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Tax Increase Anticipated in Thetford

The annual Town and School Meeting will be held Saturday, March 2, at 9 a.m. in the Thetford Academy gymnasium. Voters will choose town and school officers and decide on the school district budget by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 5, at Thetford Town Hall. Polls will be open between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Thetford — Taxpayers in Thetford have ducked the impact of five consecutive years of spending increases in the town budget, thanks to the availability of grant money and surplus revenues — but the municipal tax rate is set to finally take a hit this year.

“We’ve known this was coming for a long time,” said Thetford Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey. “Since 2008, we’ve been waiting for this year.”
Should all the town’s warning articles gain voter approval, Thetford residents would see a nearly 7 percent rise in the property tax rate — an increase of 3.6 cents to a little more than 55 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay $1,375 in municipal property taxes, $75 more than the current year.

The school portion of the tax rate, meanwhile, would remain stable at $1.71 per $100 of assessed value.

The tax increase comes despite several years of what Downey described as “very prudent spending.” He said the town’s budget for the last five years has had “a fairly typical rate of inflation.

“Unfortunately, it’s just happening all at once, which is exactly the type of thing we’re trying to get away from by doing more capital fund planning, rather than just annual expensing,” said Downey, referring to a recent shift in the way the town maintains its roads.

In the past, Downey said, money had been set aside for road paving in the general fund, which sends unused funds back to the taxpayers when matching state and federal grants fail to materialize — but under the proposed budget for next year, some of that money would be directed into a capital reserve fund for the Public Works department.

“By putting (money) into a capital fund, it forces us to stash that money aside,” said Downey. “Whereas in the past, what has happened is that we hadn’t spent money on paving, and then the budget looks better than it should.”

The proposed budget sets aside $755,000 for the Public Works department — an increase of more than $75,000 from the current year’s highway department budgeted expenditures of $683,500. Downey said $38,000 of that funding would go toward the purchasing of more gravel, and another $38,000 would go to health insurance and payroll increases, which are the direct result of the department’s restructuring.

In late May, Doug Stone — who had been the town’s road foreman since 2004 — resigned.

After Stone’s departure, the town hired Scott Knowlton as director of Public Works and elevated two lower-level employees to higher-pay positions tasked with greater responsibilities.

The shift has allowed the department to handle tasks outside of a typical Highway Department’s purview — things Downey said Stone had done “out of the goodness of his heart,” but had no real obligation to work on, such as the maintenance of the town’s commons, greens, and electric generators, as well as the upkeep of public buildings.

Also, a new technology-driven road paving triage system would accelerate the rate of paving projects, said Downey.

Aided by a grant from the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, Thetford implemented a “road surface management system” this winter — a database that grades the town’s 63 miles of paved roads using algorithms and about 600 data points that provide information on pavement conditions.

Downey said the system would provide a scientific way to steer Public Works officials away from the methodology of past paving decisions, which have typically been made “on the gut of people who work in the town.” Up until this winter, paving projects had been directed to roads with the worst conditions, but Downey said there wasn’t “any formal rubric for making that call.

“We continued to go after the roads which are the worse roads with no real theory behind it,” he said. “In actuality, we need to forget about those roads which are gone and go after those which can be saved.”

Spending in the town’s general fund is expected to go up by 5 percent — a result of wage increases and rising costs of benefits such as health insurance. Additionally, Downey said, the budget provides for a “modest increases in discretionary items, such as more money invested in technology that will streamline operations in Town Hall and provide more access online to the public.”

The proposed school budget of more than $7.9 million represents a 4 percent increase from the current year’s budget, but the tax rate would remain stable at $1.71 per $100 of assessed value, thanks to a higher common level of appraisal from the state.

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 market values fall significantly below town assessments.

Owners of a home assessed at $250,000 would continue to pay $4,275 for the school portion of property taxes, though many Vermonters pay school taxes based on income.

School Board Chairwoman Shannon Darrah said the higher common level of appraisal was the “main factor” in keeping the tax rate stable, but the stability was also aided by surplus revenues left over from the current year’s budget.

While the majority of surplus revenue is going back to the taxpayers, two warrant articles that would need to be approved by voters would set aside a combined total of $90,000 in two separate reserve funds for unexpected cost increases. The total surplus, which stems from both the current and previous budget years, is $358,000.

“We incurred some expenses that were not budgeted (this year), so we just thought it would be a prudent to hold a little bit of that surplus back,” said Darrah.

A major driver behind the 4 percent spending increase can be attributed to the rising costs of health care. The School Board budgeted for an 11 percent increase in health care costs, even though the state recently indicated those costs would only rise by 9.5 percent.

“We wanted to be on the safe side, because it just seems very fluid,” said Darrah.

According to Darrah, the board has kept the budget “relatively flat for quite a while.

“The only reason people have seen an increase is because the (common level of appraisal) has been so low,” she said. “Eventually, you have to go up.”

Enrollment has also remained stable, which has allowed the board to maintain the current staffing levels at Thetford Elementary School, said Darrah.

While Darrah said she would love to have a flat budget, she maintained that the board has done well in managing its spending.

“This year it’s just not possible (to keep the budget flat), but we do feel good that we’re able to keep the tax rate stable from last year,” she said.

Darrah, who has served on the School Board for four years, will be running uncontested for reelection this year. She said her time on the board has been challenging but enjoyable, and she was grateful for what she described as a relatively quiet school budget year.

“It’s good to be a little on the boring side,” she said.

Also up for reelection is School Board member Lisa Swett. Elise Tillinghast, chairwoman of the board before last year’s town meeting, has announced she will step down. Jennifer Wallace has filed to run for the open seat, according to Town Clerk Tracy Borst.

There is a contested race in town, however, over a three-year seat currently held by Mike Pomeroy for the five-member Selectboard. Selectman Casey Huling isn’t running for re-election, and Pomeroy is running unopposed for the two-year seat currently held by Huling.

Stuart Rogers, a Thetford resident of 32 years who is known around town as the animal control officer, said when he heard about a vacancy on the board, he decided to run in order to “keep communication open” between the town’s governing body and its people.

Given his familiarity with the townspeople, Rogers figured he was well-suited for the task.

“I kind of have a belief that before you can be a voice for the people in town and speak for them, you have to be able to hear them too,” said Rogers. “It does help.”

Theresa Davidonis announced earlier this month that she will be running against Rogers. Davidonis is a lifelong Thetford resident whose boyfriend, Macadam Mason, was killed when a State Police trooper shot him in the chest with a Taser during an incident at her home in June 2012.

Messages left for Davidonis were not returned yesterday, but she told the Valley News earlier this month that she has no intention of taking her battle against the State Attorney General’s Office or the Vermont State Police to the Selectboard, and will choose instead to advocate for spending cuts and lower taxes.

Thetford residents will also vote on two town warning articles that are widespread throughout Upper Valley towns in the Green Mountain State.

One would amend the state’s constitution to define “natural, inherent, and unalienable rights” to a clean natural environment for every Vermont resident.

Also on the warning is an advisory article created by a Norwich-based gun control group that asks federal and state lawmakers to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, require criminal background checks and make gun trafficking a federal crime.

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