Hartford Residents Voice Reservations on Local Option Tax

The Municipal Building in Hartford. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

The Municipal Building in Hartford. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Residents appeared amenable last night to a joint Selectboard and School Board proposal to issue an $8.85 million bond to build new athletic facilities, and also seemed okay with a second proposal to issue a $5.2 million bond to renovate the town hall.

But when it came to supporting an amendment that would give the town the authority to impose a 1 percent “local option tax” on meals, hotel rooms and alcohol, the sentiment was decidedly different.

“I’m opposed to the local option tax because I don’t think it’s necessary,” said David Briggs, owner of Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. “If we’ve been running the town for decades without the concept of this tax, why do we need it now?”

That was the take-away last night as more than 50 people gathered at Hartford High School to listen to the two boards explain three important items that residents will see on March’s Town Meeting warning.

The $8.85 million bond issue is a joint effort between the Selectboard and the School Board that would pay for renovations to the Wendell A. Barwood Arena, upgrades to the middle school gym and cafeteria, the construction of a Route 5 athletic field complex and playing fields and a running track at the high school.

After explaining to residents that the $8.85 million bond would add an additional $90 annually in taxes on a home assessed at $200,000, the Selectboard went on to add that residents will also be asked to vote on a $5.2 million bond that would renovate the municipal building. That municipal bond issue is estimated to add an additional $55 to $65 annually to the tax bill of a home assessed at $200,000, according to town officials.

The municipal building was built in 1884 and its last major renovation was in the 1950s. And it’s not the first time the town has broached the subject of renovating the offices: Voters rejected a $4.7 million bond to overhaul the building in 2009. And a committee was put together again last year to study a renovation, but the town’s focus changed after Tropical Storm Irene.

When it came time for questions, however, most people who came up to the microphone had the “local option tax” on their mind.

The tax would add 1 percent to the bill on hotel rooms, prepared meals and alcoholic beverages. Of the revenue it generated, 70 percent would go to the town, while 30 percent would go to the state.

For example, said Selectman F.X. Flinn, in 2011, if the tax had been in place, the town would have received an extra $220,886 in revenue.

Flinn emphasized that if residents voted in favor of the tax in March, it would not immediately go into effect. Instead, voters would simply be voting to empower Selectboard to impose the tax at some future date.

The Selectboard argued that the tax would mostly hit tourists, while Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker noted that travelers on I-89 and I-91 bring a heavy burden to the town and its road infrastructure, which revenue from tax could help offset.

Harry Kendrick, a former School Board member who served for six years, agreed that tourists would take the brunt of the tax bite.

“I know when I travel, I don’t check the tax on the rooms and meals,” Kendrick said. “I do agree that we have an additional burden because of the interstates and I think we should get some revenue for that.”

But Skip Symanski, co-owner of the restaurant Elixir, disagreed.

“It’s not just the tourists,” Symanski said. “We live here everyday. My guests pay that everyday. I believe in sustaining our own community, and things like this become tiresome.”

Support for the $8.85 million bond issue and its accompanying athletic facilities received more support. Much of the justification behind the School Board’s support for the project has to do with the need for a track.

When Parker, the Selectboard chairman, was a student at Hartford High in 1963, the school was talking about building a track around the football field. And again in 1973 when School Board member Lori Dickerson was a student, the school also discussed building a track. But in 2013, there is still no track.

To build a track, the football field needs to be moved and other school facilities need to be shuffled around, Dickerson said, some which calls for collaboration with the Selectboard.

For example, the School Board would move its baseball field to the property on Route 5, which would provide for more space around the football field for a track.

But several residents, including Martha McDaniel, challenged the need to use the Route 5 property, which is located near the Aquatic Center. She questioned the wisdom of buses traveling that far and if there wasn’t another property available closer to the school.

“I’m all for investing in the town,” McDaniel said. “But I wish we could wave a magic wand and move that property closer to the school. It just seems like we’re contributing to sprawl.”

Dickerson agreed, but said she didn’t have a magic wand.

Kendrick, the former School Board member, complimented the two boards for working together on the proposal. But when asked if he thought all three issues would pass — the $8.85 million bond issue, the $5.2 million bond issue and the local tax — Kendrick said, “I think it’ll be tough.

“I’m certainly hopeful it’s going to pass,” Kendrick said. “They all have good merit and I think they could all stand alone.”

There will be additional public hearings on Jan. 22 and March 3.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.