Officials mull two tax bills10/09/08

Proposal would separate school, town levies

Oct. 9, 2008

By Tim Simard and Greg Elias

Observer staff

Town and school officials last week discussed sending separate bills for education and municipal taxes so residents can see exactly where their money is going.

Taxpayers currently receive one bill that lists how much of their payment funds school and town budgets. But some Selectboard members think many people only look at the bottom line and want to clarify how the dollars are divvied up.

“Most people at first blush don’t see a (separate) municipal budget and a school budget, they see it as one tax bill,” said Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi at an Oct. 1 joint meeting with the Williston School Board.

The proposal, however, received a cool reception from School Board Chairwoman Darlene Worth. She said the school budget already accounts for expenses in exhaustive detail.

“We’d be the only town in the state that would be doing this,” she said.

Worth said the public has ample opportunity to learn about school spending. She noted the School Board holds “meeting after meeting” on the budget.

The board also works with “budget buddies,” community members who make recommendations on spending.

If the proposal was adopted, the town would mail separate bills for municipal and school property taxes. Town officials said separate bills would be feasible because the state calculates the education tax rate well after the municipal tax rate is set.

There would be yet-to-be-determined additional expense and staff time associated with two sets of bills, said Town Manager Rick McGuire.

The Selectboard has in the past sometimes grumbled about education spending and the ever-increasing property taxes needed to pay for schools. Worries about school spending have at times been a factor in municipal budget discussions. And municipal spending accounts for only a small fraction of the total property tax bill, with the remainder going to fund schools.

Current Selectboard members, however, had mixed opinions on the proposal.

“We don’t need to drive that point home by sending out two bills,” said Jeff Fehrs, who was worried about how the public would react to the expense of mailing separate bills.

“I don’t want the school budgets defeated,” said Ted Kenney, adding he still was undecided on the two-bill idea. “I think you guys do an incredible job keepings (costs) down.”

Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig said in an interview on Monday that he was “clearly on the fence at this point” about the proposal, which he called “just an idea.”

Selectboard member Chris Roy said in an interview that he supported the proposal. He called the state’s calculation of education tax rates for each town a “black box” that obscures how local revenue is spent, and said separate bills would bring clarity to the issue.

Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli told the two boards that public input should be sought on the proposal. He said an online survey would be one way to gauge support. Roy seconded the idea and also suggested holding community forums.

Macaig said the proposal could be put on the agenda for Town Meeting in March.

Town officials said even if a two-bill system was approved, it would take time to put in place. They said it would not go into effect until at least the 2010-11 fiscal year.

Though she was opposed to separate tax bills, Worth said more public input on the school budget would be welcome. She suggested the Selectboard and School Board meet to discuss annual expenses.

“If you want to do budget meetings together, we’d be for that,” Worth said.