April 1, 2015

Eloquent ambassador


Visiting scholar brings Chinese culture to area schools

Feb. 9, 2012

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff


Chinese teacher and scholar Tao Ye (above) is currently teaching Chinese cultural studies at Champlain Valley Union High School as part of the University of Vermont’s Asian Studies Outreach Program. She will be at Williston Central Allen Brook schools in the coming months. (Photo courtesy of Tao Ye)

The Year of the Dragon, which began on Jan. 23, is considered the luckiest year in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese lunisolar calendar.

But for 27-year-old Chinese teacher and scholar Tao Ye, her luck began last fall — during the Year of the Rabbit –—when she began her sabbatical in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union school system.

“I think I’m so lucky I can come to CVU (Champlain Valley Union High School) and come to different schools to learn, because it’s good for my teaching method,” Tao said.

Tao, who pointed out that the Year of the Dragon is deemed the most auspicious time to get married, have a baby or start a business, began teaching Chinese cultural studies at CVU in January after spending time at primary schools in Hinesburg, Charlotte and Shelburne.

A native of Lijiang, a city in the mountainous Yunnan Province of southwest China, Tao said classroom sizes are much larger at her home school — often greater than 50 students per class — and that academics in China are focused more on book learning and preparing students for standardized college entrance exams. Another difference, she said, is that the school day is longer in China.

“At school (in China), students have a long schedule every day — from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.,” Tao said. “Most students will have breakfast, lunch and dinner at school.”

She added that Chinese schools differ from their American counterparts in terms of a rigidly enforced set of personal conduct and appearance codes.

“In China, the schools have a lot of school rules,” she said. “Boys cannot have long hair. Girls cannot dye their hair.”

As a result, Tao observed, Chinese classrooms are less participatory and students are less assertive.

“The most impressive thing I learned from students (in Vermont) is they are very brave,” said Tao. “In China, the classroom is always very silent. Here, students are very brave. They will give you feedback.”

Tao, who will have lived with eight host families by the end of the school year, is one of several Asian instructors who have traveled to Vermont as part of the University of Vermont’s Asian Studies Outreach Program.

Since arriving in the Green Mountain State, she has instructed students in Chinese history, geography and calligraphy. She also teaches about and cooks Chinese cuisine — including Kung Pao chicken, which she has made no less than seven times for students.

“Every province has a different kind of flavor, so if you go to different parts of China you can taste different kinds of food,” said Tao. “In Lijiang, it’s almost the same as the Sichuan Province. We like spicy foods.”

Tao will remain at CVU through the end of the week and will move to Williston Central School on Feb. 13. She will finish out the school year at Allen Brook School and return to China in June.

Reflecting on her time spent thus far in the CSSU, she said she has learned as much as she hopes she has taught students.

“This is a very nice program for Asian people to come here and share something, but also they can learn lots of things from here,” Tao said. “It’s good for us to come here and learn something new and take this new way home. It’s good for our students.”

Citing the American teaching techniques of student-teacher dialogue and positive reinforcement, Tao said she hopes to incorporate these methods into her instruction style back home.

“I think after I come back (to China), I will change some teaching methods,” she said.

While she has occasionally felt homesick for her country and family — particularly during the Chinese New Year celebration — Tao said that the welcoming nature of the community and the school system has made for a natural transition.

“This is like a big family for me,” she said.

Little Details: Lessons for the living


By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Australian writer Bronnie Ware spent years tending to hospice patients. Caring for the dying extends beyond administering palliatives and checking vital signs. Caring for the dying is about keeping vigil, bearing witness to the parting thoughts, words and deeds of people facing their final stop on the continuum of life. [Read more...]

The ghost of Halloween present


Joe Citro, supernatural storyteller extraordinaire, pauses for suspense during a Saturday afternoon appearance at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

Joe Citro speaks to library listeners

By Luke Baynes

Observer staff

The “Ghost-Master General” was on schedule Saturday, delivering a package of supernatural tales to a 1 p.m. gathering at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.

Joseph A. Citro, Vermont’s foremost chronicler of all things ghostly and ghoulish, is the author of a half dozen works of bone-chilling fiction and nine books “that might not be fiction,” per his website.

Yet despite appearing less than a week before Halloween, Citro’s talk was more concerned with the metaphysical mysteries of the paranormal.

“In the final analysis, we still don’t know what ghosts really are. The knee-jerk definition is that they are the spirits of the dead, but we don’t know that. No one has ever proved it,” Citro said. “But whatever they are, people continue to see them.”

Dressed in blue jeans and a baseball cap, his black blazer and T-shirt providing stark contrast to his snow white beard, Citro spoke with the deliberate pacing of a practiced orator.

He spoke of the fabled Dutton House, which despite being disassembled and relocated from Cavendish, Vt. to the Shelburne Museum, is still alleged by museum staff to be haunted by inexplicable noises and shifting furniture.

He told the tale of a French Canadian woman named Marie Blais, who was hit by a train in 1900 near Burlington’s Queen City Cotton Mill. Her ghost was allegedly sighted by hundreds of millworkers and ghost hunters—until 1908, when the city built a pedestrian footbridge under the elevated tracks and her apparition was no longer reported.

But the weirdest of all of Citro’s Saturday afternoon stories was a firsthand account of what he pledges is “swear on a Bible true.”

It occurred in 1994, in the kitchen of his house in Burlington’s south end, where he heard “a muted screech, a constant unwavering sound.” Entering the kitchen, he discovered “one single drinking glass: a thick, squat French tumbler spinning on its base, spinning perfectly, like a top, slightly angled, though not rocking or wobbling, spinning with an aerodynamic certainty so unbelievably fast that it, by itself, seemed to be generating the high-pitched whining sound.”

He recalled that as he stared at the spinning glass, it suddenly exploded, “like a wine glass shattered by an opera singer in a TV commercial.”

Haunted and puzzled, Citro said he consulted with a Burlington neighbor, Dr. Donald Slish, a biology professor across the lake at SUNY Plattsburgh. According to Citro, Slish conjectured that the exploding glass was a phenomenon so atypical that it can’t be scientifically studied.

“How can such things be studied, when they occur rarely and non-repeatedly?” Citro asked, paraphrasing Slish’s rhetorical question. “Dr. Don, I think, had just eloquently summed up the essence of my life’s work.”

In conclusion, Citro suggested that his tale of spinning glassware is no stranger than the more macabre events which populate his fiction stories.

“In the entire scheme of world weirdness, I must question the unremarkable nature of this seemingly insignificant event,” Citro said. “Bigfoot sightings, UFO reports, monster tales and ghost stories are weird, but are they any weirder than a singing, exploding tumbler?”

The question, like any great ghost story, was left unanswered.

Little Details: Notes from the journey


By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

As I sit in my Williston kitchen sipping Scottish tea, a gentle rain falls outside. The gift of time—two months in Edinburgh—reminds me that life goes on, even when it rains.

My husband and I are settling back into the gentle rhythms of Vermont. The lawn is mowed. Our garden is planted. The fridge is restocked with local flavors—dark amber maple syrup, mixed greens from the Intervale and leftover slices from Leonardo’s Pizza are among the pickings. The pool is coming along, albeit slowly.

We returned to jobs that not only pay the bills, but bring a sense of personal accomplishment. Recession in Europe was felt very tangibly, as we encountered well-educated Scots who couldn’t find work. We met migrants from less stable economies (e.g. Spain) coming to the United Kingdom in search of employment. The Home Office—the UK version of Homeland Security—was bracing for a possible onslaught as Greece’s economy teetered precariously.

We learned the streets, the cobbled alleyways, the bookshops and the cafés where one could sip tea with milk while reading “The Guardian” in undisturbed bliss. Early morning runs in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, a long-dormant volcano overlooking the city, preceded breakfasts of steaming bowls of porridge.

I indulged in delectable fruited scones at The Elephant House, the café where J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter. Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, wrote in the cafe while her daughter slept in her carrier. The then-single mother found this a cheaper alternative to heating her flat during the day.

Volunteering in the UK is not an easy task for a foreign national. A work permit, which costs several hundred British pounds sterling, is required. Fortunately, the law didn’t prevent me from connecting with civil rights and domestic violence organizations to interview staff, participate in trainings and provide informal consultations on fundraising strategies. I learned much from our conversations and anticipate continued dialogue with these “colleagues” across the pond.

When I saw a flyer for a six-week writing course offered by Scottish poet and novelist Sophie Cooke, I signed up. Our class was small, just Sophie, a poet named Mary, and me. We met Wednesday mornings to present and rework our writings. My first piece of fiction, a humble short story, sits on my computer awaiting final edits.

Sharing this very intimate writing environment with two extremely eloquent Scottish women reminded me that, although we all spoke English, words, idioms and semantics vary. I embraced humor over embarrassment each time I interrupted to ask, “What does that mean?” I learned that in Scottish English a “thong” is not an undergarment, but rather, a piece of string holding a pendant.

We discovered the wonderful concept of meet-up. Started in the United States, it’s an online tool to bring people of similar interests together for outings. There are meet-ups for hiking, biking, cinema, theater, music, food and numerous other events.

Joining the Edinburgh Walking and Socialising Meet-up enhanced our experience immeasurably. Each Saturday morning, we met at a designated bus stop and rode somewhere into the countryside for a 10 to 12 mile hike with a volunteer leader. We explored the Fife Coastal Path along the North Sea, the Pentland Hills and numerous green roads through forests and past meadows dotted with sheep.

A typical Saturday found us in a group of 15 or 20 hikers. Walking beside someone for 10 miles on a succession of Saturdays, you really get to know them. Judith is a globe-trotting geologist who recently returned home after a six-year stint in Italy. She and I discussed politics and social issues. Michelle, an administrator at the University of Edinburgh, illuminated me on what it felt like to have to abandon Ireland in the 1980s to simply find work. Kim, a doctoral student from Denmark, recommended Danish poets and playwrights. We’d stop for lunch on dry ground or in a makeshift shelter before pushing through sun, rain, mud and an occasional snow shower. Each hike concluded at a pub; that was the “socializing” part. I learned to drink pear cider and shandy, sweeter alternatives to beer.

Connecting with a faith community was a top priority. St. Mark’s Unitarian Church in Edinburgh is one of four UU congregations in Scotland. Maud, the Irish minister, brought us into the fold with her warm and welcoming ways. Taking time each Sunday, as we do in Vermont, to reflect in a spiritual way exposed us to the workings of our liberal faith in the UK. Coffee hours following services paved the way to friendships with Scots and expats alike.

Time for reflection, time to learn, time to connect, time to reevaluate life’s priorities—these are the gifts of a sabbatical. If you’ve ever contemplated an adventure to live overseas, drive across the country or write your book, I say start planting the seeds now.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

Right to the Point


Obama’s speech misses the mark

June 30, 2011

By Kayla Purvis

United States President Barack Obama’s June 22 announcement regarding our presence in Afghanistan was a short one. I got the feeling that this speech was more of a reelection move than anything else. And, to be honest, it was an empty speech of fancy phrases and adjectives. Obama’s speechwriter tries to paint a picture of a deep, reflective president.

I don’t want a smooth-talker for a president. Come on, if you’re going to make a speech about what you’ve done in Afghanistan and Iraq, and your plans for Pakistan, do it straight up – just the facts, nothing overly eloquent. It is so obvious that he (or his speech writer) is trying too hard to sound pensive.

But, this is nothing new. I have rarely been impressed by any of Obama’s speeches because they are chocked so full of descriptive and inspirational words that you spend the whole speech trying to wade through them!

Perhaps the thing that grabbed my attention the most was the part when Obama said, “…Some would have America retreat from our responsibility as an anchor of global security….”

Hold up!
I don’t recall us being legally obligated to that. Yes, we are a world leader. And yes, we are often willing to provide aid and protection to countries that ask for it, but responsibility? I’m not so sure that’s fair.

We can’t be selective with our “responsibility.” We can’t look at some countries’ situations and proclaim, “That’s not our business or responsibility,” and turn around and preach to ourselves that we are a world leader with a responsibility to take care of the rest of the world. We are not! As far as I am concerned, our main priority should be our own nation – not what we look like to other countries.

Either way, we look bad. We either insert ourselves into situations, or we ignore them. We need to work on only participating when our help, advice, protection, troops, etc. are solicited or if it’s a matter of immediate danger to our country.

Another good Obama line: “When threatened, we must respond with force.” He then said when the force could be targeted; we do not need to deploy large troops overseas. It looks like someone is trying to justify Libya air strikes?

The president also said that our supportive actions in Libya are giving Libyans the chance to determine their own destiny. What? We’re only over there because we have oil at stake – it has nothing to do with wanting to help Libya “determine their own destiny.”

I found it ironic that Obama mentioned our need to spend within our means, while he has proposed many unnecessary policies that do not do this.

I am pleased that Obama is trying to appeal more to both parties by inching toward the center, but I am not sure what to make of it. Is he truly moving toward the center? Is he getting nervous and reacting to the pressure to appear more centered? Is he just trying to gain reelection brownie points? All of the above?

I think Obama is grasping to solidify his presidency. Our unemployment rate has not gotten much better, and he is struggling with that. It’s not an easy task to drop our unemployment rate – I get that – but he made it sound like he was going to come to America’s rescue. He has not delivered.

The approximately 13-minute announcement was kind of a publicity thing. But that’s to be expected.

Williston resident Kayla Purvis is a 2011 graduate of CVU High School.



June 9, 2011

Keith Patrick Schumacher

Keith Patrick Schumacher, 56, of Moncks Corner, S.C., maintenance supervisor with Darby Development Company in Moncks Corner, husband of Robin Schumacher, died Sunday, May 29, 2011, in Charleston, S.C.

Schumacher was born August 29, 1954, in Montauk, N.Y., the son of Charles E. Schumacher and Patricia McDonald Schumacher.

He served 25 years in the Army National Guard; was employed 17 years with Burlington Housing Authority in Burlington; and for the last 15 years had been a maintenance supervisor with Darby Development Co. Schumacher’s work has been his passion. He dedicated his life to maintaining a perfectly running apartment property… many times to the chagrin of those working with and around him. He was never afraid to be unpopular in his decision if he knew it to be the right one. However, his well-known generosity, along with a keen sense of humor, often gave others a glimpse of a softer side that was difficult for him to reveal.

Schumacher commented many times that he was born 100 years too late. In his heart he would have happily given up modern conveniences to live off the land, and it is most likely his love of the outdoors and “rugged living” that gave him the survival instinct and never-give-up attitude that helped him fight tirelessly against a relentless disease. As his close friend, Rick Proctor, so eloquently stated, “If you think he was a force to contend with here, imagine how he’s shaking Heaven up now.” Many will also fondly remember Schumacher as an avid reader who was almost never without a book in hand.

Schumacher is survived by his parents of Shelburne; his wife, Robin Schumacher, of Moncks Corner, 2 sons – Jason Schumacher and Josh Creel, both of Moncks Corner; a sister – Arlene Fisher and her husband, Randy; a brother – Robert Schumacher and his wife, Bonnie; sisters-in-law – Carol Palady of Rock Hill, S.C.; and Aggie Schumacher; mothers-in-law – Roberta Johnson and Sharon Palady, of Williston; several nephews and a niece, and good friend, Rick Proctor, along with many others he held close at heart.
He is predeceased by his son, Aaron Schumacher; a brother, Charles Schumacher; and his father-in-law, Ken Palady of Williston.

Memorials may be made to American Cancer Society, 5900 Core Road Suite 504, N. Charleston, S.C. 29406.

At the Library


March 31, 2011



Celebrate National Library Week on Tuesday, April 12 at 11 a.m., when Gov. Peter Shumlin reads stories for children. All ages welcome.


Sing, dance, and clap your hands with Raphael and his guitar, April 2, 11 a.m. For children up to age 5. No pre-registration.


On Wednesday, April 6 at 3 p.m., amaze your friends and family with science tricks using simple household materials. Presented by Karen Cutler. Grades 3 and up. Pre-register at 878-4918.


On Monday, April 11, at 6:30 p.m., bring kids in their pajamas with their favorite stuffed animal for stories, a craft, and a bedtime snack.  Presented by Building Bright Futures of Williston and Dorothy Alling Memorial Library.  Call Kate at 876-7147 to pre-register.


Thursday, April 7, 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Grades 7 to 12 Teen Advisory Council, pizza, discussion, and library projects for teens. First Thursday of each month, new members welcome.


This first-hand encounter with live owls, hawks, and falcons focuses on the natural history, ecology, and adaptations of these efficient predators. Touchable artifacts and hands-on materials round out this special experience. Presented by Vermont Institute of Natural Science. Sponsored by Friends of the Dorothy Alling Library. Saturday, April 16, 1 p.m.


The library has acquired some fabulous new picture books. Come in and browse the New Picture Book Display. The following titles are just a few of the “must reads.”

“Little White Rabbit” by Kevin Henkes

“Rain School” by James Rumford

“Zoo Borns” by Andrew Bleiman and Chris Eastland

“Yoko’s Show-and-Tell” by Rosemary Wells

“Brownie Groundhog and the February Fox” by Susan Blackaby

“Dust Devil” by Anne Isaacs

“Snow Rabbit, Spring Rabbit” by Il Sung Na

“Ant and the Grasshopper” by Luli Gray

“Happy 100th Day!” by Susan Milord

“Bedtime for Bear” by Brett Helquist

“The Full Belly Bowl” by Jim Aylesworth

“Look! A Book!” by Bob Staake



On Wednesday, April 6 at 6:30 p.m., Bess O’Brien will share how she tells stories through documentary filmmaking. She will discuss the art of the interview and how editing 75 hours of footage down to 90 minutes of film shapes how a story is told. O’Brien will give examples from her earlier films – “Here Today” and “Shout It Out” – and show clips from her latest documentary, “Ask Us Who We Are”.


Meet author Richard Allen on Saturday, April 9, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., for a slideshow and book signing.


Recille Hamrell will lead real life experiences crafted into oral narratives on Monday, April 11 and April 25, 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.


Wednesday, April 20, 1 p.m.


Sam Hemingway, reporter for the Burlington Free Press, will share the unique challenges of news writing. Topics will include how he draws stories from people through interviews, observation and research. Wednesday, April 20, 6:30 p.m.


Dr. Wolfgang Mieder presents his new book about Martin Luther King, Jr. on Wednesday, April 27, 1 p.m.


Saloma Miler Furlong will talk about her new memoir, an eloquent and revealing portrait of life within, and without, this frequently misunderstood community. Saturday, April 30, 1 p.m.

Little Details


Message received

Jan. 20, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

In January 1963, eight white Alabama clergymen — Catholic, Protestant and Jewish — issued “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” The letter, published in a Montgomery area newspaper, acknowledged the plight of black people, yet dissuaded them from their peaceful protests.

The signatories commended the police for maintaining “order” while encouraging blacks to pursue “proper channels” in their quest for civil rights. This public statement from bishops, pastors, moderators and a rabbi served to discourage their Caucasian brethren from supporting black neighbors asserting fundamental human rights.

Montgomery was a nice enough place to live and raise a family in the early 1960s — if you were white. Rigid segregation in schools, stores, movie theaters and restaurants prevailed. Skin color dictated the caliber of school you attended, the neighborhood in which you lived and the social currency you held.

Non-violent protests and acts of civil disobedience persisted in the face of unyielding racism. Activists endured verbal abuse. Physical assaults were carried out by water cannons, attack dogs and police wielding clubs.

In April 1963, the religious leaders issued a second letter, “A Call for Unity.” The signatories, possessing enormous societal influence, criticized demonstrations “directed and led in part by outsiders” — a reference to Martin Luther King Jr., who descended on Montgomery to support the movement for racial equality.

King’s response arrived in his April 12, 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The eloquently written epistle addressed his fellow clergy. King’s letter offered a passionate, well-articulated explanation for his actions.

Earning a Ph.D. at Boston University, King could have easily settled in the more liberal — though still imperfect — North. He instead chose to take on the Jim Crow South with its legally codified segregation. King assumed the gauntlet, dodging death threats, FBI investigations, wire taps and the bombing of his home, pressing for incremental steps to dislodge the cement segregating lunch counters, buses, schools and theaters.

Sitting in a dank Alabaman jail, King read, prayed and reflected before resolving to pen a response to his fellow clergymen. He was not alone. He shared incarceration with several hundred protesters. King drew strength from those who, like him, recognized the inherent injustice of denying access to individuals simply because of skin color.

King’s letter challenging people to question injustices resonates today. I offer several quotes from King’s cellblock communiqué.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Living in a somewhat privileged perch that is Williston, I reflect on individuals and families who frequent Williston’s Community Food Shelf. Working neighbors, single parents and seniors among us make the pilgrimage, stopping in for a bag of groceries. Choosing between sustenance and the heating bill is a decision no one should have to make. I will never forget the Williston youth who, years ago, during a World of Difference presentation at Williston Central School, acknowledged his feeling that it was “hardest” socially for the kids in town whose parents lacked resources.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny

Is our future economic well-being linked to whether we create pathways to financial security for the less affluent among us? I think so. An educated, productive, healthy populace seems our best defense in a world of shifting geopolitics.

Privileged groups seldom give up their privilege voluntarily

Vermont faces a deep, dark, cavernous budgetary shortfall; our federal government runs on a deficit. Just as we must consider reductions in government services, we must reevaluate our tax structure. Eliminating tax credits and loopholes for the most wealthy is not about freedom, it’s about fairness.

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will

King’s statement reminds us it is not enough to talk about inequality. We must confront inequities where we find them — with our actions and our pocketbooks.

Forty-eight years later, true equality remains elusive for many on the economic periphery. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter retains its relevance. We are the addressees.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

Guest Column (2/4/10)


Does Williston really need an ambulance?

Feb. 4, 2010

By Kristine Benevento

“Trust is built on two things: doing the right things, and communicating about them well.”

That’s what Emergency Management blogger Gerald Baron writes in his Jan. 27 blog post (www.emergencymgmt.com/emergency-blogs/crisis-comm/Its-all-about-building.html).

I applaud you, Jeff Fehrs, for stating so eloquently what many of us are thinking. There is something not right in Williston if our Selectboard thinks it is OK to remove our right to vote on a new ambulance and service where we once had the right and privilege three years ago to decide if this is a necessary expenditure. (“Balloting rejected for major issues,” Observer, Jan. 21).

Tell me, Ms. Sassorossi, why do you think this is okay?

If the voice of the people of Williston who initially said no is having that same voice removed because the fire chief and his team found a loophole to gain an ambulance, what does this say about our leadership? I have not read about any reports that our current system is broken or nearing the verge of collapse. We need to decide to purchase necessary items or perform necessary services, not grow our departments when outsourcing seems to work. This decision to remove the vote does not have the feeling of being above board or transparent.

We need to vote to approve bonds for school buses; why not an ambulance? This decision is so much more than a transportation system. If we are so flush in the budget that we can take more than $230,000 and replace a working system, I say this is not a necessary expense. What necessary items in our budget aren’t being dealt with that it would be better use to apply this funding to?

If the Fire/EMS Department can’t find any necessary uses, the rest of our local government sure can. Just because it is in a department budget doesn’t mean you have to use it. The ambulance, service, and personnel were put to vote the first time and denied; please don’t try to sneak it in this loophole, Selectboard, because you can.

If we legitimately need it, the facts — not the loophole — will carry this forward. The voters of Williston should be able to make this important decision that will affect us all because all the information we need has been presented.

A paragraph in the Observer’s Jan. 21 article about the ambulance service read, “Judy Sassorossi said she wanted to include as part of the 2010-11 operating budget $231,915 for the ambulance service. She and other board members felt the arrangement, which could include a lease-purchase for the ambulances, would give the town a way to back out should revenue fall short of expenses.”

What about all the other interconnected pieces that will be in process with other responders who have made their transitions to plans reflective of Williston’s move? These things tend to have a domino effect. Why is it okay to back out just because you don’t have the money?

I always assumed ambulance service was about preserving life. If our “experts” feel this is a necessary move because it will improve health outcomes then backing out shouldn’t really be an option, should it? Why does our leadership really want this ambulance?


Kristine Benevento is a Williston resident.


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Guest Column (7/16/09)


Taxes and the wisdom of our forebears

July 16, 2009

By Brian Miller

One hundred years ago, on July 17, 1909, Sen. William E. Borah, R-Idaho wrote the words, “The income tax is the fairest and most equitable of the taxes. It is the one tax which approaches us in the hour of prosperity and departs in the hour of adversity. Certainly, it will be conceded by all that the great expense of government is in the protection of property and wealth. There is no possible argument founded in law or in morals why these protected interests should not bear their proportionate burden of government.”

Within two years of Borah’s pronouncement, Wisconsin enacted the first state income tax. Several other states followed suit as a wave of Progressive Era reforms led many states to replace their ailing property taxes with more progressive and effective income taxes.

By contrast, the first functional sales tax was enacted in Mississippi during the dark days of its segregationist history, in 1932, in part as an effort to shift taxes off of the wealthy and politically powerful landowners and onto the backs of African-Americans and poor whites. Several states followed, and while their reasoning may have been less offensive, it’s clear that legislators have known since the very beginning exactly who is most impacted by the sales tax.

As states across the country grapple with budget shortfalls this year, choices are again being made that will affect families everywhere. States including Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Wisconsin are taking the more progressive path and opting for the addition of new tax rates at the top of their states’ income tax structures. Over the coming months and into early 2010, states will continue to debate these two paths as they struggle to meet their respective shortfalls.

The choice should be clear. Unlike the income tax, so eloquently described by Sen. Borah, the sales tax falls like a hammer on families precisely during their hour of greatest adversity. That’s because it’s based on how much we spend, not how much we earn.

There are many situations where someone can spend more than they earn for months or even years: Someone who takes an extended time off work to take care of an ailing parent; college students trying to focus on studies as they live off student loans; a family struggling for months after a plant closing; an entrepreneur in the first critical years of a new business venture; and a family that chooses to live on just one income during their new child’s formative years. In all these family realities, as spending outpaces income, the sales tax has its greatest adverse impact. In more streetwise language, the sales tax gleefully kicks you when you’re down.

Meanwhile, there are those at the top of the income scale whose millions are scarcely touched by the sales tax. Much of their income is used to acquire more wealth with the purchase of stocks, bonds and real estate investments. Unlike the “purchases” most of us make every day, these “purchases” are sales-tax free, allowing their wealth to snowball. Even their attorney fees and landscaping services are generally free of the sales tax.

According to a report by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, “The average state’s consumption tax structure (sales and excise) is equivalent to an income tax with a 7 percent rate for the poor, a 4.8 percent rate for the middle class, and a 1 percent rate for the wealthiest taxpayers. Obviously, no one would intentionally design an income tax that looks like this — yet by relying on consumption taxes as a revenue source, this is effectively the policy choice lawmakers nationwide have made.”

And so, under a sales tax, income at the top that more often finds its way into speculation or idle savings remains virtually untouched, while the income of the far-less-wealthy, which moves swiftly and consistently back into our local, state and national economies at a time when we need it most, is taxed at the highest possible level.

If our elected officials are serious about strengthening the middle class and fostering a more broadly shared prosperity, let them take a moment to consider the wisdom of our forebears. Great truths, like the words of Sen. Borah, stand the test of time and can help us make wise and just decisions when facing the challenges of today.

Brian Miller is the executive director of Tennesseans for Fair Taxation. In mid-August, he will become the new executive director for United for a Fair Economy, a national organization based in Boston that works to foster a more broadly shared prosperity.


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