BENNINGTON — Town voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected the idea of a new tax, shooting down proposed local option sales taxes on retail sales, rooms, meals and alcohol.
Each option was proposed in a separate ballot question, seeking approval to add a local 1 percent tax to existing state taxes on those items. Town officials and other supporters had hoped to join the 20 other Vermont communities participating in the state's local option tax program and to receive an estimated nearly $1.3 million annually from the additional revenue.
But Bennington voters were emphatic, rejecting the option tax on retail sales — the largest in terms of revenue — with 935 in favor and 2,498 opposed; on meals with 1,149 in favor and 2,322 opposed; on rooms, with 1,509 in favor and 1,968 opposed, and on alcoholic beverages, with 1,697 in favor and 1,808 opposed.
"The options tax is something that has been very helpful to a lot of communities in Vermont, and although the voters decided not to go with it, this looks like a conversation we can keep having and maybe see if we can make it work for the community in the future," said Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd, who had suggested that the Select Board consider asking voters to approve the tax, said Tuesday evening, said, "You know, the word 'tax' scares people, and we didn't get the word out effectively perhaps. Some of them [votes] were pretty close, and I think we need to consider whether or not we bring it back a year from now, either in some fashion or another. But as I say to my staff sometimes, expect nothing and you will never be disappointed."
Mike Bethel, who had been vocal in calling for the tax questions to be defeated, said of the results, "I'm glad this went down, because I think this administration would have squandered it."
As he had prior to the vote, Bethel said he believes voters might approve a local option tax if it were earmarked toward a specific project, such as his idea to purchase the 371-acre former Southern Vermont College campus.
"But I think it was puzzling that the candidates I supported who wanted it voted down lost," Bethel said, referring to Peter Brady and Nancy White, who were running for the Select Board.
Incumbent Bruce Lee-Clark and newcomer Sarah Perrin were elected to the two open board seats, while Tom Haley Sr., Brady, White and Colleen Harrington finished behind the winners in that order.
Under the state's local option tax program, the 1 percent tax is added to any or all of those sales categories, with 70 percent of the new revenue being sent back to the community.
In addition, the 30 percent that remains with the state is used to fund the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes program, which goes to communities that host tax exempt state property, such as courthouses, meaning Bennington also would receive some additional funding from that program.
Bennington first became eligible for the program after a town government charter change was approved last year, authorizing the Select Board to place the question before voters.
The Select Board had decided that, if the tax were approved, 40 percent of any new revenue would go to property tax relief and short-term debt reduction; 35 percent toward economic development and new business incentives; 15 percent toward marketing the town to potential visitors or new residents, and 10 percent toward replacement of the Willow Park playground.
Hurd had suggested during the annual town budget season that the board consider the proposal, saying the revenue could be used to offset some of the property tax burden, for the purchase of large equipment or other items, to enhance recreational facilities or for other projects or initiatives.
During public meeting discussions about the tax, a number of residents and business owners said they saw the proposal as a way for being to provide property tax relief and invest in the kind of projects that would attract new businesses and residents to Bennington.
Others flatly opposed the tax as a burden to lower income residents or were concerned about how the Select Board and town administration would allocate the funding.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien