Unpredictable voters, democracy at its best
Mar 08, 2018 | 1358 views | 1 1 comments | 75 75 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Year in and year out, it never ceases to amaze even the most veteran observer when Town Meeting voters voluntarily decide to raise their taxes for no other reason than to prove a point. Such was the case in Whitingham this week, where voters decided on Tuesday not to use municipal funds to pay a school user fee, and in doing so raised their tax rate (see story on page 1).

Why did that happen? It has to do with Vermont’s somewhat convoluted education funding requirements. The user fee was designed to pay the school district for use of the Twin Valley Middle High School building for community events. By paying that money from the town coffers to the school district coffers, it also lowered the education property tax rate hit on homeowners.

The user fee payment would include, we assume, the very Town Meeting that was held there on Tuesday. The funny thing is, no one could really say with any authority what those events were, because no one bothered to draw up a list of community uses the money was ostensibly for. And that was one of the sticking points of the debate at the meeting on Tuesday.

The selectboard wanted that list, for some legitimate reasons. They said the town’s auditors had asked for it on a number of occasions, that the board needed to show some sort of agreement to justify spending the money. Who they had to justify that expense to was never quite explained, but we can assume either the voters or the state as they would be only ones who would really have any say.

The school board, for its part, said the fee was already part of the district’s revenue plans for the upcoming year, and by not paying the user fee the school would have to cut its already-bare-bones budget even more, or raise taxes. Plus, there was that tax savings to the voters for agreeing to support the user fee.

Don’t get us wrong, we’re not saying voters at Town Meeting in Whitingham were wrong for not supporting the fee. There were some good reasons and strong arguments for not. Perhaps the most compelling to those in the room was the fee’s potential to jeopardize the town’s lawsuit against the state over education funding and penalties. One meeting attendee even said they would like to win a lawsuit for a change.

But in general, people tend to vote with their wallets. When given a choice of two sides of the same coin, which this essentially is, voters will choose the lower payment.

This was a classic exercise in democracy, in which voters listened to the arguments for and against the user fee, and voted their conscience. The fact that the vote was close, only six votes between yes and no, says people in the room paid attention, and both sides made their points. In the end, the selectboard made the stronger argument.

After the vote, no doubt there were a few hard feelings. But we are willing to bet that most folks were willing to accept the vote and move on. That’s the great thing about Town Meeting, especially in small town like Whitingham where everyone generally knows each other. People can be on opposite sides of an issue, and then sit down at the same table to have lunch together. It’s what makes life here so interesting and special, and why Town Meeting is always such a refreshing reminder of how good “small d” democratic government can be.
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Larry Hopkins
March 08, 2018
Not sure the most valid / legal reason this was done was addressed as well as it could have?

As I posted on a previous site on this topic, Title 16 Section 4029 prohibits the comingling of municipal funds with money approved for education. There is a legal reason that is not relevant to " raise their taxes none other than to prove a point"

Both Act 60 and Act 68 formulas for education funding throughout the state have the non-residents / secondary homeowners taxed at a flat rate adjusted by each towns CLA ( they are not subject to increased taxation for the resident's approving of high education costs locally ). That higher cost ( % over the yield and penalty box taxation ) are statutorily the responsibility of residents "ONLY". I assume we realize the municipal taxes for both residents and non-residents are the same, so by shifting municipal funds ( and increasing non residents taxes there ), they assume a financial burden to that subsidize residents spending.

I am truly surprised non-residents and secondary home owners have not complained years earlier. Some type rental fees or user fees could be acceptable if valid and reasonable, but to just use it as a ploy to skirt the Ed Fund would violate the statute. The AOE also has the statutory right to require a payback if they desire. Lastly, In 2017 Readsboro tried shuffling municipal funds to the school and the district received a letter citing the statute and told not to let it happen again. They did not require a payback as it was under $2,000 and not well documented. In Whitingham's case the Town reports and minutes would be clear and this most likely would not be seen as a "reasonable" exchange?

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