THE POLICE AND FIRE FACILITIES PROJECT
It is not a mystery that the Selectboard placed the sales tax but not the Police/Fire Facilities project on the March 4th ballot as a straw or nonbonding vote. Were they on together both would have likely been voted down. Thus the Selectboard gave us only one choice. In the same way the P/F project itself was presented at Town Meeting as only one choice. Town Meeting Members were forced to accept it all even if only one piece, or none of it at all seemed necessary. It was as if the administration believed that citizen input had no place in the development of the project. Since the vote was taken any further questions have been dismissed with ‘it’s been voted on.’ Conversation over.
It should be noted that there are some important problems solved and improvements made by the project as it is proposed although none are absolutely necessary. I advocate that the project be paused at this point not because there is a lack of merit or good intentions but rather to give it a chance to be reconceived to provide affordability. Over the year I have heard countless viable alternatives.
The project’s advisory committee was only permitted to look at the cost of the project as it was designed. It had no authority to question any part of the concept or major elements.
The administration told the taxpayers it was affordable. Perhaps to them it seemed so at the time. It does not seem so now. One of our Selectboard members used to lamentingly quip that we appeared to be in a race to reach a $3.00 tax rate. By next year three dollars will be disappearing in our rearview mirrors.
Income is rising far more slowly than the tax rate. The economy has been in recession and stagnation for over six years. Data is not showing evidence of the economy turning around soon in Brattleboro or the region.
It may seem to some that the project is affordable because of Vermont’s progressive property tax program. This softens the blow a little. The people with income below $47,000 are protected by the circuit breaker and the people over $97,000 clearly don’t need protection. However most of our population is managing on something between $47,000 and $60.,000, the lower end of that middle range. Only a portion of their tax increases for this project will be returned via the income sensitivity or rent rebate programs. We too often hear from those in that income range that they will soon feel compelled to sell their homes.
The proposed increase in our sales tax does not lower the cost of the project. It will cost $20 million no matter how many different pockets we take it from. Nor is it clear that the sales tax shifts much of the cost to non-residents. This is because the state takes 30% of the collected tax for administrative purposes. Most of the remaining 70% that is sent to us is probably close to what Brattleboro residents themselves spent. In other words, most of the $650,000 is our own money! A slightly lower property tax coupled with a higher sales tax doesn’t lower the cost of living in Brattleboro. Most of what we accomplish is simply shifting a tiny amount of our cost of living from a more equitable property tax to a regressive sales tax. In short, shifting expenses from the wealthier to the poorer.
At the same time we increase the motivation for people to spend their money out of state. Whatever tiny amount we might gain from a higher sales tax is probably offset by an overall decrease in the amount sold.
Since the smaller $5 million dollar bond is already in our hands and a couple hundred thousand has been spent on the project an appropriate action at this time is to not proceed with the project as it is now and then with fresh planning proceed with one piece at a time. This removes the need more financing at this time. In this way little or no money is lost. The remainder of the project can be tackled when our economy is stronger and incomes are growing again.
If we do not proceed with the project the sales tax is a moot point.