The work to craft a tri-town memorandum of understanding (MOU) for a local option tax (LOT) got underway this week when select board members from Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston gathered.
Two members of each select board met at the Waitsfield town office on Monday, May 13, to begin the work that is aimed at presenting voters in the three towns with the option to vote to adopt a 1 percent local option tax on rooms, meals, alcohol and retail sales. Such a tax would raise $1 million of which the three towns would retain $700,000. The funds would be used for housing, transportation, recreation, conservation and marketing and would be administered by a commission made up of two members appointed by each select board plus a chairperson. As currently proposed, community organizations and others would apply for grants from the commission.
At this week’s meeting, Warren Select Board chair Andy Cunningham was elected chair of the tri-town committee and Fayston Select Board chair Jared Cadwell was elected scribe.
The group spent some time on organizational matters including setting some ground rules for public comment and determining that agendas and minutes from the meetings would be posted on all three town websites. Cunningham urged the group to adopt an open public comment format but said it was for comment and not back and forth between the committee and the public and not extensive questions and answers.
Information about the work leading up to the three select boards meeting to negotiate the MOU will remain on the Mad River Valley Planning District website on the LOT page. A link to that page will be cross posted on each town’s website.
There were several members of the public present including Waitsfield Select Board member Sal Spinosa who asked to speak under public comment. Spinosa prefaced his remarks by reminding members of the tri-town commission of his opposition to the current plan for an MOU and LOT.
“I’m here to make some comments and inject some limited questions. My central concern is that I don’t think there’s sufficient information out there about this proposal,” Spinosa said. He said that the responses he’d gotten to a series of questions he posted about the LOT proposal were inadequate and dismissive. Those questions were presented to the Waitsfield Select Board and to the subcommittee of the Mad River Valley Planning District which did the organizational work and research to bring the LOT via MOU proposal to its current state.
“You’ve told me that a lot of the information is online. I can’t find it. If I can’t, I’ve got to ask myself if the public can find it. I think the public needs to hear what you’re proposing and needs to hear all opposing and all points of view,” he continued.
Spinosa then tried to ask the group a series of questions about which versions of the various documents were the current versions.
“I want to confirm that the charter proposal is no longer on the table,” Spinosa said.
“Sal, you may recall that we started the discussion about public comment by stating that we’re not having a back and forth,” Cunningham said.
“Yes or no?” Spinosa asked again.
“We’re hearing what you have to say. If you have questions there may be other places to ask those questions,” Cunningham responded.
“These are not comments. These require a yes or no answer,” Spinosa continued.
“This is public comment, not a back and forth. You’ve yet to say what’s on your mind and have it in the minutes and it will be on the three towns’ websites. Your questions have to wait for other business or somewhere else where it makes sense,” Cunningham said.
“I’ll just announce my questions. This is important to me. I’m doing a lot of research,” Spinosa said before asking again about the charter, which bylaws were the most recent, which MOU draft was the most recent and which articles of agreement were under consideration.
“That’s not appropriate in public comment. Let’s straighten out something for you and my understanding of what we’re doing here. This is not the LOT committee of the planning district. This is a tri-town MOU negotiating committee so when you ask those questions, I don’t know those answers. That’s not germane to this meeting. We’re talking about how to negotiate and put together an agreement on an MOU and offer it to the public for a public vote. We’re not redoing a lot of the ground rules here. That’s not what we’re here for,” Cunningham said.
Cunningham told Spinosa that his questions would be better directed at the MRVPD subcommittee that had proposed the MOU and LOT. The subcommittee presented a plan to each local select board to present voters with a ballot item on adopting an LOT by MOU at Town Meeting next March. The Warren and Fayston select boards voted unanimously to appoint two members of its board to the tri-town negotiating committee while the Waitsfield Select Board voted 3-2 to do so. Spinosa and board chair Paul Hartshorn voted against the proposal while board members Jon Jamieson, Kellee Mazer and Darryl Forrest voted for it. Forrest and Mazer are on the tri-town committee along with Cunningham and Bob Ackland, plus Cadwell and Mike Jordan.
After public comment, the group spent further time on the issue of where information will be posted.
MAKE INFORMATION AVAILABLE
“Let’s get above it. Let’s make all the information available as easily as possible on the planning district page,” Ackland said.
“Agree, let’s put all the pertinent information on that page as well as stuff that is pertinent to this group by having a link to the MRV-FLO page,” Cunningham said.
MRV-FLO stands for Mad River Valley Funding Local Opportunities, an early name for the LOT that is being phased out although the webpage has not yet changed.
The group continued to work its way through language in the proposed MOU, discussing whether the state statute that enables the LOT will require creating a district or not. The group will reach out to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns for advice.
Cadwell asked the group whether all members were on board with the needs that the subcommittee had identified as critical for The Valley’s future economic vitality.
“That’s the elephant in the room,” Ackland said.
“We need to make sure we have a clearly defined proposal for voters to weigh in on,” Cunningham added.
The draft MOU does not create an end date for the agreement and the group discussed whether it makes sense to add a sunset provision – even though the document includes a provision for towns to opt out.
“That would be purely political as a way to get this passed. There’s a process by which to terminate this, so why should we have to placate those who are playing a political game?” Ackland asked.
“Once you start feeding the pig, the pig wants more. A sunset clause would drop all the programming flat on its face. The uncertainty is not what you want. You want a certain amount of certainty. If it’s not working after four years, there’s going to be a drum beat to change it. Individual towns can opt out and voters can petition. Have to be clear about where we’re going and what its purpose is. Unless someone wants to propose a sunset clause, I think we should walk our path,” Cunningham said.
The group opted not to change the current proposal to add a sunset clause and for the time being opted not to set aside a certain percentage of each town’s LOT funds for individual town uses.
“This memorandum is each town agreeing that ‘this isn’t my money, it’s our money,’” Cunningham said.
“The town is me, the LOT is we. If you want to think about it, if I live in Fayston and I’m going to shop in Waitsfield I could ask, why am I paying for their roads when Jared’s making me pay for my roads too?” he continued.
“I agree. I fall on the side of you use your municipal tax rate for your municipal infrastructure maintenance and capital projects,” Cadwell said.
“We’re at the point where we’re beyond having to deal with our select boards. Our boards put us together to do this. We’ll put this together and it goes to the voters,” Ackland said.
Forrest said that he and Mazer were going to get a lot of flak from their board.
“We’re here to put this together for our voters. Our boards have voted to have two of us from each board make things happen and put it out there for voters,” Cunningham said.
The board will meet again at noon on May 28 at the Waitsfield town officeMR