Strafford OKs 22 Percent Increase in Town Taxes
Tom Scull raises his hand to speak while seated next to his wife Jessica Tidman, left, during the Strafford Town Meeting at the town house in Strafford, Vt., on March 4, 2014. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Residents wait to use a portable toilet outside the Strafford town house during the Strafford Town Meeting in Strafford, Vt., on March 4, 2014. The meeting went longer than scheduled, and resumed after the school meeting in the afternoon. (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Seth Berger adds to a discussion regarding how to pay for a delinquent tax collector during the Strafford Town Meeting at the town house in Strafford, Vt., on March 4, 2014. Referring to a previous speaker who said he had his tax check in his pocket but forgot to pay on time, Berger said, "Some people walk around with a check in their pocket. Some don't have a check in their pocket." (Valley News - Will Parson) Purchase photo reprints »
Strafford — Penalties for late taxes and Strafford’s $140,000 deficit dominated discussion at Tuesday’s nearly five-hour Town Meeting, which started at 9 a.m., broke for lunch a half-hour late, and resumed after the school meeting.
On the school side, voters approved the budget, but not before taking a run at money earmarked for expanding the kindergarten program.
The town highway fund went over budget by about $140,000 in 2013, mainly due to three “mud events” and unanticipated gravel purchases last winter, and expenses from a road reconstruction project on the Justin Morrill Highway. The town has often taken a few years to pay down a deficit and was prepared to do the same in the proposed budget, Selectwoman Victoria Lloyd said.
But after discovering that it’s illegal in Vermont for towns to carry a deficit, the Selectboard scoured the budget for ways to close the gap, she said. After at least five passes through the proposed plan, members were able to squeeze out $62,000 to close the gap. Savings came from such measures as postponing the rebuilding of a bridge on Tunbridge Road and removing money not expected to be needed for road maintenance. The proposal to raise taxes to cover the remaining $78,000 deficit showed up as a last-minute amendment, bringing the total to be raised by taxes to just over $1 million.
Some voters suggested covering the deficit by cutting more money from the proposed budget, rather than raising taxes. But others, including Gregory Lewis, worried about the consequences.
“I’m all for reducing taxes,” but cutting the budget would have repercussions, Lewis warned. “The roads won’t be graded. ... Our roads are in great shape, but they will be pounded right to death.”
The Selectboard’s amendment to cover the deficit by increasing taxes passed in a ballot vote, 99 to 68, and the budget was approved soon after.
The total spending plan will require a 22 percent increase in town taxes. It includes payments on a previously approved $1.1 million bond for highway reconstruction and disaster relief, which accounts for a 12.2 percent increase in taxes collected.
Under the new spending plan, the town tax rate is expected to climb by about 11 cents on $100 of assessed value, or $276 on a $250,000 home. That rate, based on the 2013 grand list, likely will change based on the results of a recent townwide appraisal, said Lloyd.
School Board member Sarah Root said she was shocked by the increase. While she said she respects the Selectboard and the hard work it does, it’s a huge amount of money for people, Root said. “I think it’s an offensive amount, actually.”
Perhaps spending weary, the overflow crowd in the Town House shot down an article requesting $15,000 to help replace or repair the century-old fence that surrounds Evergreen Cemetery. The fence is rusted out in places and sections have fallen down, said Cemetery Commissioner Dick Josler, who has used wire to help hold up the fence. One estimate to restore the fence, which contains lead paint, came in at $34,000. The money in the article would have been used to help secure matching funds.
Most people he’s heard from want to see the original fence restored, said Josler. But some voters yesterday wondered whether the work could be put off for a year, or even avoided altogether.
“We might like to look at whether we are a town that can afford $40,000 for a fence,” said Amy Huyffer, of Rockbottom Farm. “At some point our taxes could get so high you can’t afford to farm in town.”
Four intertwined articles addressing the town’s response to late taxes generated a good bit of conversation but few changes.
An article that would change the delinquent tax collector’s compensation from the 8 percent penalty to a salary or stipend was defeated, at least in part because voters were reluctant to add another employee to the town payroll. Taxes will continue to be collected on the first Wednesday of September and December, with interest of 1 percent for each of the first three months that taxes are late, and 1.5 percent in subsequent months.
While some residents stressed the importance of paying taxes on time, many supported adding some wiggle room.
“If the check shows up a few hours or days late, nothing needs to be done,” said Kelly Hull. “We’re a small town. Nobody wants to see their neighbors pay an extravagant penalty for making a mistake.”
In the end, voters agreed: The 8 percent penalty that was formerly applied immediately to late taxes will now kick in seven business days after the second installment is due.
Voters also expanded the Selectboard from three to five members. The following people were elected to the Selectboard: Brent Cadwell, three-year term; John Freitag, two-year term; Steve Marx, two-year term; Tori Lloyd, one-year term. Other officers elected included Jeanne Castro, delinquent tax collector; and Sperry Wilson, auditor.
An article opposing the transportation of tar sands oil through Vermont and asking Congress and the state to undertake thorough environmental impact reviews of any tar sands oil pipeline proposals passed easily.
Much of the school meeting focused on the recent decision to expand the kindergarten program by a few hours a day. The change in the program, which will run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., is expected to cost between $14,000 and $22,000.
Several questioned the need for expanding the program, but a proposal to remove the money for the expansion failed. Voters passed a nonbinding resolution asking the School Board to support the pre-school however it can.
Voters approved the $3.2 million 2014-2015 school budget, which is expected to push the residential tax rate from $1.27 to $1.36 per $100 of valuation. But that rate could change, depending on what happens in Montpelier this session, said School Board Chairman Paul Perkins.
Erik Reimanis and Amanda Higgins were elected to three-year and two-year terms on the School Board, respectively.
Of the town’s 884 voters, 230 checked in at the meeting.
Aimee Caruso can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3210.
Becky Proulx was referring to the afternoon program at the Creative Preschool when she said at Strafford's annual school meeting that "we believe that it is in the best interest of the children in our town." Proulx, who serves on the nonprofit's board, took no public position on expanding the kindergarten program in Strafford. An earlier version of this story incorrectly described her remarks.