Killington voters consider seceding to New Hampshire

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(Host) Act 60 has received some of its most serious criticism in the big ski resort town of Killington. With the changes to the law, Killington will still be among the top tier of towns with the highest tax rates.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, the community is considering a vote on whether to secede from Vermont.

(Keck) You heard right: secede.

(David Lewis) “It isn’t a joke, it’s very serious.”

(Keck) Killington Town Manager David Lewis says local residents are so fed up with Vermont’s property tax, they’ll vote Tuesday on whether or not to try and join New Hampshire.

(Lewis) “I think most people recognize it’s a long shot, but hopefully at Town Meeting they’ll also recognize that we’ve gone through all the other alternatives within the system to try to show our plight and bring change, and none of that has been successful. So I think most will understand that this is a last gasp of desperation.”

(Keck) The frustration that’s boiling in Killington began simmering in 1997 when lawmakers created the education funding law known as Act 60. Under the law, Killington saw their taxes go from 75 cents per $100 in 1997 to about $1.90 today. A recent reappraisal increased property values significantly pushing people’s taxes even higher.

(Bernard Rome) “I don’t know if people around the state understand how serious it is, but taxes in Killington are now 500 percent higher than they were six years ago.”

(Keck) That’s Killington Businessman Bernard Rome. He was so incensed by Act 60 that he used it as a campaign theme in an unsuccessful run for governor in 1998.

(Rome) “You hear government typically, whether it’s city government, state government, federal government or whatever, having a three percent increase or a 3.2 percent increase. But when do you ever hear about a 500 percent increase, particularly when it’s so selective? So, if seceding to New Hampshire resolves that issue, I’ve got to say that’s something to be considered.”

(Keck) Killington officials say they tried to work with lawmakers and the governor to address their concerns. They even took the state to court, arguing that their tax rates were being determined arbitrarily. Rutland Superior Court Judge William Cohen ruled in the town’s favor, but the Vermont Supreme Court overturned that decision last fall. Bernard Rome says there was no way Killington could get a fair and impartial hearing with that court.

(Rome) “How can one possibly expect a court that was the foundation of Act 60 to now say we were wrong? That we the court forced a new form of taxation on the state which we now consider to be wrong – it’s the same court. Give us a different court, such as Judge Cohen was a different court. And he found that we were being reasonable and unfairly treated and agreed with us.”

(Keck) But Charles Merriman, the assistant attorney general who represented the state in that case says Vermont’s taxation rate is fair and the Supreme Court made the right decision. He calls Killington’s reaction offensive.

(Merriman) “They want to go back to the good old days when they could just pay for their local school without a care for the education of other Vermont children. But from a principled standpoint, i.e.: a constitutional standpoint. They don’t have an obligation just to little Johnny who lives in Killington, they have an obligation for little Suzy who lives in Worcester.”

(Keck) Town Manager David Lewis doesn’t buy that. He says Killington pays over twenty million dollars a year to the state in various taxes and gets little in return.

(Lewis) “We don’t object to sharing, we’ve been sharing our education revenues and our other revenues to the state of Vermont for years. It becomes a matter of degree. At what point does it stop being sharing and becomes extraordinary and outrageous amounts of taking.”

(Keck) Cliff Koch waits on a customer at his deli at Killington Corners. Taking a break, he leans across the counter and shakes his head in frustration.

(Koch) “Do I want to secede to New Hampshire? I don’t know if the point is seceding to New Hampshire. I think Montpelier has to wake up to our concerns, what’s going on with these taxes.”

(Keck) Koch has four kids and says he’s watched his property taxes go from $2,000 four years ago to $7,500 with no signs of leveling off. People think this vote’s a joke, he says, but the town’s future is at stake.

(Koch) “I just feel this whole state is becoming a state for trust fund babies, or something. The ultra rich can live here. I’ve seen it for years, the kids who’ve grown up in this town have gone to college, move away and they don’t come back.”

(Keck) If Koch and his neighbors vote to secede, it’ll be New Hampshire’s turn to weigh in. A spokesperson for the governor of New Hampshire says they’ll at least listen to any proposal Killington submits. In the end, Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz says it’ll be up to Vermont lawmakers to decide and she doesn’t think they’ll let the town go. The real question, most agree, is whether lawmakers in Montpelier will do anything about Killington’s taxes.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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