What Do We Get for Our Taxes?

I wrote this in response to a friend who emailed complaining about town spending and taxes:
There is no question that because Vermont is a small, northern state with a small population and a lack of industrial development it is a high-cost place to live, not just in the form of taxes, but also in the wear and tear on our cars, the cost of food and other goods that are trucked in from afar.
Hartford is well positioned to have a much larger population, though, and investing in our infrastructure to make Hartford an enjoyable place to live and do business is the only hope we have of attracting more people and spreading the municipal tax burden, which is only about 1/3rd of your tax bill. The other 2/3rd, the state education tax, is not something the Selectboard has any control over, but it is also, for fulltime Vermonters living in their own home, subject to being paid in part by the state. Retirees with $8000 in school taxes and $50,000 in income would in general see a credit of over $4000.
Our town’s taxes are lower than any of the nearby towns which offer police and fire departments, so this notion that we are driving people away because of taxes is one that I don’t see apples-to-apples evidence for. In fact, the only two other towns in Vermont that are similar to Hartford in size and grand list, Brattleboro and Springfield, both have higher municipal tax rates and higher total tax rates.
We have a lot going for us and if past selectboards had been willing to keep our public infrastructure up to date we would not be facing a decade of one bond after another to get caught up.
Yes, the citizen board that had no money to spend on the task underestimated the rec facility costs, by at least 3 million and perhaps as much as 4.25 million. Had the public been presented with an 11.9 million bond last year, it would likely have passed and in 2015, when all the costs were in and it had been done for 11.6 million everyone would have a a smile on their face. My takeaway is that it might not be a terrible idea to spend 10 or 25 or 50 thousand up front to get more accurate costs, but then we get criticized for spending money on something the town might not approve. Or maybe we should take any estimate we get, add a 33% contingency, and then set the bond to the nearest 1/2 million. So 9 million x 1.33 = 12 million. There you go, we covered all the bases. After all, it’s all competitively bid. We had a dozen takers on the WABA project and the 3 low bidders were within 20K of each other. So we can be pretty sure that to do WABA right, to do it the way we sold the public on it, it’s going to cost 3.1 million. And the utility work, a throw in on the 2.5 million targeted for WABA? Some throw in. It came in at 400K. So WABA is a cool million over. The track/turf/fieldhouse — at least 1.5 million over, its out to bid now and we should know exactly soon.
You can get mad about not getting the price right, but you agreed, I think, that we had the idea right — to once and for all do the things we’ve been talking about for 50, 20, and 10 years (track / turf / WABA) . What do you think we should do? One think I don’t want to do is to do the work on the cheap, or to settle for less than what we said we’d do, because there were important reasons for each element. I’m feeling like we need to do WABA right or not do it at all and get out of the hockey business — after all, there is a glut of ice in the upper valley, right?
You are correct that we long ago should have gotten employee buy in on paying a greater share sooner than we did. But after what President Obama announced today, the whole issue may go away because we can stick with the plan we have now — one deemed inadequate by the ACA and one of the reasons for the premium spike. You’ll be glad to know that layoffs are the most likely way we will make up for the spike if it does come to be.
What is the value of living in our town anyway? What’s the police and fire service worth? The rec department offerings? The highway dept? The enterprises that make water and wastewater possible? $500 a month? $100? $1000? You know none of your tax dollars locally are being wasted. Hunter’s staff is so good at getting every dollar we can that Irene is going to cost us very little, and, arguably, only what we wind up spending on the new park in Quechee — which will be a honeypot for the tourists and wind up paying for itself 20 times over during the next 100 years.
Anyway, steel yourself for any number of bonds over the next several years. We need to work through the TIF projects, the sidewalks and trails projects, the Fairview Terrace retaining wall project. The nice thing is that the TIF stuff should pay for itself, and getting our rec and walking stuff set should make Hartford a pleasant and less costly place to live, attracting more people and distributing the tax burden more widely. That’s the only real way to accomplish what you want to see — a reduction in your tax burden.


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