Local option tax proposed for funding South Burlington arts and recreation centers

SOUTH BURLINGTON — In the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” actor Kevin Costner uttered one of Hollywood’s most famous lines: “If you build it, he will come.”

Costner’s baseball-fan character was referring to constructing a ball diamond for his dead father. Popular culture has since altered the line to “If you build it, they will come.”

The abridged quote seems to be the epithet of the moment for stakeholders spearheading the proposed South Burlington City Center for the Arts and recreation center construction projects.

City of South Burlington

Stakeholders of proposed arts and recreation centers in South Burlington would like non-South Burlingtonians to share some of the financial burdens.

Some of those stakeholders would like non-South Burlingtonians to share some of the financial burdens through an increase in the local option tax.

The multi-million dollar projects are the latest to get attention because of their approach to financing — increasing the city’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent via a local option tax on food, lodging and alcohol.

Officials estimate that the arts center might cost $30 million, while the recreation center might cost $15 million. This means the city could need to raise $45 million, potentially.

City and arts officials have suggested that the tax could be sunset, or ended, after the project is completed. But some experts are skeptical.

“We have a local option tax of one percent now; it does not have a sunset provision,” South Burlington City Manager Kevin Dorn told TNR.

Dorn, who served as a commerce cabinet official in the administration of Gov. Jim Douglas, stressed that increasing the sales tax by even one percent will be an idea ultimately decided by voters on Town Meeting Day, which will be held around the state on Tuesday, March 5.

“This initiative is really project driven. The South Burlington Recreation and Parks Committee has been working for many years to promote the construction of an indoor recreation facility in South Burlington, and what the City Council will consider is the committee’s recommendation,” Dorn said.

According to Dorn, the South Burlington City Center for the Arts Committee has been working for over two years on a proposal to construct a Creative Arts Center that is designed to fill a significant gap in the arts infrastructure in the region and state.

The option tax wouldn’t be the only vehicle by which the centers would be funded, Dorn stressed.

“We expect a robust effort at private fundraising to support both projects,” he said. “There is already a foundation in place to support fundraising for the proposed recreation facility. Grants and further support from the state will also be pursued.”

The exact cost of construction hasn’t been determined yet, but Dorn has noted that the arts center has been thought of costing upwards of $30 million.

The method of potentially funding these projects through an additional one percent on the local option tax is the joint proposal from the two committees and staff, according to Dorn. This funding mechanism would be accomplished through an amendment to the city charter that would first need to be approved by the City Council, then the voters, and finally the Vermont Legislature. It will be up to those groups to determine if the increase is a good idea from the taxpayers perspective.

The most immediate issue for the South Burlington City Council and voters is going to be the question of increasing the local option tax.

“If approved, the votes on actually incurring debt on the individual projects will not come until a later date,” Dorn said. “So, initially consideration will be on the funding source, and consideration of actually authorizing debt for the projects would come later this year or next.”

Other officials aren’t so sure of the wisdom of an option tax.

Option taxes: Nickel and diming

State Sen. Chris Pearson of South Burlington’s Chittenden County district, despite being a pro-tax Progressive/Democrat, isn’t exactly jumping on board for a new sales tax to fund the projects.

“I am not a big fan of sales taxes in general because of their regressive nature,” Pearson told TNR. “Local voters are the entity that will have to decide if they like this approach.”

State of Vermont

Sen. Ginny Lyons: “Is an option tax a good thing or bad thing? Well, it’s hard to say. But municipalities such as South Burlington have the authority to do this — that is, raise the sales tax.”

Sen. Ginny Lyons, another Chittenden County Democrat, also has mixed feelings about option taxes. However, she thinks if presented openly and clearly, South Burlington voters would likely approve it.

“The local option tax originated when school funding changed and took much of the benefit from having development and put that money into the education property tax,” she said. “At that time, I was chair of the Selectboard in Williston. The town had been somewhat undercut. … We lost a great deal of money to the state. We were one of Vermont’s so-called Gold Towns. We were given the option tax to help us fulfill the benefit from having development.”

Lyons said that towns with strong economies based on either welcoming tourists or out-of-town shoppers (or both) — such as Burlington, South Burlington and Williston — stand the most to benefit from option taxes, but there are some cautions.

“Is an option tax a good thing or bad thing? Well, it’s hard to say,” Lyons said. “But municipalities such as South Burlington have the authority to do this — that is, raise the sales tax. But before they raise it a whole percent, I would think they would want to have the voters fully informed with some kind of public process. Any approval should absolutely include the sunset. I think South Burlington understands where it is with its bond debt. This may be one option for them, but the sunset should be included. That’s my opinion. If it’s a vote on the floor on Town Meeting Day that could be dicey, but Australian ballot the next day would surely follow.”

Lyons added that the state will benefit from the proposed South Burlington construction by getting 70 percent of the revenue. However, voters might “start to get concerned about what they’re paying.”

Vermont Department of Taxes business analyst Douglas Farnham said he’s seeing more option taxes being discussed in Vermont. The tax originated under Act 60.

“Gold Towns can vote-in option taxes on their own, but other towns have to vote on the charter and have the legislature approve it,” he said. “The big difference are the Gold Towns, like South Burlington; they can legally do it on their own.”

However, when it comes to tax-related sunset promises, he’s somewhat skeptical.

“I tend to see sunsets as not happening,” Farnham added. “When it comes to taxes, new revenue streams are difficult to give up. But the South Burlington example may be more likely happen although it’s more complicated. You’d end up having South Burlington going back to the legislature to extend it.”

Tim Barden

Tim Barden: “What we’re trying to do is create an opportunity for many organizations to participate in the use of this space. We can catch the wind that’s at our back right now; we have a potential location for the center.”

Filling a need 

The idea of having non-South Burlington residents help share the cost of an arts center — in particular, by paying additional sales tax — stems from the idea that South Burlington’s proposed 500- to 600-seat arts facility likely will attract audiences from around Chittenden County. It will fill a need, supporters claim, between Burlington’s 1,400-seat Flynn Center for the Performing Arts and other smaller regional theaters.

The idea of building an arts center in South Burlington began with Tim Barden, a performing arts photographer as well as a theater and information technology educator.

Barden envisions the proposed arts center as a key addition to regional community infrastructure.

He told TNR that a study by Don Hirsch Design Studio consultants of Montpelier shows the proposed arts center will attract young and old with its planned 21st century high tech and new media approach to arts venues.

“What we’re trying to do is create an opportunity for many organizations to participate in the use of this space,” Barden said. “We can catch the wind that’s at our back right now; we have a potential location for the center.

“Getting all this on the March Town Meeting ballot would be preferential, but do we get there? If we don’t this March, it will delay things by a year. In the end, however, everyone involved sees this as a net benefit to the city center. But the voters may not feel that way. The City Council has questions. That’s why we’re working hard to figure what the right approach should be.”

Art Woolf

UVM professor of economics Art Woolf

In the end, the laws of economics will determine whether arts and recreation centers can be built using option taxes and grants, and then be marketed and sustained by long-term patronage.

On the subject of South Burlington’s proposed arts and rec centers, University of Vermont economics professor Art Woolf tends to look beyond the lure of stage lights and high-end fitness equipment.

“The question of an option tax will come down to whether the townspeople want this and what the impact will be,” he said. “It will make shopping in South Burlington a little less competitive than elsewhere.

“In Chittenden County the three main shopping areas are Burlington, South Burlington and Williston. In South Burlington it’s the University Mall, which isn’t doing all that well at the moment. … So, will an option tax discourage people from shopping in South Burlington? Maybe it will have the opposite effect and encourage Burlington and Williston to add another penny to their option tax.”

Lou Varricchio is a freelance reporter for True North Reports. Send him news tips at lvinvt@gmx.com.

Images courtesy of city of South Burlington, City of South Burlington, state of Vermont, Tim Barden and Art Woolf
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19 thoughts on “Local option tax proposed for funding South Burlington arts and recreation centers

  1. If you think this is bad – please, Mr. Varricchio, investigate and report the story about what is happening in Burlington. Burlington City Arts Director, Doreen Kraft, Weinberger and the Council are engaged in an outrageous pack of lies. And, Kraft’s husband is the planner. Ethics anyone?

    They want to take the trees down in City Hall Park to create an art venue – at great expense. I think a few million. It’s absurd. The city has neglected the park and now they want to spend millions to hide their neglect.

    A group of people are trying to get the issue on the March ballot. Something the mayor hates – listening to the taxpayers. He his, as usual, very comfortable lying about the process. They have collected the 2000 sigs necessary to put it on the ballot. He put it out on Front Porch Forum that they did not have the signatures to get it on the ballot. Yesterday they presented well, well, well over the needed sigs.

    It was reported on the news this morning that the mayor is telling the council to stay the course – not to put it on the ballot.

    The mayor just wants his name on another project in the city that he can take credit for when he runs for his next office. What the residents want is of no concern to him.

    Stay tuned, you will soon be hearing his pack of lies when he sets about manipulating voters.

    • If you follow any committee across the state, town or in the state house, this is the common thread, nobody wants any input. they do a window dressing of asking people in but rarely if ever have I seen them modify anything. The committee seems to always poll their friends and lobbyists and behold they all agree.

      We’ve had similar things here in the Mad River Valley and Waitsfield. They have so divided and discouraged everyone from getting involved at this point. Now they want the to do a LOT tax here, and give out grant money from the collected tax to ideas they like. It’s all insider trading, we as towns people won’t have any new things to vote on, it will all be decided by those issuing the grants.

      We’ve really lost our way

    • petemo: “truly a socialist state within a country” – hyperbole.

      You misuse the word socialism – there isn’t truly a socialist state or country in the world. Yes, some countries’ taxes seem astronomical but, all countries are both socialist and private.

      Taxes are necessary in a civilized state and country. The amount, now that is another story.

  2. We want an arts center so we’re going to let you pay for it…..no….if you want an arts center….you pay for it!

    For once people! Get your hands out of my pocket!

    • As much as I Hate to use Amazon, not lot tax will save me money, along with thousands of other Vermonters. As it is they seem to always get my sugar free tea taxed 1/2 the time, price wrong, etc, etc.

  3. “I am not a big fan of sales taxes in general because of their regressive nature,” Pearson told TNR.

    I am going to hold Pearson to this statement. Actually, we all should.

  4. Local option tax proposed for funding South Burlington,not to mention the purposed 5 % tax on rental vehicles.

    • Yep, and that makes car repairs MORE expensive when you need to rent a car while your car is being fixed because it failed the inspection.

  5. How about funding this through private donations? If the folks want it badly enough, I’m quite sure they will be happy to contribute to the worthy cause. But never happen. The folks who most probably will not use this facility will end up paying for it.

  6. Raise all the money for anything in Chittenden County. Tax the hell out of them. They have the money being Gold towns. But what will actually happen with all the Legislative people in that county (6 Senators & 35 Reps) they will find a way to have the peopke in VT pay for their dream. Taxes always increase, NEVER gets reduced.

    On the other hand, if taxes become so affordable there, those Libs might face reality and have to move out. I see Liberalism written all over the faces of those posted herein. Not true Vermonters.

    • Sorry for the typo, my laptop changed “unaffordanble” to “affordable”.

      Art centers are very popular in VT, That’s the liberal way, don’t support technology. In Townshend they have a $2.6 million in that small town. I told them (local Libs) why not a Technical Center wherein kids could learn about the trades and have skills for life and a life long livelihood endeavor They said “we need an Arts place, if kids want to learn a trade, go to Brattleboro” (26 miles away)..That Arts Center actually costs far more than $2.5M. Staffing, maintenance, heating, materials, electricity, etc adds to the bill each year. Property taxes paid for it, and they are high, driving people out. It’s part of the school system. Yup, an arts kid has learned a lot doing plays like “Mid Summer Night Dream” instead of learning how to survive later in life. Kids are leaving anyways because the parents can’t afford the taxes. No common sense.

      That Arts Center in SB might become a drug rehab center as well.

      • that’s a great idea, technical centers make so much sense, they can make practical art, really really a wonderful idea. Welding, plumbing, machine tools, fabulous idea.

      • Tom, if we can’t structure our project so it will result in a positive return on investment for South Burlington and Vermont, it shouldn’t move forward. How we measure the return is critical, however. If our project contributes in a real, measurable way to reduce the per-capita tax burden by increasing overall commercial activity and growing the population base, we’ll have done our part of the job.

        Your comments suggesting that, because we are trying to build a creative arts center, we’re somehow against technology or trades education couldn’t be much further from the truth. Our board is filled with a mixture of creative artists, small business owners, traditional and nontraditional educators and a bunch of us who have had a wide variety of careers in technology. Core skills our education programs will address are 21st Century “must-have’s” in order to be competitive. Communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity, the 4 C’s without which STEM students will be much less effective in their careers. Our “Theater in the Cloud” will need many technology workers and provide many opportunities for technology training.

        Finally, you seem to think that all art projects like ours are driven by liberals I’ll point out that one of the most tireless and generous supporters of the arts in the U.S. is Libertarian turned Republican David H. Koch. So, it’s probably more accurate to say that many arts organizations are driven by wealthy philanthropists. If I find one interested in our project, I won’t ask what party they belong to.

  7. Another regressive tax imposed by the left… but they’re for the poor . What a joke these folks are!

      • You can use better analysis, not name calling. Mr Jorgensen certainly has a different point of view as we all do. I appreciate his comments, and with other comments and articles that compose(s) a mental picture of events that really bother people. I’ll categorize people that are out to control the populace through actual happenings and that affects Vermont as many of us do. Please keep one liners under the sheets.

  8. Thanks for your report, Lou.

    At the city council meeting last night (1-14), it was mentioned that other towns are considering an increase in the local option tax as well. Are people really going to support an 8% sales tax? I sure hope not. But voter turnout favors the motivated.

    The local option tax was sold to South Burlington in 2007 as a way to keep property taxes down with other people’s money. But as the legislature has expanded what is subject to sales tax and more shopping has moved online, that logic has backfired. I’m sure residents pay most of the bill now. Why, just this month I noticed my Amazon Prime membership fee, movie rental charges, diet iced tea, grocery store bagels, and TurboTax download were all subject to sales tax!

    I was also surprised to read in the South Burlington city paper this week that a local option tax increase is being considered because the municipal property tax is going way up and the school budget is expected to go up as well. God save us.

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