by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 14, 2005
A GORILLA WITH A FLASHLIGHT
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Every year when the property tax bill comes in the mail, I'm forced to wonder how much longer I'll be able to keep my home.
Living in Dummerston is looking more and more like a luxury. Not a luxury as in "my beautiful home in the mountains," but as in, "I may soon have to move into an empty box car down by the railroad tracks."
In 2000-01, my property tax was $2,146.76 - and that was high! Today it's $2,812.18. That's a $665.42 increase for pretty much the same level of town and school services.
Coming up with an extra $332.71 twice a year might not seem like much, but it's not as if the property tax is the only thing going up. As the price of crude oil rises, just about everything from food to heating oil is increasing right along with it.
Hasn't my income also increased? You're joking, right?
In Vermont, we brag that our Town Meetings are the last pure bastion of democracy in America, and our town and school budgets are directly in the voters' hands. But anyone who goes to Town Meeting every year knows that's a bunch of hog swill.
Each year, my Town Meeting is presented with an escalating school budget over which we, the voters, have absolutely no control. The school-aged population is diminishing while the costs are rising. We're paying more money to educate fewer children.
Why? The cost of health insurance alone, for staff and educators, threatens many older residents with the loss of their homes. And some of those older residents, I might add, can't afford health insurance for themselves. Then there's special education - the biggest and most brutal unfunded government mandate of them all. Add in rising fuel costs and we're all on the way to living in tents.
Usually my Town Meeting passes the school budget without discussion because we have to - for the kids - and then we spend an hour arguing about a $300 tax deduction for the local summer camp because we're so frustrated, angry and scared.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Dummerston has 1,915 people (796 households and 543 families). Between us, we are shouldering a school budget of $4.1 million and a town budget of just under $1 million. That's a huge burden for a small town.
Given the current state of affairs in the country today, you could call Dummerston a well-to-do town. The median household income is $46,121, while the median family income is $53,375. Only 2.7 percent of people under 18 and 6.5 percent of people 65 or older are living below the poverty line.
On the surface then, Dummerston's statistics look, well, median. But that's not "median in the sense that we're about average," but "median in the sense that we're all sinking together."
What can we do? First, we need to bite the bullet and detach school funding from property values. We're not in the Middle Ages anymore, folks, where wealth was measured by the land you owned. We're an income-driven society now, and our taxes should reflect that. "Land rich and cash poor" is no longer a joke.
Second, we need some form of universal health insurance - stat! Even if we only set up a single-payer system, it will dramatically cut the administration costs, and thus all the costs, of health care.
Third, let people retire their property taxes when they retire their 30-year mortgages. Peter Burns, a dean at Goddard College, believes towns should give a tax break to retired people who have raised their children and contributed to the community all their lives. I agree. We don't want these valued volunteers moving away because they can't afford to live here.
Fourth, given the concept of "peak oil" - the idea that the world's oil fields have reached their maximum production and we're sliding towards diminishing capacity - we should reconsider the idea of busing kids to central public schools. Instead, we might want to go back to the old days, where neighborhood one-room schoolhouses dotted the landscape and everyone walked to school.
Is it time for me to start eating Alpo mixed with Hamburger Helper? Not quite. Two days after the property tax bill arrived, so did the prebate check, which fortunately covered the first installment. That leaves me hanging for next January, but it's a big help. No one in the state really understands how the prebate works, but Vermont's property tax is income-sensitive, which makes us far more humane than most of our neighbora.
In the end, the property tax is about emotion. And feelings run high and deep when you're talking about love of home, love of place and love of the life you lead in that home and place. We need to make changes in the way we fund our schools, and we need to make them now.
If we keep the status quo, the light at the end of the tunnel is going to be an angry gorilla holding a flashlight. Or another train, speeding in our direction. Or an angry guerilla. Take your pick.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.