Weston board focuses on Town Meeting plans, possible 9% education tax hike

By Cherise Madigan
2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Town Meeting was the focus of the Weston Select Board’s Dec. 8 meeting, echoing similar discussions this week in Chester and Londonderry as 2021 looms large.

Typically, the town hosts its annual meeting at the Weston Playhouse — a plan that Board Chair Denis Benson suggests continuing with until the March meeting date is closer on the calendar or new information from the legislature is available.

At Londonderry’s Select Board meeting the night before, state Rep. Kelly Pajala, who represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district, explained that the legislature is working to pass a bill that would allow for mail-in Australian ballots, delayed meeting dates, and other exceptions for the longstanding tradition.

One option, according to Benson, would be to open Town Meeting on the scheduled date, reschedule it to a later time and immediately adjourn, as was supposed to happen in 2001 when a two-day nor’easter coincided with scheduled town meetings.

The board agreed to keep an eye out for relevant information from the state ahead of Town Meeting, and to begin reviewing the Weston Playhouse’s seating plan to determine if distancing is possible. The board hopes to convene in person — though distanced — at the Playhouse or Walker Farm between Jan. 4 and 6 to work on Weston’s budget for the 2022 fiscal year.

In response to a presentation by Emergency Management Director Michael Smilovich at its last meeting, the board passed a motion encouraging Weston residents to follow Covid-19 guidelines established by the state of Vermont, especially in public places.

“The Weston Select Board recommends adherence to Vermont’s Covid-19 guidelines, especially within Weston’s municipal facilities,” said Vice Chair Jim Linville. The motion passed unanimously without discussion.

Tax commissioner warns towns of possible ed tax hike

The board went on to discuss “rumblings” that the state education tax will rise approximately 9 percent in 2021, referring to a forecast released by the state tax commissioner on Dec. 1. That increase is expected “absent any intervention,” a letter from the Tax Department says, creating an untenable situation for both “Vermonters who are working hard to recover from the pandemic” and “the Vermont economy which continues to struggle due to the pandemic-related disruption.”

The increase would be one of the largest in the last decade, wrote Tax Commissioner Craig Bolio, who goes on to recommend collaboration and creativity in the face of the “quite serious” forecast.

Additional funding requests from Vermont’s public colleges totaling $138 million, alongside the need for continued investments in childcare and early learning programs, present an additional challenge for lawmakers, according to Bolio, who attributed the increase to:

  • Continuing structural imbalance caused by the cost of education outpacing the growth in property values.
  • Decreased revenue from non-property tax sources, which is predicted to fall from $590.9 million to $552.1 million. Those revenue sources include the Sales and Use Tax, Meals and Rooms Tax, Purchase and Use Tax, and lottery proceeds.
  • An “unprecedented increase” in the cost of teachers’ retirement — which has seen a five-fold increase from $6.9 million to $38.9 million.

According to Benson, at least one Weston resident has approached him about the increase following a warning from her mortgage provider. Going forward, the board agreed to speak with Rep. Pajala and collect more information before revisiting the discussion.

“It sounds a little out of whack for me to have it go up that much all at once,” Benson said.

The Weston Select Board will meet next on Tuesday, Dec. 22.

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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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