Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Miller, who is a photographer and author who recently published “A Lifetime of Vermont People,” a collection of photos and stories on rural Vermonters created over the past 63 years. He is 82 years old and lives in Colbyville.On March 26, 2014, VTDigger published a commentary I wrote called “Peter Miller: Cold Weather, Hard State.”
I wrote about how cold I am in my century-and-a-half-old home so poorly insulated. I talked about the anxiety that invaded me as my income as a photographer and writer withered. Yes, I am a creative type.
I quoted in that article a number of self-employed Vermonters who do not have enough income to survive in the new Vermont of high taxes and fees; energy and real estate. What is really scary is that the banks do not like to extend credit to my people even if they have solid real estate assets. “We no longer have any lifeline,” commented a friend. He was also saying that few legislators and their attendant lobbyists forage for Vermonters who have a get-by income and few salable assets.
I too am Vermont broke. I finally realized that my old house is more of a liability than an asset. My Waterbury home is appraised at $303,000. Pall Spera, a realtor and friend helping me, said that after deducting the cost of the land, the house has a value of $213,000. Take off another $91,000 for the mortgage and then $40,000 to insulate the house, replace old windows, restore the rotting cellar sills and cleanse the attic of asbestos, and my is worth an estimated $82,000 — not enough to put a roof over my head. Sell and run, he advised me. Whoever buys it will probably tear down my home. Pall felt my property was overvalued by $50,000. Yes, the house is a sinkhole and costs me $14,800 a year to maintain.
So against all sorts of advice from friends and family, I opened an Airbnb. I folded my photo gallery into one room and created four bedrooms. I put rugs on the floor, beds, period furniture, and did the cosmetics and put in a kitchen sink and counter. On the wall hang my photos of Vermont and France.
In 2015 the Airbnb grossed $11,874. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my costs of living in Vermont. No, I do not like being a chambermaid, but this is survival.
2016 began with a bang of a disaster. Starting in January my cash flow — my sales of intellectual property (remember I am a writer and photographer) dropped drastically. The pipe to my bank account was mangled, crushed, and only a dribble came through. Who needs to buy art when they can’t pay their property taxes, or heating and electricity bills?
At first I thought it was the winter of no snow and the cancellations of reservations. My out-of-state photography sales dropped right along with in-state sales. People are cutting all expenses. There seems to be a cautionary fear in America — fear of the impending election?
I slashed my costs. I canceled my cable TV. I stopped driving around the state taking photographs. What had happened, in photography, is that the digital revolution made every American who created one good photo out of a thousand would often put that on social media where the photo agencies cherry-picked the best and then leased them at a high profit. The photo agencies I used, which were worldwide, lowered their commissions to photographers from 60 percent to 30 to 35 percent, and sometimes lower. They changed their business plan; instead of charging $500 to $1,200 for usage, they dropped the price to single and double digits for royalty free (use it any way you want to), thinking there is much more profit in leasing 20 million images for a few bucks rather than, say, half million at a much higher price.
I am selling my panoramic camera and lenses, darn it, and I have my old, tiny Airstream trailer — I called it my escape camper — to sell. I also am negotiating to sell my archive of photographs that I began in 1950.
I had backup photo agencies in various countries that were small. Guess what — my small agencies were bought by a bigger agency who often closed them and the income was lost, and sometimes the images too. So my backup disappeared and so did many of my transparencies. This harsh global system of distributing photographs was initiated by Getty Images. They broke the back of the American professional photographer.
Add Vermont cost of living to my plummeting cash flow. As the income in my bank dwindled, I canceled newspaper and magazine subscriptions. I kept my political contributions to the minimum, but now there is no expendable money to give to those running for state offices. I joined the Food Shelf, run in Waterbury by 18 wonderful volunteers and that supplies me with milk, juice, eggs, cheese, butter and canned soup and vegetables, and a few other goodies. I have to be careful because they have boxes of refined food not good for an 82-year-old who weighs too much. All of the Food Shelf goodies come from local donations, supermarkets and some foundations. The state does not participate. I also had a designer create a new website to sell my images as artwork. He traded his time and experience for photographs (as did my dentist).
The state sales tax people are spreading through Vermont auditing companies to come up with additional money so that the state can maintain its status quo. Due to a heart attack, I was late with a sales tax payment (and couldn’t get through their Internet system of verifying who you are and reading their many warning letters). I received a statement from out-of-state lawyers saying they were going to assess me $7,000 in penalties for nonpayment; I called the sales tax people and was told they would never charge me that if I filed. “Oh,” I said, “you are intimidating me?”
I finally squared it away. The payment for the one quarter was under $80, although I have heard of them freezing assets of people to collect what they considered was theirs, in one case more than $300,000. We have a Legislature controlled for too long by Democrats. Too many in the Senate and House have moved to Vermont from other states and have not adapted or have a trust fund or the income to spend four months in Montpelier passing bills. They are levying more taxes and fees that the average Vermonter can’t afford. I am, like other artists, knocking down the price of my art. We just want to get by in this new climate but we are beginning to think that our government would like to replace us.
I rarely leave my home, trapped you might say by not having enough income, not even to pay for my property taxes (at the last moment my credit union came through with a car loan for me to pay the first installment). I can look back and see that I have made mistakes being a photographer and writer, that I self-published my award-winning books about Vermont but never paid myself, that sometimes I tried too hard to help others. I was thinking of leaving Vermont to live in a less-expensive state but many emailed me and said I couldn’t because I am a Vermont treasure? I thought about that and in a way it is true. My calling is to document the culture of Vermont during my lifetime. As John Wayne said, “ A man has got to do what a man has to do.” (Apologies for all the determined women in this world.)
So to raise tax money, I will be selling my latest book, “A Lifetime of Vermont People,” at a discount on Facebook and on my blog. I will receive a homestead rebate on my property tax but my bookkeeper and accountant didn’t connect and I won’t get any return until the fall. I am selling my panoramic camera and lenses, darn it, and I have my old, tiny Airstream trailer — I called it my escape camper — to sell. I also am negotiating to sell my archive of photographs that I began in 1950.
But when you are at the bottom of the ladder what do you do to climb a few rungs?
After all the comments on the Digger article (“Cold Weather, Hard State”) and “A Lifetime of Vermont People” was published, people stopped in or emailed me because they had read my essay of change during the time I have been taking photographs, and were not too happy as our state shifted away from the essence of the Vermont Way. I finally realized that an interesting book was banging in my head, demanding to be set free. Let the Vermonters talk about their existence in this state, which is being taken over by a new culture, brought to Vermont by the people moving up on Interstate 89 and 91. (In April of this year Forbes published an article with the headline “Tax Happy Vermont Becoming A State Where Only The Rich Can Afford To Live.”)
I call my new book project “The Vanishing Vermonter … An Endangered Species” or maybe the subhead should be, “The Loss of a Rural Culture.” What do you think?
So far I have taped and photographed nine Vermonters, as they talk about what has been lost or gained, at least to them. I hope to have 20 profiles with portraits and a few essays. I will include images of Vermont.
Vermont is a bellwether state. Our canary in the cage is gasping, our lead sheep is bleating. The hope and pride of my people has become fragile.