Impact of local option tax questioned
DOVER - Economic development director Steve Neratko held his monthly economic development meeting on Tuesday night. Following discussions about a new town website and a town newsletter, resident and business owner Rich Werner questioned how beneficial the town’s economic development funds, which are raised through a 1% local option sales tax and are earmarked for economic development, have been to the town’s economy. He urged the town to find a way to evaluate the impact the funds have had.
After Adam Levine suggested that some of the content in a proposed town newsletter focus on how taxpayers would like to see 1% funds used for economic development, the discussion took a turn to the topic of 1% funds and how they’re used. Inn owner Royal Wilson said she’d like to see some follow-up on the part of the selectboard about past proposed 1%-funded projects, including a community center with a public pool.
Some debate about the merits of a public pool broke out, which eventually Werner interrupted, saying the group was talking about generalities and issues that couldn’t be resolved within the meeting. He went on to say that he thought economic zoning, the overall impact of 1% funds in the town, and the use of the funds needed to be studied.
“One percent was never meant for economic development,” said Werner. “The 1%, if you look at the law, was to help municipalities adversely affected by Act 60, to help offset taxes on the municipal side, because our school taxes were going to go through the roof. At that time, the school board and selectboard said we’re doing very well. Then we were blessed with Act 68 and things got bad. Several years later I brought it up to the selectboard, we had a little discussion at pre-Town Meeting, and then a lot of business owners said ‘that’s my tax dollars, and we want it for economic development.’ And that was fine; you’re allowed to do that in the law.”
However, Werner said, he wanted to know the impact the funds have had on the economy. “We’ve been doing it for several years, we’ve spent piles of money, and I don’t know if the economy is better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago when we started this. Shouldn’t we do that study?”
Neratko said the influx of 1% funds has remained somewhat even, despite it being variable from year to year. “It’s been erratic with 1%,” said Neratko. “It goes up and down depending on the year, but over the length of time it has stayed pretty much even.”
“I know that, I can see that,” said Werner. “That’s (Werner’s) point,” said Wilson. “It should be going up.”
“It seems like the money isn’t doing anything,” said Werner. “So even if it doesn’t increase any income for anybody, maybe we should spend it so at least the people who live here are getting a little kick for it. Or reduce our taxes and the people get a little kick for it. We just keep pumping money into it because we think it’s other people paying it, but it’s really us paying it. I eat out in this town several times a week. I’m paying an extra 1%. I’m all-supporting because the better the town does, the easier it is for everybody. But if we’re just dumping this money in and we’ve just stayed the same, then I think we need to take a look at what we’re doing.”
Werner, who has long been the town’s school board chair, said that when he brings a budget to the voters, the request is evaluated against how the money is being used to improve educational outcomes. “If we were doing poorly, the voters wouldn’t necessarily give us the budget we ask for,” said Werner.
Levine said though he agreed that the impact of the funds should be evaluated, he thought looking at the 1% tax influx was too narrow a parameter to evaluate the impact. “Is there more employment in the town? Have wages gone up? There’s been no evaluation. We never followed up on whether or not we’re reaching our objectives.”
Neratko said he would look into how to further study the impact of the funds.
In other news, Neratko showed attendees websites for other towns, noting that he’s gearing up for a redesign of Dover’s website. Werner urged Neratko to consider hiring a web designer locally rather than “farming it out,” which Neratko said he could do through a request for proposals. Neratko and attendees also discussed a newsletter, though there was a lack of consensus about what would be included in the newsletter, what value it might have or who would be its target audience.
Pressed on what the goal of the newsletter was, Neratko said he wasn’t sure. “The newsletter wasn’t my idea,” said Neratko. “I’ve heard from a dozen people in town that they’d like to see one. But I’ve never put one together, and I don’t have experience in this. Maybe we aren’t sure what those people are asking for.”
Later, during the 1% fund debate, as Levine said he felt there had been a lack of evaluation on whether or not the town’s economic objectives were being achieved, he said, “At the end of the day, until we evaluate (our objectives), you don’t even know why you have a website or a newsletter.”
Neratko’s economic development meetings are held on the fourth Tuesday of each month at Dover’s town offices. The next one is scheduled for Tuesday, May 22, at 6:30 pm.