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By John Hilferty
The Moretown Community Survey of what residents like about their community and what they feel is needed in their town is a loud wake-up call for Vermont's power structure, from the local small-town level to the halls of the State House in Montpelier.
Residents in Moretown, through the survey completed in November, have shouted aloud that something has to be done about crippling taxes and that the best way to do that is more business development.
The message runs counter to Vermont's anti-business attitude, with the realization that Vermont as a state cannot continue to depend on a tax base that consists chiefly of small farms and businesses, homes and out-of-state tourists. The most significant barometer of the continuing failure of that driving force is the shrinking number of youngsters enrolled in our elementary and high schools.
According to the annual Town Reports, in the past 10 years, enrollment at Moretown Elementary School has dropped about 18 percent, significantly worse than the state average shrinkage of 10.5 percent.
These are minutes from the November school board meeting:
Student enrollment has dropped steadily over last five years. Student head count projection for FY15 is expected to be less than this year.
Harwood is experiencing an enrollment decrease, which will also impact Moretown's school rate.
Why are these numbers so disturbing? A respondent to the survey perhaps answered correctly, citing the "decline in younger families moving here." The majority of the survey's respondents opined that the deficits can be turned around by an influx of local, new businesses or companies, creating jobs and lowering taxes on families.
While pupil population shrinks, school spending keeps increasing. Despite these warning signs, we zealously cling to a myth that anyone suggesting an increase in the pupil-teacher ratio – which as of June 30, 2012, stood at one teacher for every 10.4 students, compared to the U.S. average of 14 pupils (source: World Bank) – somehow hates children. And how many of us have a desire to join the debate about consolidating school districts to improve efficiency and lower costs?
Some respondents to the survey praised Moretown for its sense of community but also complained about low voter participation: "A few loud voices influence/make all our decisions." Indeed, there were only 155 responses to the Community Survey itself, less than 10 percent of the town's 1,653 population (2010). That could be symptomatic of one-party dominance, which succeeds in maintaining power through low voter turnout: Only 151 persons bothered to vote in the election to approve the new town office and 330 took part in the vote for a school budget this past March.
Moretown has gone through a tough year. Losing the revenue from the closed landfill has obviously heightened awareness of how valuable commercial property is for the town's fiscal health. An overwhelming number of residents sampled favor re-opening the landfill.
Moretown has an edge in potential business development over most Vermont communities because of its open space and favorable location, with ideal transportation for not just commuters but the movement of goods. I-89 and Amtrak connecting to the East Coast and beyond, plus an international airport a half hour away, would benefit development and the jobs they create.
Before somebody says I am urging a return to smoky mills and factories, I cite neighboring and most liberal Massachusetts, which has embraced clean, high-tech companies through lower taxes and highly trained employees from an educational system that cannot be much too much higher in excellence than the very good colleges and universities in Vermont. And have you seen the TV commercials where neighboring New York state is offering tax-free incentives for new businesses?
Survey respondents noted also that Moretown is amazingly bereft of commercial services like restaurants and retail shops, especially since the town is a gateway to the Mad River Valley's resorts. Can this be due to restrictive regulations and zoning encouraged by our NIMBY presence?
According to the survey, a majority of residents want this overzealous protection of the landscape to change a little. But it will never happen as long as the power structure in the state Legislature is under the dominance of one party, where debate is minimized and disagreement is flattened from the get-go.
In Vermont, the priorities set forth by the state are to give government the power to protect the earth and care for the poor. Without a proper and balanced tax base, these are noble programs built with troublesome consequences. "Fear of growth will keep us poor," wrote one respondent.
Vermont's policies are so firmly fixed in place they almost guarantee annual increases in poverty, dragging the middle class down to a level where very few future generations of young people will go to college, buy a home or own a new car. They will be paying off grandpa's debts.
As pointed out by the nonpartisan, independent news site vtdigger.org, yearly income in 2012 in Vermont was about $1,000 lower than in 2011. Without a change in policy favoring jobs through business development, those numbers will get worse. (Jobs at IBM, the state's largest private employer, fell from a peak of 8,000 in 1982 to 5,000 in 2011.)
Vermont is one of the most beautiful places to live on earth, a fantastic place to raise children. Yet, because of a deficit in jobs, young families are either leaving or declining to live here. These conditions telegraph that perhaps it is time for legislators and other elected officials to begin thinking about changing the face of the tax and development structure in Vermont. Judging from the Moretown survey, their taxpaying constituents are way ahead of them.
Hilferty lives in Moretown.