Last Wednesday began with nearly half a foot of fresh snow and a morning gathering of officials in Milton.
Following the first large storm this winter, Milton’s annual legislative breakfast on December 10 joined state lawmakers, town staff and board members for a morning of quiche, coffee and discussion of priorities in the upcoming legislative session.
Four topics chosen by the selectboard directed the conversation: Act 250 permit reform, transportation, alternative economic development and education funding.
Discussion on permitting revolved around one general theme: Making the Act 250 review process easier.
“We’re pushing businesses away instead of saying we want them,” said Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton).
Town officials said it’s tedious to require new businesses in Catamount Industrial Park to obtain permits when the whole park has Act 250 approval. They urged legislators to streamline and focus on master plan permits versus detailed technical reviews.
A list of recommended changes developed by the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission included creating more Act 250 exemptions or shifting permitting to local government in certain circumstances.
“We shouldn’t have to go back to Act 250 [for review] every time we want to change a front door,” Hubert said.
Next, Town Manager Brian Palaia shifted to Milton’s transportation needs, beginning with the major redesign of the dangerous Middle Road/Railroad Street/ Route 7 junction.
The project has led to conflict, as the Vermont Agency of Transportation decided not to fund the town’s endorsed “full hourglass” design, preferring to build only one leg of the road, a change VTRANS said would save $1 million.
The parties recently determined, however, there’s only a $200,000 difference, Palaia said. Though the “half hourglass” is less expensive, it’s also less favorable, he said.
“The money is there,” Selectboard Chairman Darren Adams said. “It’s just a matter of getting it through the process and getting shovels on the ground.”
Palaia said negotiations on the full hourglass are ongoing; he expected a decision at a meeting that Friday, but nothing concrete came, as Palaia announced at Monday’s selectboard meeting that funding is still uncertain. He said VTRANS is committed to helping the town get what it wants.
At Wednesday’s breakfast, Palaia asked legislators for their assistance. Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) advocated for the redesign and its potential economic benefits for the town.
Town officials also communicated their fear of it being stalled when VTRANS Secretary Brian Searles retires this month.
“Make sure it’s in the transportation budget,” Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) suggested.
Palaia also informed legislators of pending grant applications to fill sidewalk gaps, making the town more amenable to pedestrians and cyclists.
Officials also lamented the legislative cap on the tax increment financing program, which allowed municipalities like Milton to retain equal portions of municipal and state education taxes for infrastructure they couldn’t otherwise afford.
A 2012 audit charged towns with shorting the Education Fund and served Milton a $3.4 million bill, later significantly reduced to $22,000. The legislation came with new TIF rules, including the cap.
Now there’s no economic development funding mechanism, town officials argued.
“This is the best tool we have, and we’ve just killed it,” Hubert said. “We certainly wouldn’t have Husky without TIFs.”
Turner said strong opposition to TIFs in the legislature comes from smaller municipalities that don’t benefit from the program.
Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-So. Hero) said no progress would come by “shoving the benefits in our district down [the opposition’s] throat” and suggested better understanding the view that rural districts are subsidizing TIFs.
As House minority leader, Turner pledged his continued support, agreeing compromise may be necessary.
Lyons suggested regional TIF districts, allowing smaller towns to band together and accomplish the same development benefits as Milton.
“Whatever it takes to get the rest of the state on board with this, we’re in favor,” Adams said. “Milton is poised for growth; we want it. Make a system that allows for other small towns to be involved … throwing the whole program out is not the best answer.”
Education property tax reform
By far the morning’s most impassioned discussion was on education funding.
An education property tax conference on the heels of school budgets failing statewide resulted in more than 35 municipalities calling for reform, including a temporary education property tax cap.
“What I’m really clear about is [that] we cost too much,” Selectboard Vice-Chairman John Gifford said.
The selectboard approved a resolution for the cap in October, saying Vermont can no longer support education through property tax, as statewide education spending has increased 33 percent while student counts have declined 10 percent in the last decade.
The selectboard proposed freezing fiscal year 2015’s tax rates for two years while reforms are made at the state. Hubert suggested simplifying the convoluted system.
“There is no benefit to a school district right now saying, ‘we need to hold the line,’” he said.
School Board clerk Karen LaFond said Milton educators are stretched to their limits and earn comparatively low salaries, making it difficult to retain quality teachers.
Planning Commission Chairwoman Lori Donna suggested school choice on a larger scale, including private and parochial schools. Lyons said the legislature has looked at a similar option and will likely revisit it.
Discussion also surrounded Act 166, Vermont’s new universal pre-kindergarten law, which was delayed until the 2016-17 year to allow for necessary budget adaptations. The state also announced $33 million in federal funds, allocated in $7 million a year increments, to offset costs.
“I don’t know what it means after the grant is over,” Lyons said.
“It means we’re going to have to pick up the bill,” Turner replied. “[Act 166 is an] unfunded mandate.”
LaFond said Milton’s board must brace for these costs on top of $32 million in infrastructure repairs.
Everyone at the breakfast seemed to support consolidation, but consensus on how to make it happen was less clear.
“As legislators, we just exasperate it,” Hubert said. “We want you to consolidate, but we’re going to give you money not to consolidate.”
Hubert referred to small school grants, in direct opposition to consolidation incentives. Johnson said state funding for both is “crazy-making.”
Adams said some towns are resistant to let go of some local control. Gifford agreed consolidation has to be forced “from on high.”
Planning Commissioner Henry Bonges questioned why Vermont struggles with consolidation when other states have done it successfully.
“The hurdle isn’t re-inventing the wheel in how it can be done, it’s the will to do it,” Johnson replied, hinting that taking away small school grants might force small towns into “crisis” and to consider consolidating.
Economic Development Commissioner Lou Mossey said crisis mode wouldn’t be difficult to achieve.
“I would say we’re already there; we’ve been there for many years,” he said. “The crisis is affordability.”