House speaker against extending 2008 sunset on levy
By Tom Gresham
Local legislators expressed frustration at roadblocks during the recent legislative session to firming up the local option taxes, pointing to rivalries among towns and a staunch opponent in a leadership post.
Sen. Ginny Lyons, who represents Chittenden County, and Rep. Mary Peterson, one of Williston’s two representatives, said the debate on sales and rooms and meals taxes was often contentious during the recent session and the lack of results maddening.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate approved separate provisions that would have kept the local option taxes in Williston beyond 2008, when municipalities authorized to use the levies lose that authority. Williston has a 1 percent sales tax and a 1 percent rooms and meals tax that intended to fund infrastructure needs connected with commercial development.
The House provision would have extended the sunset on the local option taxes beyond 2008, while the Senate provision would have extended the right to levy local option taxes to every municipality in the state.
However, Senate and House negotiators could not agree on a compromise, according to House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho. “We agreed to put things off until next year,” she said.
“I can’t underestimate how passionately opposed to the local option tax the speaker is,” Peterson said.
The stakes for Williston taxpayers are huge. The sales and rooms and meals taxes have allowed the town to reduce the property tax rate by roughly 27 cents per $100 in valuation. That equates to $540 in annual property tax savings for the owner of a $200,000 house.
Symington questions whether local option taxes have been fair. She said residents from other towns pay the tax when they shop, but they do not share the same benefits Williston residents enjoy.
She said representatives of some of the state’s smaller towns wonder whether their constituents are well served by the tax. Smaller municipalities with smaller commercial bases would not benefit from the tax and would therefore not be interested in gaining the option of using it.
“The local option taxes are paid by all Vermonters, but the bulk of the revenue only goes to the particular towns with the taxes,” Symington said. “I understand the towns have infrastructure needs, because they are centers of business, but I don’t think there’s been enough work to see who’s paying the bill and who’s benefiting from it. I’m not willing to just go ahead without looking at what the impact on taxpayers in smaller towns is.”
Symington has agreed to convene a study group to take a closer look at local option taxes. The group will meet in the fall or next January.
Resentment at Williston’s low property tax rate is behind some legislators’ opposition to the town continuing to have the tax, Lyons said. The town had a municipal property tax rate of 8 cents this year. Without the local option tax, the rate would have been around 35 cents.
“One of the basic problems for us is that the towns around us who don’t have the tax and want it use us as an example, so people get mad at us,” Lyons said.
Peterson said the discussion of the issue in the House of Representatives has been distinctively parochial.
“In instances like this, I don’t think folks are really being fair to Williston,” Peterson said. “They aren’t looking at the other side of the ledger and the amount of economic activity produced for the state here.”
Although the local option tax would not sunset until the end of 2008, Town Manager Rick McGuire said that is not distant for purposes of municipal planning. For instance, a town charter change that institutes a new funding source could take two years.
Peterson advocates starting a task force in Williston that would study the local option taxes and possible alternatives to them.
Cool temperatures delayed season’s start
By Tom Gresham
This spring’s stubbornly cool, rainy weather kept Lake Iroquois Beach from opening as scheduled over the Memorial Day weekend. However, the beach is set to open this Saturday as the weather forecast brightens.
Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden said last week that temperatures were recently measured in the water off the beach at about 48 degrees — much too cool for most swimmers. May’s persistent rain and below-average temperatures have kept the water from warming, he said.
The frigid waters prompted the Lake Iroquois Recreation Board of Commissioners to delay the opening of the beach a week beyond its traditional Memorial Day weekend start. The beach is owned by the towns of Hinesburg, Richmond, St. George and Williston. The Board of Commissioners includes a representative from each town.
“The beach has always been weather dependent,” said Boyden, who is Richmond’s representative on the Board of Commissioners. “It clearly wasn’t warm enough to open it yet this (Memorial Day) weekend.”
The weather has evidently dulled residents’ interest in swimming. Kathy Smardon, Williston’s assistant town clerk, said last week that the town had sold only 12 beach season passes — about half of what it would typically have sold before Memorial Day.
Forecasts for the upcoming weekend show sun and temperatures reaching into the 80s. Boyden expects interest in swimming to escalate accordingly.
The beach will be open on weekends only for the next few weeks, until the school year ends. It will then be open daily.
There will be two notable differences this year for Lake Iroquois beachgoers. One is a change in food vendor. The operators of Bridge Street Cafe in Richmond will run the concession booth.
Boyden said Bob and Helen Koch, who had managed the food concessions at the clubhouse behind the beach for roughly eight years, informed the Board of Commissioners about a month ago that they would be unable to provide the services again.
Boyden said the Recreation District advertised locally in search of a new vendor, but received no responses. So, Boyden approached the Bridge Street Cafe about taking the job. He said the business agreed, on short notice, to assume the vendor responsibilities.
“They ought to be really good,” Boyden said. “We’re lucky to get them.”
The beach area will also feature a new playground designed to accommodate more children. The previous playground, which was installed in 1991, had been restricted to children age 6 and older. The new playground will suitable for children ages 2-12, according to Boyden.
“We’re getting a lot younger clientele there than six years old and we decided we needed to get the equipment to serve them,” Boyden said earlier this year.
The new equipment, which cost approximately $6,200, will be funded with a state grant. Boyden said the playground should be installed around June 18, near the time school lets out.
GMP asks about preferences on power sources
By Mal Boright
The gathering was sparse, but the opinions were strongly in favor of wind power and the environment at a Green Mountain Power-sponsored energy forum last week at Williston Central School.
“We hoped for a slightly larger crowd,” said Dottie Schnure, corporate communications manager for Green Mountain Power. “But the people who came were very thoughtful and involved.”
Some 24 individuals expressed opinions when asked such questions as which renewable sources of power should be in GMP’s future, and what local environmental issues are of primary concern.
The gathering on Thursday, May 26 was the second of the local forums — the first drew 70 people in Montpelier — and, as explained by GMP Vice President Steve Terry, are designed to draw out opinions of Vermonters because, “important judgments must be made in the next several years regarding power sources we need in the future.
“They are going to be big and momentous decisions,” he said. “We now have time to think about it and involve our customers.”
Terry explained that the company’s current mix of power sources includes 37.5 percent from hydro, 36.9 percent nuclear, 18.7 percent from market purchases, 3.9 percent wood, 2.5 percent from natural gas and oil and 0.5 percent from wind generation.
He said that by 2012, “our current sources of supply will start to fade out” as the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon license expires that year while in 2016 the company’s power purchase contract with Quebec Hydro expires.
“Then the questions becomes, what sources do we have and what prices will we pay,” Terry said.
He pointed out current customer surveys show Vermonter’s No. 1 concern is reliability, while price “is a concern but further down on the list.”
Terry said Vermonters also want clean energy with the primary concern being “what goes into the air” rather than “what come from the ground or nuclear waste.”
The audience responses to some of the questions asked were:
Most important issue: 70 percent, the environment; 17 percent cost; 13 percent reliability.
Second most important issue: 45 percent reliability; 32 percent cost; 18 percent environment.
Local environmental issues of concern: 52 percent air emissions; 32 percent nuclear waste storage; 8 percent wind turbines on ridgelines; 4 percent wind turbines’ effects on birds and other wildlife.
What renewable power sources should Vermont utilities pursue: 64 percent wind generation; 16 percent solar; 12 percent small hydro; 8 percent biomass such as wood.
The hydro alternative as a future source was described by Terry as somewhat uncertain once the current contract with Hydro-Quebec expires.
He said the Canadians have increasing power demands in their own country to take care of as a first priority. As for additional small hydro projects in Vermont, there seems to be limited possibilities,
“I do hope we have more wind generation,” Terry said. “Wind will work in Vermont. It just has to be in the right place.”
“In principle I agree with wind turbines,” said Hinesburg resident Joe Donegan. “But in principle I also like locally produced power. A home should generate its own power which would eliminate big corporations and issues of power control.”
Doug Smith, technical director for the Boston-based La Capra consulting firm, responded that economies of scale are not good for the installation of home power systems.
Looking ahead to 2015, Terry forecast that by then, “more people will have home-based technologies and there will be more conservation.”
To express your opinion on what energy source Vermont should use more of in the future, go to Green Mountain Power’s Web site, www.greenmountainpower.biz.
The Green Mountain Power road show will take the summer off and then continue this fall starting in Vergennes.