Marketing (aka lobbying) in support of the proposed local option tax (LOT) has begun in earnest and will, I imagine, continue. As with any devoted marketing campaign, we can expect the frequency, intensity and range of claims to persist and probably increase. Expansive and unrelenting prodding of the public’s attention is a component of a marketing campaign, isn’t it? I’m sure, in fact, I’m positive opposing points of views will surface, probably closer to the planned vote when public focus will be sharper. But, for now, we will all endure and critically evaluate the ongoing wave of local option tax marketing.
I do not fault the promoters over the sincerity of their efforts. It is apparent that they believe in themselves and their objective and are working very hard to convince you and me. I am, however, troubled by some informational irregularities. For instance, per The Valley Reporter front-page article of December 12, 2019, the promoters reported on the experience of six towns that had adopted a local option tax. That is a fraction of the number of towns that have employed this tax. Questions arise. Were other towns overlooked? Or interviewed but not included in the report? In short, is there more to the story? I don’t mean to suggest anything nefarious. But I do mean to question the completeness of the work as it may bear upon its reliability.
Two further points, both of greater importance. In each instance, the individual towns mentioned exercise complete control of the funds from taxing to collection and disbursement. Nowhere was this decisional authority delegated to or otherwise assumed by any other entity. To discount the impact of the proposed three-town commission format as simply creating “another layer” dramatically misreads the significance of this governmental alteration and deserves neither naïve nor cavalier treatment.
In many venues, including our own select board, proponents of this tax have been unreceptive to even a discussion about a Waitsfield-only option tax for specific, local town needs. The prospect of using these funds to reduce property taxes, pursue infrastructural projects or retire existing debt, as examples, would purportedly waste option tax revenue on matters that should be addressed through property taxes and frustrate the pursuit of projects of greater value to the town/Valley.
And yet, the six towns mentioned in the December 12 Valley Reporter, the very towns highlighted by the promoters, suggest otherwise, as follows (town/tax use): Colchester, pay off capital debt thereby reducing property taxes; Barre, capital projects; Brattleboro, revenue for local use under local governance; Williston, addition to general fund leading to lowest property tax in the county; Winooski, revenue to be used to offset cost of infrastructure, sidewalks and other projects; Hartford, revenue in reserve fund to be spent in line with select board decisions.
The message from the promoters’ own surveys is striking. Clearly, these individual towns, not an independent commission as proposed here, decide how to spend option tax revenues. Further, unlike our tax promoters, these towns have identified basic civic realities (taxes, debt, infrastructure, etc.) as appropriate targets for these revenues.
Finally, the claim in the December 12 Valley Reporter on the opinion page that there is “no downside” in the current proposal is questionable. We have seen important concerns expressed in the written questions forwarded to the promoters for response; the input received during public meetings; the town’s own legal review of the proposed plan; and ongoing dialogue at Waitsfield Select Board meetings. All of this and more do suggest, if not clearly demonstrate, a potential downside.
A continued dialogue is inevitable and deserving. It must be comprehensive and clear and reach well beyond the availability of financial assistance for those who may be required to seek it. In the end, whether this proposal becomes the law of the land will depend on your vote. I think you know where I am. Much more importantly, I hope that there will be enough clear information readily available to ensure an informed vote.
Spinosa serves on the Waitsfield Select Board as vice chair.