BENNINGTON – The Select Board learned of several COVID-19-related situations this week — involving late tax payments, the likely cancellation of the 2021 in-person floor meeting, concerns about ballot petition signature requirements for nonprofits, changes in Recreation Center programs and multi-household Thanksgiving gatherings.
Updating the board, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said property tax delinquencies this year are at about 6 percent of the total — the high end of the normal range — and the town staff is “taking a hard look at how we might determine how COVID had an impact on certain people.”
A number of taxpayers indicated “that because of COVID they were not able to make their full payment and probably are looking for some sort of help,” Hurd said. “But I don’t have ultimate numbers for that, and I don’t have a recommendation at this time. I probably will know much more by Dec. 14 [date of the next board meeting].”
The manager said he has heard from “a limited number of residential [taxpayers] whose income was severely hampered” by the epidemic, and from commercial taxpayers in the hospitality industry, all of whom “have expressed concerns about not being able to meet the tax deadline.”
After the Nov. 10 deadline for paying property tax bills, taxpayers are subject to an 8 percent penalty.
It is too soon to determine the impacts on the town’s budget, Hurd said, adding that, “most people are concerned about the 8 percent penalty.”
The town staff is “taking a look at some sort of application” to verify COVID impacts, he said, and looking at first-time delinquencies.
Hurd said he is now operating under the assumption “that we will be most likely holding our March floor meeting via Zoom [videoconferencing]” in light of COVID-19.
He said he had looked into whether there are other options for fulfilling the requirement for an annual meeting, but no better options seem available.
“We are fortunate that we already vote by Australian ballot,” he said, whereas many smaller towns that vote during floor meetings are now researching their options for 2021.
Hurd said he also was approached by a local service organization that wants to ask for more money on the 2021 town ballot and is “concerned about policy of having to petition for the March ballot, in light of recent surge in COVID cases.”
The board has adopted a policy of requiring an organization to submit a petition with at least 5 percent of town voters — about 500 names — if it seeks to increase the amount it has been receiving.
One alternative “is for the board to simply place the additional amount on the ballot without a petition,” Hurd said, asking the board for direction.
“I know you have adopted a policy that doesn’t provide for that,” he said. “I just wanted to bring that to your attention.”
If the board decides to make a change, ideas should be discussed during a meeting with the issue on the agenda, Chairman Donald Campbell said, adding that there might be other methods of obtaining voter signatures, such as electronically.
Asked by Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins what the time frame would be for collecting signatures, Hurd said the deadline is 47 days prior to the annual meeting, on March 2.
He suggested putting the issue on the board’s Dec. 14 agenda.
“I think we need some direction [from town staff] on this,” Campbell said. “I think all of us see both sides of this.”
Hurd said the town won’t “be out enforcing” Gov. Phil Scott’s recent restrictions on multi-household gatherings during Thanksgiving.
But he added, “The governor has prohibited it, and I would caution the public to use extreme caution because this virus is continuing.”
State officials are now saying COVID-19 vaccines might be available in Vermont as early as next month, Hurd said, but first responders and medical personnel are expected to receive the vaccine first, “and it will probably take four to six months to move out to the rest our community."
In light of that estimate, he said, it will likely be “six to seven months before we begin to see an improvement.”
Because of the governor’s recently announced restrictions, town employees have stopped all face-to-face meetings, Hurd said, and are taking other distancing precautions against the spread of COVID-19.
The Recreation Center, he said, has suspended swim lessons and swim team events.
The center, which is managed by the Berkshire (Mass.) Family YMCA, is “using much more caution” concerning activities in light of the governor’s announcement, he said.