In Vermont, a fire district is a type of municipality formed by voters to administer certain services such as fire protection, water or sewer. Like towns and other municipalities, a fire district is governed and operated in accordance with Title 24 of Vermont Statutes Annotated. But voters can choose their own rules, superseding portions of Title 24, through the adoption of a charter.
The NBFD charter proposal under consideration includes only five subsections and would affect the way the district selects a tax collector and treasurer. Currently, under Title 24, the treasurer and tax collector are elected by voters in the district. The tax collector is compensated by receiving a portion, 8%, of the delinquent taxes that are collected. Under the charter, the two positions would be appointed by the prudential committee, which is like a town selectboard, and they would set the compensation.
Currently, William “Buzzy” Buswell is the elected tax collector for the district, and Rebecca Snow is the elected treasurer. Prudential committee member Tom Ferrazza said the proposed change wasn’t a reflection of any dissatisfaction with the current office holders. “This is nothing against Buzzy, he’s done an incredible job. But there’s no reason to pay a third person to do something we can do in-house and bring the money into the fire district to use to pay bills. In terms of the treasurer, we’re lucky the person we elected has qualifications, but that doesn’t mean we’ll always have someone who’s qualified.”
Buswell called the charter proposal by the prudential committee a “power play for control,” and said that residents of the district would be losing an independent check and balance on the power of the prudential committee. “What you’re proposing here is that you guys are going to decide who is going to go up for tax sale and who isn’t. You’re taking it from an independent position to a political one. I’m not worried about you guys abusing the law, but future boards. And if we look at past boards, we know it happens.”
Buswell offered a recent incident as proof that political decisions may be made by the board. He referred to a recent abatement meeting held to abate the late fees and interest for people who had paid a day late when the due date fell on a Sunday. He said that he and administrator Linda Holland had researched the matter, and agreed that the tax had to be paid by the due date under state statute. “Then holy hell hit the fan and people were bitching and complaining about it, so what does the prudential committee do? Give them back their money. That’s a political decision.”
Prudential committee member Bob Rubin disagreed with Buswell’s characterization. “No, it wasn’t political. It was the fair, right thing to do.”
“We didn’t do anything that violated the (statute),” said Ferrazza.
“I never saw a board move their butts so quickly as they did for that, and because a couple of taxpayers complained.” Buswell also said that capturing the 8% penalty would bring in very little additional cash to the district, particularly in light of additional expenses for correspondence required by law. “I pay for postage, printing, and envelopes,” he said.
Although there were substantial amounts of delinquent taxes that had built up over previous years, Buswell said he had been encouraged to aggressively go after delinquent taxes. Last year he earned $14,000 for his efforts, and $12,000 in the current fiscal year, but he said those numbers would be significantly lower over the next few years. “Right now there’s about $27,000 in taxes owed to North Branch, that’s about ($2,160 in penalties) and you still have to pay for postage, telephone calls, and all the other things that come out of that. There’s no money to be made here, it’s just going to cost the ratepayers more money.”
Ferrazza said the duties of the tax collector and treasurer would likely fall to current employees Holland and Snow, and wouldn’t result in an increase in salaries, and some required documents could be mailed with bills, reducing postage costs. “It’s not a matter of independence. Whether you’re accusing us or not, you’re telling us that we’re not going to be honest, that we’re going to be looking at political considerations rather than the (statute). You did a good job for the fire district, but this isn’t brain surgery.”
Prudential committee member Dan Facilla reiterated that the prudential committee’s recommendation to adopt a charter didn’t have anything to do with Buswell or his job performance. “But not all tax collectors are the same. We can say we think we need to have a tax sale, and the tax collector can say he doesn’t think we need one. Then the money isn’t coming in, and it can sit out there for 10, 15 years. For each dollar that sits out there, we have to raise rates an appropriate amount to compensate. By adopting the charter, we will not be beholden to an outside independent person saying “I don’t want to do this or that.” That’s not good for the fire district.”
As the discussion grew heated, Rubin attempted to rein in tempers. “This is deteriorating into a shouting match,” he said. “If there’s nothing else to add, I think it’s time to close the meeting.”
But Buswell continued, rebutting remarks made by Ferrazza and Facilla. “Tom and Dan say it’s nothing personal, but it is personal,” he said. “My livelihood depends on being the delinquent tax collector. If you take the number of hours, minus the expenses, I make less than minimum wage.”
Voters in the district will have the final decision on the proposed change during Australian balloting on Tuesday, March 25, from 10 am to 7 pm at the North Branch Fire District offices.