Hartford Raises Rates and Fees
Abe Wheeler, 6, of Hartford gets a high five from Venture camp counselor Melissa St. Amand of Lebanon while being escorted by swim instructor Stacey Schellong back from a trip to the end of the diving board during a swim lesson at the Sherman Manning Pool in Hartford in August 2009. Josh MacDonald, 6, of White River Junction, left, waits his turn to step out to the edge of the board. Schellong is in her first year working at the pool. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
Hartford — The meeting this week that saw the Selectboard finalize a municipal budget plan with a flurry of late night votes also saw the board approve a number a fee and rate increases that will go into effect later this year.
The board Tuesday also heard from about two dozen residents opposed to proposed changes to the town charter.
Board members agreed on Tuesday night that it was time to raise several fees.
“If those were the right prices then, why wouldn’t we increase them now by 10 or 12 percent?” Selectboard Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn asked. “At what point in time do we finally get around to doing it?”
The board agreed to increase a season-long family pass for both the municipal pool and public skating at the Wendell A. Barwood Arena to $75 each, $10 increases from the current rate and $5 increases from what the department recommended.
It’s the first rate change on those items since 2007.
Similarly, the cost of the pool’s senior season pass will go up $3 to $15, in order to match up with the same pass for public skating at the Barwood Arena.
Water and sewer rates are set to go up as well, though those rates, unlike the others, have gone up in recent years.
Under the approved fee structure, the base rate for Hartford wastewater will go up nearly $50. Annual Quechee wastewater base rates will go up nearly $90 compared to the current year.
Selectman Simon Dennis said yesterday that rate increases should be par for the course.
“I think it’s good housekeeping to keep an eye on these things,” he said. “They should keep pace with inflation. They should go up 1 or 2 percent annually. If 10 years go by and you haven’t done it, all of the sudden you have to create a really big jump.”
The fee chart does not go in front of voters at Town Meeting, as the Selectboard has the authority to change it at any time. The approved changes will go into effect on July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year.
That discussion led into the final adoption of the budget, which engendered more controversy. In quick succession, the board vote to eliminate new positions it added during the six weeks of budget deliberation. The changes include:
∎ The elimination of an assistant town manager position, which was budgeted for half of fiscal year 2014 and would have cost $51,802;
∎ The elimination of a human resources position, which the board planned to share between the town and school district, that would have cost $31,080;
∎ The elimination of an energy coordinator position, which would have cost $27,500;
∎ Cutting the three positions allowed the board to reduce the amount that would be used from a surplus fund to partially offset a rise in the tax rate, from $275,000 to $150,000.
Selectman Alex DeFelice, who proposed the cuts approved Tuesday night, said yesterday that the reason for tapping the surplus fund was so the town wouldn’t have to borrow $500,000 to rebuild the West Hartford Library, and could instead pay cash. Voters approved the plan to borrow the money on Town Meeting Day last year.
DeFelice’s made a motion Tuesday to reverse the board’s decision to borrow the money for library, but it was tabled. If the motion doesn’t pass at a future meeting, he said, he would move to restore the surplus money to the bottom line.
A projected property tax rate increase of 5 cents per $100 of assessed value, which the board settled on last week, will stay about the same, meaning a tax bill on a property assessed at $200,000 would go up about $100.
It all began Tuesday night after Flinn made a motion to accept the budget proposal as complete after incorporating changes the board approved through last Thursday’s meeting. It was then that DeFelice, who earlier had voted against adding the jobs, brought up the cuts.
“I spent last weekend talking to a lot of people in town, and a lot of people were not happy with us voting this stuff back in,” DeFelice said yesterday.
Selectwoman Sonia Knight, who had been absent during much of the budget workshop process, was in attendance on Tuesday and she helped swing the majority to DeFelice. Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker, who last week voted to create the three positions, switched his vote this week.
Parker said yesterday that a weekend of reflecting on the issues and talking to residents led to his change in opinion. If DeFelice didn’t make the motions, Parker said, he would have made them himself, to “basically bring (the budget) back in line with what I thought the sentiment of the public was.”
Dennis said that the process, during which the board looked at each section of the budget individually, lacked broader discussions about what would benefit the town most.
“It would be great if we developed a climate of dialogue that was less fractious, less contentious and more oriented toward the recognition that we are all on the same team,” Dennis said. “And trying to do the best we can to figure out what’s in the best interest of the town.”
Prior to Tuesday’s budget votes, the board held a scheduled public hearing on a proposed charter change. The hearing at the Hartford High School auditorium attracted about two dozen residents and business owners, none of whom appeared thrilled with the change.
“My gut says this is a slippery slope, to add one more tax into the mix here,” Linda Miller, of Hartford, told the Selectboard. “I feel like I don’t like this at all.”
The change, if passed by voters at Town Meeting, would give the Selectboard the authority to impose a 1 percent “local option tax” on meals, rooms and alcoholic beverages that would be placed atop the current statewide rates. Under Vermont law, meals and rooms come with a 9 percent tax, and alcoholic beverages have a 10 percent tax.
The Selectboard would merely be given the power to vote on such a tax down the line; it wouldn’t go into effect immediately. Of the extra revenue, 70 percent would go to the town and 30 percent would go to the state.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg showed a chart the showed what the town would have gained if the tax had been in place the past two years: $213,883 and $220,886, respectively.
Hartford residents who spoke at Tuesday night’s meeting brought up several concerns.
Skip Symanski, who co-owns Elixir Restaurant in White River Junction, mentioned that with nearly 50 businesses that sell prepared food town-wide, Hartford residents might actually bear much of the tax’s brunt.
According to state data, from fiscal year 2011 to 2012 the amount of revenue generated by room rentals in Hartford went up 15.1 percent. However, alcohol sales went down 13.4 percent and meals sales went down 5.8 percent.
As a restaurant owner, Symanski said that, if the local option tax was put in place, it could further hurt businesses that only sell meals and alcoholic beverages.
“Over the year, paying that does add up,” Symanski said. “I think it’s just a disincentive for business in general in Hartford.”
Parker disagreed, maintaining the revenue that would be generated outweighs the minor tax increase, which would have little impact on a per-meal or beverage basis.
He said that a cup of coffee, for instance, would cost 2 or 3 cents more. A hotel room that costs $125 a night would become $1.25 more expensive.
“I don’t go to New Hampshire to have my coffee because there’s a difference in tax,” Parker said. “I don’t think that tax makes that much of a difference, to be quite honest with you.”
Chuck Wooster, of White River Junction, said he was conflicted. As much as he agreed with the others’ concerns, he said, the new revenue can be used to positively impact the town.
“We’re not funding our long-term,” he said, speaking about the town’s infrastructure, “and I think this is a really tempting way to make a dent in that.”
If a simple majority of residents vote for the change, it will then need to be passed by the state legislature, and eventually signed by the governor.
At the hearing, some worried that the tax is targeting specific types of businesses, and said they would rather have the town ask all its residents for more money outright.
“If you’re going to tax me, be transparent about it,” Miller said. “Just tax me.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.