Strong turnout for charter change hearing

The community seating section in the Waitsfield town office was packed on Monday evening, January 27, as the Waitsfield Select Board opened a public hearing on a proposed change to the town charter that could allow voters to adopt a local option tax via a second, separate vote.

Waitsfield’s charter currently does not allow town voters to adopt a 1 percent local option tax (LOT) on rooms, meals, alcohol and/or retail sales. To even consider an LOT, Waitsfield voters must change the town charter, which will come before voters at Town Meeting and will eventually need legislative approval as well as that of the governor.

This week’s hearing was the first of two public hearings required for this charter amendment. The second will be on February 17. Town administrator Trevor Lashua opened the discussion, emphasizing that changing the charter would not mean approval of an LOT. “This charter change amendment would enable Waitsfield to permit a local option tax on rooms, food and alcohol. It wouldn’t apply it, it would just enable it,” said Lashua.

Town resident Alice Peal encouraged the board to draft a more specific plan regarding an LOT. “Each town that has done [a charter change] has done it with a plan in mind. For example, Bradford needed road work, so they earmarked an LOT for this plan,” said Peal. She described the charter change processes at Middlebury and Colchester, emphasizing the specific plans the towns presented to the public in order to get their charters changed. “What is your purpose in this charter change? What are you saying Waitsfield needs?” asked Peal.

“We are not saying Waitsfield needs anything. We are changing the charter so Waitsfield has access to an LOT. Waitsfield needs a lot of things. But we can’t do any of these things until we’re allowed to do an LOT,” said select board member Darryl Forrest in response.

Paul Hartshorn, select board chair, stressed the benefits of a charter change. “If we accept this, you will have a future chance to say that you want it for roads, schools or taxes. You won’t have the opportunity if we don’t make a charter change.”

Here Hartshorn suggests that the select board has no specific agenda in mind for the charter change; it simply wants to open up opportunities for funding.

Select board member Kellee Mazer added, “Maybe that money would go toward the soccer fields and parks or housing,” said Mazer.

Another member of the public, Robin Morris, was frustrated with the board’s lack of strategy. “The fact that you can’t offer a description of the next steps is concerning to me. There is a lack of specificity over what the money is going to be spent on. … You should engage the people of Waitsfield with a series of meetings and see what the people want. Normally towns have a strategy first and then they find the money. We don’t have a strategy yet. And if we don’t have a strategy, we’re not going to spend that money properly,” said Morris.

Some didn’t support the charter change at all, regardless of strategy. One man, a builder, was concerned that the LOT would harm his business, regardless of where the money goes. “If this LOT goes through, that means higher taxes on sales.” The builder mentioned that he buys local supplies from Kenyon’s. “That’s gonna hurt my business,” he said.

Others thought the charter change was a good idea. “I see this as a tool in the toolbox,” said town resident and planning commissioner Bob Cook.

Another man stood up to share his support for the charter change. “This is a low-risk proposition. I don’t see any reason for the select board not to propose passing this. These broad categories should suffice. The bad thing would be for the charter vote to get fixated on a single thing,” he said, emphasizing that the charter vote should be about the LOT, not about one specific project.

As the charter amendment discussion came to a close, select board member Sal Spinosa said, “It is refreshing to have 12 people here for a conversation, to come in and share their points of view.”