MILTON — On the Town Meeting Day ballot in a few weeks, Milton voters will be asked in Article VI to vote yes or no on proposed amendments to the town charter.
A town charter is a legal document that establishes the municipality and lays out rules and regulations for its management and governance.
Milton’s charter requires that it be reviewed every five years by a committee of community members. This charter review was two years overdue.
In late 2019, the Milton selectboard formed the Charter Review Committee which reviewed the current charter and proposed edits or modifications. The 10-member committee met 10 times over the course of the last year.
The Milton Town School District was represented on the committee by school board trustees Michael Joseph and Jeremy Metcalf. The selectboard was represented by Brenda Steady and Chris Taylor, and the Milton Public Library was represented by trustee Tracey Hughes.
Town Clerk Sheryl Prince and community members Jim Ballard, Terri Stebbins and Lou Mossey were also part of the committee. Former state representative for Milton Ron Hubert served as the committee's chair.
What changes are being proposed?
Most revisions to the town charter include technical corrections, wordsmithing and the inclusion of statutory references, but there are five substantial changes to know and understand.
1. The revisions propose that the Milton selectboard to appoint the police chief as it does the fire and rescue chiefs. In the current charter, the town manager appoints the police chief.
2. An amendment would disallow candidates from running for more than one seat on a town board or commission at a time. For example, a candidate could not run for both the three-year and one-year seats on the selectboard.
Under Vermont state law, candidates cannot hold more than one seat at a time, so previously, if a candidate won both seats they had to decide which they wanted. The selectboard then chose someone from the pool of candidates to fill the empty seat.
During a Jan. 28 public hearing on the proposed changes, Hubert said this situation was inherently unfair to all involved.
“They would not be able to run for dual seats, because running for dual seats could block somebody actually being able to win an election,” he said.
3. The committee suggests the positions of moderator and town assessor now be appointed by the selectboard.
4. Another revision would allow the town manager and MTSD superintendent to concurrently hold statewide office with the majority approval of the selectboard.
5. An amendment proposes state representatives for the Town of Milton to be reapportioned and redistricted based on population size during the biennial session following a U.S. census, which occurs every 10 years.
A five-member committee, made up of the chair of the board of civil authority, the town clerk and three justices of the peace would be tasked with reapportionment and redistricting. Previously, these tasks were in the hands of the state, not the town.
These revisions must be approved together. Voters cannot vote “yes” or “no” on individual changes.
Read the entirety of the new charter here.
What was all this talk about a local option tax?
The Charter Review Committee initially suggested an amendment to the charter that would give the selectboard the power to propose a local option tax. During a special meeting of the selectboard on Jan. 28, the selectboard unanimously voted to reject this proposal.
A local option tax is a 1% tax that would, with voter approval, issue either a 1% sales tax, 1% meals and alcoholic beverages tax, or 1% rooms tax.
The selectboard would determine annually, during the budget-building process, how the revenue would be used. During the Jan. 28 public hearing, Town Manager Don Turner suggested the town could use this tax to fund more paving and infrastructure projects.
“We need a revenue source, outside of the property tax, to fund capital improvement projects like paving,” he said.
Nearby towns like Colchester and St. Albans City utilize a local option tax. St. Albans City’s tax is expected to fund several sidewalk projects and recreation programs.
Adding the local option tax amendment to the Milton charter would not have immediately put the tax into effect. Instead, it would have given the selectboard the power to put the tax on the ballot at a later time.
“The language in here does not allow the town to begin collecting this tax,” Turner said. “That would require a second vote, a vote specifically for the tax at a subsequent town meeting.”
At the Jan. 28 public hearing, several community members spoke up against the idea of a local option tax.
“That’s why some of us choose to live in Milton, because we do not want to deal with that BS,” former selectboard member Randy Barrows said.
Diane Barrows said she disapproved of the tax because she thought it would discourage people from buying local.
Former selectboard member John Bartlett on the other hand, said he supported the tax, because he thought this was a more creative and affordable way to raise money than increasing the property tax.
“Personally, it’s easier for me to pay for stuff a little at a time, like $1 a month extra on my cell phone bill than trying to come up with it in a different way,” he said.
Ultimately, the selectboard decided that since it would not be proposing the implementation of the tax in 2021 due to the community’s pandemic-related hardships, it was best not to add it to the list of charter changes.
“I agree, let’s pull it off completely, but hopefully it can be revisited again in the future,” selectboard member John Fitzgerald said.
In an Feb. 5 email to the Independent, Turner said the selectboard can revisit the local option tax at any time in the future.
If approved by voters on March 2, when would these charter changes go into effect?
Changes would not be effective immediately because town charters must also be approved by the state legislature and the governor, a process that could take several months.
Hubert explained during the Jan. 28 public hearing that Milton’s revised charter would first be sent to the House Government Operations Committee, then the Secretary of State’s Office, then the House of Representatives, then the Senate and then Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
The earliest that process could be finished is mid-May, but Hubert projected the charter would be approved and put into effect sometime during the summer.