encouraging news is that we have realistic options that offer ample reason to be optimistic.Angelo S. Lynn

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Addison County Independent

58 Maple Street
Middlebury, VT 05753

Phone: 802.388.4944
Fax: 802.388.3100