Vermont Mayors Coalition Announces 2017 Legislative Session Goals

Source: City of Burlington, Vermont

Mayors Advocate for Measures Related to Opioids, Police Training, Clean Water, Municipal Taxation of Parking Garages, and Public Safety

The Vermont Mayors Coalition today announced its 2017 legislative session goals and its commitment to collaborate on and advocate for these areas of common interest to their cities and towns. At a news conference at the State House, the Coalition released its legislative policy summary for the 2017 legislative session, which includes:

  • Supporting Effective Measures to Address Opioid Addiction
  • Implementing a Common Sense Approach to Clean Water Funding
  • Reforming the Police Training Curriculum in VT
  • Public Safety Notification
  • Parking Garage Tax Exemptions
  • Eliminate Cap on TIF Districts

The Mayors coalition was created in 2013 and includes eight mayors who offered the following statements about the issues of common interest they are collaborating on and advocating for during the 2017 legislative session:

  •  Vergennes Mayor Bill Benton: “The Vermont Mayor’s Coalition represents a diverse group of municipal leaders.  We strive to support legislative goals that are non-partisan, support our communities and contribute to the well-being of the entire State of Vermont.”
  • St. Albans Mayor Liz Gamache: “The 2017 VMC platform reflects key elements that make strong communities: the physical and mental wellbeing of our citizens, care and concern for the environment, and healthy economic conditions. Legislative action to support the needs of Vermont’s cities is essential to strengthening Vermont’s future.”
  • Montpelier Mayor John Hollar: “Municipalities face enormous costs to comply with new stormwater protection requirements. As Mayors, we supported these water quality measures, but the State needs to provide substantial financial support to help meet these new standards.”
  • Barre Mayor Thom Lauzon: “While we’ve made some improvement in the area of public safety information sharing, I believe we can and need to do better. The unfortunate reality is that communities across Vermont are still playing a reactive role as we continue to struggle with opiate addiction and the related issues of domestic violence, gun violence, child neglect, mental illness and threats against agencies in a protective role. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure that valuable investigative and preventative public safety information is available and shared between health, protective and law enforcement agencies. This type of information is invaluable in preventing crime in Vermont’s towns and cities.”
  • Winooski Mayor Seth Leonard: “As Vermont’s economy comes into focus during the 2017 Legislative Session, the VMC is proposing or supporting several initiatives to ensure our State’s population and employment centers continue as vibrant engines of growth. We are looking to the Legislature for partnership in making the State’s goals of financial sustainability and growth a reality. If we can achieve these ends together, our communities will thrive and so will Vermont.”
  • Rutland Mayor Chris Louras: “The nation’s and Vermont’s demographic will continue to change over the coming years and decades, and our economic future depends on policing standards that recognize an increasingly diverse population. The State should review the CJTC curriculum and update as necessary to weave fair and impartial policing principles into all aspects of academy coursework.”
  • Newport Mayor Paul Monette: “Economic development is vital to all communities within our State, and many municipalities are experiencing austere budgets and other circumstances that are beyond our control. This results in a lack of resources to help with infrastructure improvements, and the TIF district is a valuable tool to help create a true public/private partnership. By allowing municipalities to reinvest a major portion of the increased value and associated municipal/educational taxes, we are helping promote economic development. Successful results of TIFs can be seen all around the State, and the Mayors Coalition urges the legislature to lift the cap on new TIFs.”
  • Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger: “For years, the Mayors Coalition has supported ambitious efforts to protect our waterways from run-off so long as they are implemented in a way that is effective, efficient and fair. The 2017 Legislative session represents a time of critical decision making for the future of our waters, and the Mayors continue to urge decisive action to create a new system guided by these principles.”

Legislative Policy Summary 2017

Supporting Effective Efforts to Address Opioid Addiction

The VMC supports the principles laid out by the new Administration and calls on the State to help support efforts that are producing positive results addressing addiction challenges. In Rutland and Burlington, two similar, community-wide efforts known respectively as Project Vision and CommunityStat have defined the opioid crisis as a complex challenge best addressed by bringing together local public health, law enforcement, non-profit, private sector, and government leaders. While the two models are different in certain respects, both facilitate data aggregation, information sharing, and broad stakeholder engagement. Both also clearly identify leaders able to establish priorities and accountability and charge them with a responsibility for driving change.

These efforts are changing two communities’ response to a terrible challenge in meaningful and positive ways. Two forms of State support could help more Vermont communities enact similar changes. First, the Mayors call for the State to continue directing leading appointees to attend and participate in these meetings and to facilitate the creation of additional efforts in other Vermont towns and cities. Second, the Mayors call on the State to offer modest matching funds to incentivize community action.  These programs are lean and require little in the way of State investment – and that small investment can make a substantial difference.

Clean Water Funding

In 2015, the State of Vermont passed the landmark Vermont Clean Water Act (H.64), designed to protect Vermont’s lakes and streams from excess nutrients like phosphorus. Over the years, the VMC has advocated to make the act effective, fair, and efficient, and supported the passage of the legislation. Much regulatory and legislative action and implementation is still needed to succeed in this generational challenge of keeping our waterways clean.

In 2017, in light of the Clean Water Funding report released by Treasurer Beth Pearce, the VMC remains focused on moving this effort forward:

The Mayors support the Governor’s and Treasurer’s proposed allocation of $50 million of existing resources to the Clean Water Fund for two years to address this critical challenge over the next two years.  This reallocation should follow the same effective, fair, and efficient principles the VMC has previously advocated for. Municipal projects should receive priority funding from the Clean Water Fund during this period, recognizing that needed municipal resources are largely unfunded at this point.  The VMC urges Legislators to begin working now on a long-term funding solution 

It is vital to set a long-term target State funding percentage for each TMDL investment area. Without fixing a target annual funding level the State is committed to reaching, it will be difficult to settle on an appropriate funding strategy. While the Treasurer Pearce report would provide sufficient State funding to allow for the first two years to be enacted, the State would need to play a meaningful role in future years.

The VMC reiterates their 2016 call that the State should assume 80 percent of the future costs beyond the Treasurer’s two-year interim period, with municipalities increasing their contribution to 20 percent. Until 2015, the State was committed to paying for all wastewater facility discharges. Not only does the State have far greater options for raising revenues than municipalities, and thus a greater ability to fund this necessary work, the implementation of our collective TMDL-reduction efforts will be more effective and efficient if the State is responsible for a fair share of the system’s financial burden. A clear target will also be a major factor in determining which of the different revenue sources under consideration are the most equitable and sufficient to cover the costs of the water quality improvement programs that will be required to meet state and federal requirements over the next 20 years.

The Mayors continue to support statewide tiered per parcel fee that reflects the parcel’s usage and impact as the fairest and most sustainable funding mechanism to support clean water. To be sustainable, the revenue sources should be tied, as clearly as possible, to stable revenue sources that are fair, progressive in nature, and have a nexus with clean water. A Statewide tiered per parcel fee, or charge by a new statewide stormwater utility that accounts for factors such as size and the degree to which activities on the land contribute to problematic runoff, is the best option.

The Mayors call on the Legislature to create a working group now to create an implementation plan for a tiered parcel fee in 2019. There is no time to waste. The working group should include representatives from the legislature, Treasurer Pearce’s office, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health, municipalities and agricultural interests impacted by the fees, as well as other stakeholders as necessary.

As Treasurer Pearce’s report notes, any new parcel or stormwater utility fee should recognize the contributions of property owners within municipalities with existing stormwater utilities raising local revenues to pay for TMDL mitigation efforts. The Mayors do not oppose a modest additional cost to municipalities that border Lake Champlain, as while 94 percent of the State is impacted by the various TMDLs under discussion, the lakeshore communities do derive additional benefits from tourism; benefits that are dependent on clean water.

The VMC is strongly opposed to the State increasing the sales and use or rooms, meals, and alcoholic beverage taxes, as those are already primary sources of municipal revenue.  There should also be some consideration of tapping into sources that reach out-of-state visitors, whose transportation patterns and use of the lake may play heavily into the clean water analysis.

Reforming the Police Training Curriculum in Vermont

The Mayors call on the new Administration to review the training curriculum, certifying exams, and structure of the Criminal Justice Training Council. Vermont has good reason to be proud of its police agencies and the initial training those officers receive at the Police Academy in Pittsford, VT. A change in Administrations offers a good opportunity to review existing training protocols at the Academy to make sure training received and exams administered reflect the demands that will be placed on these aspiring young officers in the cities and towns they serve.

Further, the Academy trains officers to serve a wide range of communities across the State. The Mayors believe those communities should have a voice on the Council that runs the Academy, and urge the Legislature and Administration to consider revising the existing appointment structure of the Council to give Vermont’s cities and towns a voice in the training their officers receive. The Mayors also believe the Criminal Justice Training Council should provide a clear overseeing authority within State Government, whether through the Attorney General or the Commissioner of Public Safety.

Tax Exemption of Municipal Parking Utilities

During the 2015 and 2016 Legislative Sessions the VMC pushed for the Legislature and Administration to take a serious look at statutes related to the taxation of municipally owned parking facilities. Last year we provided testimony to the Senate Finance Committee evidencing that 32 V.S.A. § 5401(10) must be updated to reflect a taxation exemption for municipal parking infrastructure. We did so with the support of the Vermont Department of Taxes, Vermont Economic Progress Council, and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Despite a broad coalition of support and an absence of impact to State revenue, another session went by without action. We are renewing our pledge to pursue this issue to ensure Vermont growth centers can continue to be drivers of our State’s economy.

The VMC is stressing urgency on this issue, as our state does not need artificial barriers to economic growth. Asking municipalities to continue to create vibrant commercial and residential centers of growth for Vermont’s economy without flexibility to also control parking is not realistic. Parking is a public utility that municipalities are providing for public benefit. Municipalities need flexibility to ensure parking structures and lots serve the highest and best public use and represent desired land use goals of the community, region, and state. An inability to have municipalities involved in financing garages compromises decades of thoughtful planning around development and land use. Economic development is directly impacted, as is the implementation of smart growth plans. We risk towns foregoing opportunities for critical jobs and housing development that would boost the Vermont economy. The State has an opportunity to correct this issue without forgoing revenue before it is applied to all applicable situations.

The VMC wants to make the impact and risk of not addressing this issue very clear. The value a parking utility is being taxed twice – once in functional value and second as a structure. Property owners and municipalities are being taxed for the same structure and use. The implementation of this statute is not only hurting the municipality but is also impacting the property owners who seek to create jobs and housing opportunities in Vermont.

Municipalities will be compelled to ignore optimal land use and environmental risks, constructing surface parking if this statutory provision stays in place. Garages and lots that support public uses in downtowns will be left without adequate repairs or will become operationally untenable. Using Winooski as a case study:

  • Expenses for a garage include salaries, utilities, maintenance, and debt service.
  • Expenses for Winooski garage increased from $637,618.42 to $782,471.75 ($144,853 increase) as a direct result of the application of this tax.
  • $140,000 of that increase was from implementation of taxation we are seeking to address.
  • Result: Removed staffing, cuts in maintenance, reduced capital repair budgets. In the long-term we are unable to make future parking development financially feasible. This has harmed current businesses and is curbing future growth.

This is not limited to impacting one community. If applied uniformly and fairly, other villages, towns, and cities will have similar budget impacts.

Public Safety Notification

Currently, it is a crime for a prohibited person to attempt to purchase a firearm, yet there is no formal process or requirement to notify local, county, or state law enforcement when this attempted purchase takes place. Local, county, and state law enforcement notification can be invaluable to law enforcement agencies as we continue to struggle with the issues of addiction and the often related issues of domestic violence, child neglect, mental illness, and threats to agencies and employees in a protective role.

The VMC is calling for notification when a prohibited person attempts to purchase a firearm. Given the vast knowledge that local police officers have regarding their respective communities (such as pending arrests, investigations, and points of contact), this information could prove invaluable as a preventative tool.  Such was the case in Waterbury in the fall of 2016. Acting on information provided by Sheriff Sam Hill, who had been forwarded information regarding a threat allegedly made against a DCF employee and an alleged attempt to purchase a firearm by State’s Attorney Scott Williams, Barre City law enforcement took the lead on the investigation, and working with Waterbury law enforcement and ATF, were able to determine that a purchase of a firearm had, in fact, been made. The accused (who is prohibited from possessing a firearm) was arrested without incident and held without bail. The accused has since been released to a drug treatment program.

Eliminate Cap on TIF Districts

Many Vermont cities have created and successfully used tax increment financing (TIF) districts to spur economic development. The benefits to these cities—including Burlington, Barre and St. Albans—have been significant and measurable.

Current law does not allow for the creation of any new TIF districts, despite their proven success in creating new economic activity in our downtowns. The communities of Montpelier, Rutland, Newport, Springfield and Bennington have formed a separate coalition to advocate for the elimination of this cap. The Vermont Mayors Coalition endorses this effort and calls on the legislature to allow any community to apply to create a TIF district.

 

 

 

 

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