Officials brainstorm over breakfast

Lawmakers, state and local officials convened last week for Milton’s legislative breakfast, an annual tradition to discuss prominent issues before the legislative session starts.

This year’s buffet-style breakfast, held at the town offices December 6, hosted discussion on four central topics: carbon tax, tax increment financing, Vermont’s opioid crisis and Lake Champlain water quality.

Attendees also briefly discussed the Chittenden County Senate district, Glebe land and state office space.

Carbon tax

Republican Rep. Ron Hubert was first to broach the subject, pledging to continue fighting the “regressive” tax on fuel, should it arise again in the legislature.

“It hits every single thing that we use in a rural state to run our economy,” he said.

Selectboard clerk John Bartlett was also skeptical that such a tax could deter consumers from fossil fuel.

“Trying to regulate behavior by making something more expensive is a method, but I’m not sure how effective it is,” he said.

Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) doesn’t believe a carbon tax bill could garner enough momentum to pass, but said climate change should be considered.

Sen. Ginny Lyons, a Democrat, said the initiative would need federal support, particularly to encourage other states to join Vermont.

School board member Cathy Vadnais was concerned taxpayers would shoulder the brunt of the bill that could subsidize industries, like skiing, hurt by climate change.

Selectboard vice-chairman Ken Nolan stressed finding balance between slowing climate change and meeting the municipality’s day-to-day needs.

“Any time you talk about raising significant taxes, it undercuts our ability to provide local services,” he said.

Dan Gaherty of the Milton Conservation Commission agreed, adding that despite believing climate change is a serious issue, he would condemn a tax that would put Vermonters at an “economic disadvantage.”

Tax increment financing

Milton finance director Sarah Macy began the morning’s discussion on TIF, a topic the town has wrestled with for nearly two decades. TIF districts allow municipalities to retain some education tax revenue to invest in infrastructure.

Lyons said she hasn’t heard of further proposed changes to TIF statute, but warned of a swelling interest in Montpelier to discourage TIFs.

“I know that there are folks that don’t understand the value of TIFs to local economic development,” she said. “That broader message, I think, is important.”

Town manager Donna Barlow Casey highlighted two projects using TIF money.

The M4D project aims to improve sidewalks and streetscapes, including lighting, gateways and public art, from Milton Diner to the Clark Falls Dam. Conceptual designs were presented November 18.

Another, the hourglass project, is a solution to the accident-prone intersection at Route 7, Middle Road and Railroad Street, realigning the roadways in an hourglass shape from a bird’s eye view.

The project will create a town green, Barlow Casey said, and will accentuate Milton’s downtown area.

Selectman John Cushing, former Milton town clerk and treasurer of 46 years, said while representatives know the money comes from the education fund, citizens do not.

Johnson noted the controversy but said when a TIF expires, a town’s grand list is often higher than it would have been. 

House Minority Leader Don Turner encouraged communities to preserve and maximize TIFs.

“There will be no new TIFs for the time being until we come up with a more equitable solution that reflects smaller communities all around the state,” he said.

Nolan said even with TIF money, there’s a risk the town might still have to pay additional money to cover project costs.

Opioids

Milton Police Chief Brett Van Noordt and Vermont State Police Detective Trooper Eric Patno summarized the impact of opioids – particularly heroin – on the community and state level.

“Over the past year and a half, we’ve had 17 overdoses – two of them resulted in the person dying,” Van Noordt said.

He noted his department has successfully used overdose reversal drug Narcan. Fentanyl-laced heroin is increasingly common, requiring more than one Narcan dose to save victims.

Patno, a 13-year veteran of VSP, said prescription medication can lead to heroin abuse. Johnson said accreditors rate hospitals on patient satisfaction for pain relief, which might pressure doctors to prescribe opiates.

“There is a systematic cause to a piece of the problem that I think has to be dealt with seriously,” she said.

To quell the epidemic, Patno said the Vermont Intelligence Center uses a database to store drug-related information from municipal police departments and then compiles that info to help track down dealers. The system needs streamlining, though, so officers can act quicker.

He stressed education as the most successful deterrent, “because rehabilitation is very, very difficult,” Patno said, noting growing wait lists at local clinics.

Rep.-elect Ben Joseph (D-Grand Isle-Chittenden), a retired judge, suggested ordering drug treatment as a condition of release in place of bail at arraignments.

Lake quality

The group also discussed Lake Champlain’s total maximum daily load, which puts a cap on the amount of phosphorus allowed to enter the lake daily.

Emily Bird, with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the Clean Water Initiative program, said most of that comes from stormwater.

Phosphorus also binds to gravel, sand, dirt, salt and other materials.

Cushing and Nolan shared concerns that potential restrictions on where salt and sand can be spread could create hazardous driving conditions.

Nolan thinks agencies’ plans leave local governments in a bind.

“We’re left with a safety problem, but the environmental issue is preventing us from addressing that safety problem,” he said.

Bird said although these restrictions may not be directly related to the TMDL, portions of the recently passed Clean Water Act provide financial support for municipalities to meet these standards.

Charlie Baker, director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission, asked how much it would cost municipalities to comply with the act, but no answer was readily available.

The legislature reconvenes on January 4.

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