Whether the public can trust the proposed local option tax (LOT) and the related projections for The Valley can be influenced by many factors. What is important to me may not be important to you and, by contrast, some factors may be of undeniable influence for all of us. Without specifying any particular keys for assessing trust, let’s review some, but not all, of the LOT history and allow voters to assess trust.
By my reckoning, the Mad River Valley Planning District’s subcommittee (LOT subcommittee) consideration of a multi-town LOT began sometime in early 2018. Did the district come to Waitsfield with this idea when it was still an idea? No. The first formal presentation occurred in the fall of 2018 when three select boards gathered to see what appeared to be the presentation of a final taxing plan, intended for a public vote at Town Meeting 2019. Had the board been informed of this concept at the outset, we undoubtedly would have made it a repeated agenda item, informed the public, received early legal review, prompted discussion and analysis and provided insights into both its viability and format. None of that happened.
When the LOT subcommittee initiated this taxing plan, there was no taxing power in the planning district’s original authorization. Many powers and duties are articulated; taxation is not among them. With the recent decision by the promoters to return to a UMD (union municipal district) format to support this proposal, I suspect the issue of taxing authority will be addressed.
Soon after the fall 2018 rollout, I met with two subcommittee members to express my concerns about their plan and asked them to consider drafting an alternative for our consideration that would provide a framework for the towns to work jointly on an identified project, possibly supported by a limited LOT, but without invoking the structural overhaul of their plan. I asked them to give this idea some honest thought and not merely dismiss it. I was later told that they were happy with their plan and that I was free to develop an alternative if I wanted to. Our town administrator drafted such a proposal, a template for a multi-town agreement. It received little attention from both the majority of our board and the broader subcommittee. No action on the alternative to date.
Since its inception this proposal has seen a head-spinning array of different structures. I have lost track of the sequence of different formats.
- A charter proposal has come and gone.
- A UMD raised its head only to disappear.
- An interlocal agreement, aka MOU, was foremost for a while, but no longer.
- Waitsfield’s attorney reviewed what was supposed to be a near final plan only to inform us of serious legal flaws.
- The latest is a return to the UMD model.
- It also requires more changes to the bylaws.
- And, discovered only recently, because Waitsfield is not authorized to install an LOT pursuant to Title 24 Section 138 (the LOT statute), it must first hold a public vote to approve a charter amendment authorizing an LOT (currently scheduled for Town Meeting 2020) and then a second vote (if the first is successful) to impose an LOT.
I hope you reread that last bullet point when you assess trust and recall that the promoters were pushing for a Town Meeting 2019 vote on their proposed three-town LOT format.
Because litigation is so prevalent today, I asked the subcommittee, in writing, about the prospect of litigation and potential consequences, both for the LOT taxing authority and for the towns. One answer acknowledged that the LOT entity might take legal action against a fund recipient, if required, but characterized that outcome as “very unlikely” though “possible.” Another response admitted that towns themselves could be named and drawn into LOT litigation, though guilty of no wrongdoing, but as an obvious “deep pocket.” Subcommittee members promise to insure the towns against adverse financial consequences though we await the details of this promise.
Like any tax, this one will have a greater impact on those who can least afford it. This is a tough issue for any expense, including taxes, in that it weighs more heavily on some folks than on others. We’ve heard that the burden will be minimal; we’ve also heard that outside resources, like the community fund, might be available to help out. Both are true; neither seems particularly convincing.
Our select board has been locked in a 3-2 split for some time in favor of the three-town option tax format. While the majority’s position is deserving of respect, I certainly don’t agree with it. Recently there is some evidence of outside forces bearing on the majority view. Bob Ackland, a Warren Select Board member, publicly announced that Waitsfield needed to “get off its duff” and get documents to our lawyers for review; that our board should use its 3-2 majority to move things forward; and expressed dismay about waiting for the first vote on the charter amendment before moving forward. I have no quarrel with Mr. Ackland expressing his view; I am concerned about whether those or similar comments pressured the majority of our board to move forward despite an earlier decision to move at a different pace and manner on our own.
Trust in public officials and the governing they oversee can be elusive and hard to maintain. It is for public officials to earn and for citizens to judge. This note was intended to help with both of those goals.
Spinosa lives in Waitsfield, Vermont.