How Can We Lower Property Taxes?

At 2.52% of assessed value, Burlington residents pay among the highest property taxes in the state, close to Winooki’s and significantly exceeded only by Middlebury, another university town.[1] The owner of a house valued at the median here, $230,000, paid $5,800 last year. The bond issue approved by voters in November will add $140 to that bill; the proposed school budget would increase taxes by 5.25%.[12]; the cost of a $19 million dollar bond to address deferred maintenance in school buildings will kick in in 2018.‎

Our tax situation is compounded by the extent of our tax-exempt property. About 31% of our tax base is off the rolls. Were UVM taxed as private property, it would yield $16.6 million while the medical center would yield $10.6 million; $8.2 million of that total would have gone to support the city budget.[3] Of the remainder, the portion going to the state for education would have been returned to the city as well. Pushed by the Sanders administration, UVM, the Medical Center, and Champlain College began to pay for city services–water, police, fire protection. Morgan True of VT Digger calculated that these assessments “in lieu of property tax” were not much different from what Champlain College would have paid if all their real estate were taxed. But UVM  and its Medical Center pay only about a quarter of a for-profit load.[4] The Weinberger administration is seeking additional revenue from them, which I applaud, but long-run success is unlikely. New York and other are states are moving toward free tuition in their public universities,  impacting the out-of-state student numbers UVM depends on to balance its books.

What can we do to hold the line on taxes? First, stop subsidizing corporations–whether private or nonprofit–for doing what they whould otherwise do. We started down this road in 2014 when Council approved a lease of the Taft School to UVM for $20.000 per year for 80 years, the equivalent rent for a two bedroom apartment.[5] Assessed at $1.1 million, this property housed 63 students in special programs and was effectively given away so the District could avoid repair costs. Cambrian Rise should have provided ample open space and surface water mitigation without the two million paid by the City and the Vermont Land Trust for what amounts to their backyard park. Also in 2014 voters faced a bond question that consolidated six Waterfront projects costing $9.6 million. One of them, the Burlington Harbor Marina, got $500,000, later raised to $800,000. The funds will be raised through Tax Increment Financing (TIF).[6] With Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront running a marina nearby, why subsidize a private company with public finds and a 40-year sweetheart lease on public land?

The Downtown TIF District is authorized to spend up to $10 million for street upgrades and brownfield remediation. The primary beneficiary will be Champlain College when it completes its 305 student dorm at St. Paul Street. Yet the city taxpayers will be repaying that bond until 2035. In 2016 voters approved a $21.8 million TIF to finance street improvements around the Burlington Town Center. Half that will go for streets internal to the project which the developer should pay for. Not so here. In essence, where the City has neglected the repair of public property or injudiciously closed streets, mistakes have had to be corrected at great cost. Where public investment could really stimulate our economy, as in using the public right-of-way between Home Avenue and Lakeside for incubator industry, the administration balks. Its imagination extends only to a road way in that area. This stewardship failure is evident at Memorial Auditorium, a public resource built the same year as City Hall but allowed to fall disrepair. Now the Mayor can only imagine handing it off to UVM along with much of the Gateway Block. Why not artist live/work quarters? A public performance space? a return of the youth music venue, 242 Main? Instead, UVM gets hockey rink and the public a traffic disaster.

What can the City do to hold the line on taxes? Be economical. Where City Hall Park can be restored to civic use for $1 million, why spend $3 million? Use public finds to stimulate the economy where it is effective and essential, as with tech innovation in the South End; forget the C2 leg of the Champlain Parkway. Retain public ownership of Burlington Telecom bit don’t subsidize a private marina on our public waterfront. Don’t hide costs through excessive debt and deferred maintenance but keep current on infrastructure and building upkeep. That applies to School District as well. There is only one taxpayer pocket. Champlain College’s Eagles Landing dorm is a done-deal, but 44% of city land is owned by non-profits. I’d be very reluctant to transfer any more to the colleges and universities, removing it from the tax rolls.

In Council, I’ll oppose injudicious subsidies and projects that raise our property taxes while supporting in appropriate investments in our future.

 


[1]  www.nancyjenkins,com/Vermont-Property-Tax-Rates

[2]  Morgan True, https://vtdigger.org/2017/01/11/burlington-school-district-passes-74m-budget-seeks-bonding-measure/

[3]  Morgan True, vtdigger.org/2016/10/30/burlington-mauyor-wants-major-institutiions-to-pony-up-for-infrastructure/

[4]  True, ibid.

[5]  April Burbank, www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/local/2014/03/31/burlington-council-approves-ease-of-historic-school-to-uvm

[6]  News Release–Mayor Miro Weinberger, January 13, 2014, in vtdigger.org/2014/01/13/mayor-miro-weinberger-announces-slate-public-investment-action-plan-projects-waterfront-tif-district/

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