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Tax Rates to Remain Steady In Chelsea

Town May Debate Policy of Discounts for Earlier Payment

Chelsea’s School District Meeting will be held Tuesday, March 5, at 9 a.m. at Chelsea Town Hall. Town Meeting will follow at Town Hall.

Chelsea — With municipal tax rates set to remain relatively flat, there is little kindling on the warning to spark potential debates at Town Meeting this year, but at least one town official has learned not to predict what might lead to controversy.

“I’ve given up trying to figure that out,” Chelsea Treasurer Jane Cushman said with a laugh yesterday.

The proposed 2013 town budget of $647,650 represents a 1 percent increase from last year’s budget, and would raise the town’s portion of the municipal tax rate by about 2 cents to 53 cents per $100 of assessed value — or $1,325 for a home valued at $250,000.

Despite a 4 percent increase in the $3.2 million Chelsea School budget, the school portion of the tax rate would drop 4 cents to $1.48 per $100 of assessed value, aided by rising enrollment and an increase in the town’s common level of appraisal. Should the budget be approved, residents with a home valued at $250,000 would pay $3,700 annually if they do not qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program.

The common level of appraisal is a state formula intended to ensure that each town contributes its fair share of school taxes to the Vermont Education Fund. If assessed values in a town drop significantly below fair market values, the CLA adjusts the locally set tax rate upward. It can also push the tax rate lower if property values fall significantly below town assessments.

Town and school officers are elected from the floor, but no contested races have emerged, as of yet.

Cushman didn’t rule out of the possibility of a floor debate on Town Meeting Day, notably on the town’s policy of issuing a 2 percent discount on taxes that are paid within 30 days of the mailing of the tax bill. Voters at last year’s Town Meeting discussed the possibility of doing away with the practice, and will again have a chance to vote on the issue this year.

According to Cushman, the policy dates back “years and years” to when it cost the town “a lot more money to borrow money,” which is why the fund to encourage early tax payments, and thereby help with cash flow and reduce the need for the town to borrow money, was initially set up.

In its town report, the Chelsea Selectboard said that while it is not proposing a change for the policy this year, “We do think (removal of the policy) is worth considering in the future.”

“While the early tax revenue does allow the town to borrow less money for a shorter period of time, budgeting for the discount means that those who don’t pay early are paying higher taxes so some may take advantage of the discount,” the board said in the town report.

The report went on to point out that if the town were to discontinue the practice, which requires $26,000 to be set aside in the general fund, that money would be removed from the budget and lead to a decrease in property taxes.

“This seems more equitable than the current system which favors those able to pay early and adds increased tax burden to those who may be least able to afford it,” the report stated.

Chelsea voters will also decide whether or not to approve $45,000 in support of the First Branch Ambulance Service. The total represents an increase of $15,000 from last year’s approved amount, which is due to the amount being stretched out over 18 months as opposed to a year.

Last year’s meeting also featured a spirited debate over whether the town should set aside $60,000 to form a reserve fund that would be used to create a public preschool. The proposal was narrowly defeated by a vote of 61-51.

School Board Chair Joe Spinella said that item was left off this year’s warning for “budgetary reasons,” although he said the board still believes in the philosophy of public pre-K education. He added that Vermont legislators and Gov. Peter Shumlin have since advocated for making public preschool universal in the Green Mountain State.

“I think that it’s prudent for us to wait and get some guidance from the Legislature about how Vermont as a whole is going to address the issue,” Spinella said.

While that discussion might be tabled for now, Spinella stressed that Chelsea residents should pay attention to other issues that could affect Chelsea’s school, such as the Shumlin administration’s push for more consolidation between school districts.

“I think that people come and voice their opinions at Town Meeting Day and we have a great tradition and culture of doing that,” he said. “I’m not sure that people reach out to the Legislature in that same way as they do to their local representatives, and I would like to see people on either side of the issues make their voices heard in Montpelier.”

The Chelsea School belongs to the Orange Windsor Supervisory Union, which also oversees Newton Elementary School in Strafford, Sharon Elementary School, Tunbridge Central School, and South Royalton School.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.