Williston Passes Local 1% Sales Tax

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(Host) The business of every town meeting includes taxes and budgets. But in Williston, a new tax issue took center stage Monday night as voters overwhelmingly approved a 1% retail sales tax. A similar measure was defeated in 1999. But this time residents saw the new sales tax as a way to raise revenues and lower their own property taxes.

VPR’s John Dillon was there.

(Sound of noise from the gathered crowd.)

(Dillon) With 7,600 residents, Williston is the fastest growing town in Vermont. There are new subdivisions around every corner and a conglomeration of large chain stores has sprung up near the interstate exit. But voters in Williston still decide issues the old way: in person at town meeting.

The only problem was that the sales tax issue was so big and turnout so great, that two rooms were needed at Williston Central School to handle the overflow crowd.

The moderator convened the main meeting in the auditorium. The rest of the 1,000 or so voters crowded into the gym. A closed-circuit television camera was supposed to provide a seamless link. But technology temporarily failed.

(Moderator) “We’re going to pause the meeting here for a moment. They’re having trouble with the audio and video in the other room.”

(Dillon) After a time-out to fix the technical glitches, Moderator Tony Lamb launched the debate on the tax issue:

(Lamb) “So the motion on the floor is to advance the 1 cent sales tax article to next and to limit debate as described¿.”

(Dillon) Resident Michael Harris spoke for the tax increase. He said the tax would fall on shoppers, many of whom are drawn to the large national stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Utilities, including phone and electric service, would not be subject to the local tax.

The Act 60 school funding law allows the town to impose the tax, but it must send 30 % of the money collected to the state. Harris said that even with the state’s cut, the tax is expected to raise about $2 million a year for the town:

(Harris) “The businesses in Williston do not pay the tax. As I said, the shoppers using their stores would. But the business owners would be responsible to collect the tax.”

(Dillon) Those who argued against the tax said it would hurt local businesses and would not address the real cause of rising school budgets. Steve Edwards told voters Act 60 has to be fixed. And he said raising local sales taxes was only a temporary solution:

(Edwards) “This thing only goes until 2004. I really feel that by doing this, all we’re doing is putting a Band-Aid on cancer. We’ve got a problem, we’ve got to face it. We need to change Act 60. Let’s change Act 60…. (applause) Let’s deal with that issue.”

(Dillon) Williston is a “sending town” under Act 60. And the town’s payments to the state are expected to jump 84% from last year. It’s clear that there weren’t many Act 60 fans in the room. But residents seemed to see the sales tax as a way to lower their overall tax bill.

Resident Glenn Goldman said people were dreaming if they thought the state would reject Act 60 to help towns like Williston:

(Goldman) “If you think our state is going to overturn Act 60 ¿ (sound of applause) you should just move to another state…. Right now we are paying for all of them. They criticize our town for all the development and they take all our money. It’s about time they paid for a little bit of it while they criticize us and take that money away.”

(Dillon) In the end, the vote wasn’t even close. Someone from the floor called for paper ballots and moderator Lamb told them how it would be done:

(Lamb) “We don’t want a mob scene. It’s gonna be like communion¿. Now those of you who don’t take communion¿(laughter). C’mon down, let’s go!”

(Dillon) Williston voters decided 841 to 153 in favor of the new 1% sales tax. Williston and Manchester are the only towns with a local sales tax as allowed by Act 60.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Williston.

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