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Time for a change in Waitsfield

02/28/2008

By Nicholas Harmon

A week away from Town Meeting Day and there is so much to consider. It is time for a change in Waitsfield. Let me tell why.

The town-wide reappraisal of 2006 is a good place to start. The town hired a local resident with dubious credentials as assessor. Approximately 150 residents grieved their taxes. Approximately 50 took it to the Waitsfield Board of Civil Authority (BCA). Of those 50 grievances 6 appealed the decision from the BCA to the state appraiser. I represented two of those six. After presenting my cases to the state appraiser, I received notice from the state that both had been settled to my satisfaction -- 16 months start to finish. The Historic Waitsfield House assessment was reduced 30 percent and within one month I sold the building for about the same amount that the state had valued it. This result is evidence that the town was way off in their assessment. The town could not appeal this appraisal, so it ignored it.

The other property that I disputed was my primary residence. The town overestimated the value of my house by almost 20 percent. It was assessed by the town twice without the assessor stepping foot inside. I won my appeal. The town appealed the decision to the VT Supreme Court. No effort was made to discuss this.
 
I am not the only property owner still going through this nightmare. Another property that won in the appeals to the state has also been appealed to the VT Supreme Court over less that $200 in annual tax revenue! Where's the logic here? The lawyer's fees are staggering compared to the tax revenue in question. There are others in Waitsfield who are appealing their appraisals to the Superior Court and are still battling the town in court. The town has mishandled the issues surrounding the 2006 reappraisal. Rather than face the fact that it was flawed, biased and capricious, the town resorted to litigation. When Vermont Secretary Of State Deb Markowitz learned about the town's 2006 reappraisal, I've been told that she remarked that it sounded like "corruption or incompetence." I hope that it is incompetence.
 
In 2005 the town created a Waitsfield Village Parking and Pedestrian Plan. One of the reports that was endorsed by the Select Board was for the town to buy a parking lot from the Bridge Street Marketplace for public parking and recreational access. The report stated that the town should pay $300,000-plus for this in the near future. In 2006 the Board of Directors of the Bridge Street Marketplace offered this land for $1 to the Select Board. They refused. What a short-sighted decision and contrary to an expensive study they had approved!   This event was never made public.

The proposals for water and wastewater systems are preposterous. The propaganda distributed by the Waitsfield Select Board makes dubious leaps of faith regarding grants, financing, growth and the highly touted TIF (Tax Increment Financing). The estimates from these proposals grow from $14.5 million to $19.7 million since January! These estimates are based upon some seriously disputed facts and only consider the best case scenario.
 
Speaking of civic projects, perhaps we'd get more growth and economic viability if we built a civic center with a pool, town hall, common rooms, auditorium..., and it would cost much less than a sewer! Maybe our neighbors in Fayston would participate?  Improve the quality of life and more people and businesses will come to our beautiful valley. Maybe Fayston and Waitsfield should merge and only have one town hall, one select board, one town administrator. Just imagine the efficiencies that could be gained. It would be exciting to channel all our talents into one town. Erase the imaginary line? Maybe next year?

But where is the development pressure now? Build a sewer and they will come? I don't think so. Right now there is ample space for rent or sale in Irasville and Waitsfield. There is commercial/residential land in Mad River Park for sale that could be developed and has ample water and septic capacity. Fiddlers Green has undeveloped land. In Irasville we have limited development potential due to the wetlands. Again, where is the development pressure?

Our taxes will go up 1.5 cents per $100, and that's just next year! It is laughable and disingenuous that we are now told that if we don't proceed with the project that it will cost more than if we do! This is a baseless, bullying scare tactic, to frighten voters into approving the projects which will tax us heavily for decades. As a businessman I know that you don't throw good money after bad. Sunk costs are not recoverable and should not influence a decision to proceed on a project. A project must be undertaken when a thorough cost benefit and risk analysis is undertaken and the worst case scenarios are given consideration. These issues need more thoughtful study.
As a businessman I watch with dismay the uninformed, anti-business and litigious actions of the Select Board.  In my opinion and experience, the Waitsfield Select Board acts with whim and impudence, operating behind closed doors in the safety and cover of "executive session." They act as if they are under siege. Maybe they are! The Select Board, in my opinion, is dysfunctional, disrespectful and should be held accountable. How? Don't re-elect them! No wonder their meetings are scantily attended! In my opinion, it is not a well-respected institution at this juncture in our town's history.
 
We need a select board that is open, considerate and thoughtful. We need a select board with vision that will study the issues we face and come up with thoughtful, sustainable and measured solutions. We need a select board that knows how to communicate and reach out to its constituencies (Waitsfield and beyond). I believe that Waitsfield needs a select board that creates and builds community and not disenfranchises and intimidates its residents with bullying tactics, litigation and measured silence.  

Harmon lives in Waitsfield and is the owner of Verilux.
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