Bennington Charter Review group recommends a local option tax

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BENNINGTON — The Charter Review Committee will recommend giving the Select Board the authority to develop a local option tax plan for submission to voters.

After some debate on Wednesday, the committee voted unanimously to include that recommendation in a report members expect to present to the Select Board by the end of December on possible revisions to the town's governmental charter.

The committee also recommended designating the chair of the Select Board as "the head of town government for all ceremonial purposes," but that was approved on a split 4-2 vote with one abstention.

With the proposed taxing amendment, the Select Board would have authority to develop a plan for adding 1 percent to any or all of the four local option tax categories allowed by the state — sales, rooms, meals and alcohol taxes.

Committee members reached a consensus that they should not try to specify which categories should be increased by 1 percent, nor specify where the revenue generated should be earmarked, as had been previously discussed.

The committee approved a charter amendment that would simply authorize the Select Board to put together a proposal to submit to town voters for final approval.

Local option taxes were approved by the Legislature after passage of Act 60, the education funding law, as a way for so-called "gold towns," which send more to the state in taxes than they receive in education funding, to boost town revenues.

For a "receiving town," like Bennington, or one that receives more in education funding then it sends to the state, a charter change is required before local option taxes can be considered.

The program allows a community to add 1 percent to the state sales tax (now 6 percent); the rooms and meals tax (9 percent), and the alcohol sales tax (10 percent).

The amendment proposed by the review committee allows the Select Board to propose one or all of those option for the town.

All of the group's recommended charter changes will be included in a detailed report to the board by late December. The board can then submit some, all or none of the recommended changes to the voters in March for approval.

Final approvals from the Legislature and the governor also will be required.

It is estimated that in the range of $1 million in additional tax revenue could be generated by a local option tax in Bennington. The tax is collected by the state, which reimburses the community 70 percent of the amount collected annually.

Ceremonial post

Also Wednesday, the committee narrowly approved recommending a more formal ceremonial role for the chair of the Select Board.

Language that is used in several other charters in Vermont states that the chair of the Select Board also serves as the town's representative for all ceremonial purposes. That official, who is chosen during an annual vote of the board, now often does attend ceremonial events, but a majority of committee members felt the more formal designation would be appropriate.

The idea of a small annual fund to offset costs to the chairperson in fulfilling that role was discussed and won some support. And those voting in favor of the concept said they believe it should be up to the person to decide whether an event required his or her attendance.

Lynn Green and Michael Keane were opposed to the concept.

"It could backfire," Green said, in that the designation could add pressure on the chairperson to attend every event or be criticized.

She noted that serving on the board includes only a stipend and most board members have full-time jobs that can prevent from attending events.

"I'm amazed [board members] show up at so many events," she said.

Keane raised similar concerns about adding such a designation to the charter. "It's not that they have other jobs; they have their jobs," he said. "They have their professions, and what they do as select board members and select board chairs is essentially a more voluntary than it is a compensated position."

Sean-Marie Oller, Daniel Malmborg, Jonathan Cohen and Robert Ebert voted in favor of the amendment, while Robert Plunkett abstained.

Plunkett said he had gone back and forth on the issue and was "ambivalent about the idea." He said he like that someone would be designated to represent the town, but also liked "the fact that we have a select board of complete equals."

Ebert termed the amendment language "pretty innocuous and non-threatening," but one that might lead to more effective representation for the town.

"We've been talking about vision and leadership," he added, saying the change might be a step toward that goal.

Cohen and Malmborg both noted that a citizen petition now being circulating could force a town vote in March on a mayoral government format for Bennington, which would replace the town manager for an elected mayor/manager post.

"This is a way to kind of address what some folks see as a void," Cohen said, referring to supporters of a mayoral format, who claim a mayor would more effectively represent the town than a seven-member Select Board.

"I think this helps us heed a call we have heard from the public," Malmborg said, adding, "I think we should heed that call, which we have all heard."

Oller said she wasn't worried that the chairperson would receive criticism for not attending one event or another, saying that from her experience on school boards, criticism over such issues is the norm.

She added that she liked that anyone seeking the board chairmanship would understand they would be expected to fill the ceremonial role.

The review committee, which began meeting in July after being appointed by the Select Board, has one more meeting scheduled — on Dec. 20, beginning at 4:30 p.m. at the conference room at the Town Offices on South Street.

Information on the charter group's meetings is posted on the town website at http://benningtonvt.org/meetings/charter-review-committee — along with meeting minutes and comments from the public, which can be submitted online.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and VTDigger.org. @BB_therrien on Twitter.






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