Public asking harder questions

  • Published in News

The questions for proponents of a local option tax for the towns in the Mad River Valley are getting much more specific and detail-oriented.

At least that was the case on January 31 at a public meeting in Fayston when members of a subcommittee of the Mad River Valley Planning District’s steering committee presented the Mad River Valley – Funding Local Opportunities (MRV-FLO) proposal.

The proposal calls for the member towns of the planning district to vote to adopt a charter that enacts a 1 percent tax on rooms, meals, alcohol and retails sales in Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston, raising about $1 million, of which $700,000 would be retained and managed locally for community projects.

DETAILS EVOLVING

Although specific details of the funding priorities are evolving as the subcommittee takes its presentation from town to town, the current thinking is that funds would be used for community projects including workforce housing and transportation, recreation, destination marketing as well as administration and a reserve fund.

The funds would be managed by a commission working under the planning district. That commission would include two representatives per town, one elected and the other appointed by the select board. Communities and municipal groups would submit applications for grants from the commission, which would hold public hearings to consider them.

PEPPERED WITH QUESTIONS

At last week’s meeting, which was attended by people from all three towns, the subcommittee members were peppered with questions about specific details of the application process, the definition of affordable or workforce housing, the details of spending priorities and how those could or would adapt and many others.

The fact that the state of Vermont collects rooms and meals tax on Airbnb rentals due to a deal struck two years ago was raised. Under that deal Airbnb makes its payments to the state of Vermont with its hosts anonymized, which means that the extra 1 percent that is collected from towns with LOTs is retained by the state. Some of those present at last week’s meeting were irked by that and irked that funds spent on destination marketing could bring in more Airbnb visitors from whom The Valley would not collect the extra tax.

Jared Cadwell, Fayston Select Board chair and member of the MRV-FLO subcommittee, explained that that state legislators and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns were well aware of that shortcoming. Peter MacLaren, the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce representative to the MRV-FLO subcommittee, explained that there were very concerted efforts to address that when the state renegotiates with Airbnb.

TARGETED SPENDING

Those present asked very detailed questions about targeted spending priorities among the areas identified and asked how those decisions were made and how they could change over time. They asked for a five-year strategic plan, similar to a forest management plan in which members of the public could participate in creating.

Members of the MRV-FLO subcommittee explained the iterative process they’d gone through to arrive at some general priorities – including endowing a Mad River Valley Housing Coalition with $350,000 a year, spending $170,000 on recreation, $100,000 on destination marketing and $40,000 on public transportation.

Bob Ackland, Warren Select Board member and MRV-FLO subcommittee member, noted that based on 2015 data, the recreation trails at Blueberry Lake added $1.8 million to The Valley’s economy. He said that if destination marketing could smooth out the peaks and valleys of tourism in The Valley by bringing 300 more people per day, it could add $8.5 million to the local economy.

There were questions about whether Waitsfield is going to pursue its own LOT. Darryl Forrest, a member of the Waitsfield Select Board and the subcommittee, said that the town had taken no direct action toward that, but that the town had reviewed a proposal to create a three-town LOT via a memorandum of understanding between the three towns rather than a planning district charter.