Our opinion: Option tax offers Bennington a chance for a brighter future

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When Bennington voters face four ballot articles on March 3 concerning the proposed local option tax, they should try to distill that down to a single question — what do they want the town's future to look like?

If voters are satisfied with the way the town — particularly the local economy — is trending, then the choice is obvious: Vote "no" to adding a 1 percent tax to retail sales and sales of rooms, meals and alcohol.

But satisfaction is not what many residents have expressed during multiple discussions concerning the tax, which involves adding 1 percent to the current state taxes on retail sales, room, meals and alcohol sales. Almost everyone expressed a desired to move the town, especially the economy forward; they just disagree on how best to do that.

During a forum on the tax proposal on Feb. 17, Better Bennington Corp. Executive Director John Shannahan made a point that seems central to this issue. He said he has watched multiple select boards over the past 40 years consider multiple proposals to enhance the town, only to turn them all down for lack of funding.

The option tax, which could raise nearly $1.3 million a year, provides an opportunity for Bennington to finally do something significant to improve both the community and the local economy, he said. And for residents to take charge and help themselves.

Pointedly, the option tax revenue the state would send the town on a quarterly basis would not be derived from property taxes, and in fact some of it would be used to stabilize or reduce that burden, which almost everyone agrees is too high.

The added 1 percent in sales taxes also would allow other residents of our region and visitors from elsewhere to share in the maintenance of the Bennington facilities, attractions and infrastructure many now utilize. In many ways, Bennington is a hub community, providing shopping, entertainment and other services the smaller surrounding towns lack.

The oft-voiced question of whether the tax hike on retail sales would hurt low-income residents has been raised, but it is difficult to imagine how that would constitute an overwhelming increase for anyone.

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Consider that the 1 percent option in this case means just that — adding 1 percent, or one cent on the dollar, or one dollar on $100, to existing state taxes of 6 percent on retail sales.

It seems far more likely that low-income, and in fact most residents, would have no problem contributing that tiny amount if it led to an expanded Recreation Center, or a new playground at Willow Park, or enhancements to the downtown to attract more visitors, more local business, more jobs and more property tax revenue in the future.

In addition, numerous retail items are exempt from the state sales tax, including groceries, clothing, prescriptions and over-the-counter medications, home heating fuel and farm equipment.

A number of speakers during the public hearing urged their fellow residents to "do something significant," to "think big," and imagine what could be done here if only there were a source of funding other than the maxed-out property tax.

In fact, that potential source of revenue is the option tax, something 20 Vermont communities have put in place. It was noted during the hearing that Manchester in particular has used option tax funding to enhance its recreational facilities to draw more visitors to the town, and that Wilmington has set up a fund from which organizations or developers can apply for funding for projects that would benefit that town.

The Bennington Select Board this week adopted a policy calling for annual hearings during town budget season to hear proposals for spending option tax revenue for the coming year. That will give residents ample opportunity to weigh in on what should receive a share of the funding.

Bennington only last year became eligible to consider option taxes, after a set of town charter changes were approved by the Legislature. That allowed the Select Board to put forth a local option tax proposal to the voters.

With the Putnam Block project under construction at the Four Corners, this seems the right time for Bennington to not only think big but act big and commit to what amounts to a very small personal investment that should pay outsized dividends for the town.


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