Williston charter changes get Legislative approval

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The Vermont Senate last week passed amendments to Williston’s town charter endorsed by voters in November. The governor’s signature is the last stop on the journey to a revised charter; the House of Representatives approved the revisions last month.

The most significant revision to the charter would safeguard the town’s ability to levy a local option tax. The local option tax is predicted to generate roughly 38 percent of the town’s current budget this year, reducing the local property tax burden. Should the Legislature repeal the state law allowing towns to levy local option taxes, Williston would still be able to levy the tax based on its charter.

The effects of the local option tax, however, are in flux due to changes in state regulations. Starting in January, some items formerly taxed are no longer being taxed. Items being delivered or shipped, too, will now be taxed according to destination. For example, an item bought in Williston and shipped to Colchester would not be subject to the tax since Colchester does not levy a local option tax. If that same item were purchased in Colchester and shipped to Williston, however, the tax would be imposed.

In 2002, Williston voters approved a 1 percent sales tax, and in 2003 Williston voters approved a 1 percent tax on rooms, meals and alcoholic beverages. In 2004, Williston voters reaffirmed their commitment to the 1 percent tax by a hefty margin: 1,938-321. The tax could be repealed by secret ballot.

Six additional changes to Williston’s charter were forwarded to the Legislature based on the work of a town charter revision task force.

One item would allow the town to impose contracts with its police and fire chiefs, enabling them to dismiss chiefs failing to meet expectations. Under state law a chief cannot be fired except in cases of egregious wrongs, according to Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire, making it difficult for town officials to ensure optimal performance of public safety officials.

The remaining proposed changes to the charter are as follows: eliminate the appointed positions of weigher of coal, fence viewer, and surveyor of wood and lumber – positions McGuire said are anachronistic; eliminate as elected positions the town agent, trustee of public funds and grand juror – positions that are no longer needed or whose duties have been assumed by town employees; change from elected to appointed the Cemetery Commission and Old Brick Church Trustees; clarify who opens town meeting before the moderator is selected; and add the ability for a vote to change the time town meeting starts.

Voters approved the original Williston charter in 2003; the state Legislature affirmed it in 2004.