Bennington considers local tax and government restructure

James Barlow, a consultant working with the Bennington Charter Review Committee, gave a presentation Wednesday on options for government charter amendments. Photo by Jim Therrien/VTDigger

BENNINGTON — The town Charter Review Committee’s consultant provided an overview of charter options Wednesday that touched on two key issues under consideration.

The idea of switching Bennington from a manager/select board form of government to a mayoral format and a proposed 1 percent local option tax are among issues still to be reviewed by the seven-member committee, which began meeting weekly in July.

Consultant James Barlow outlined the several mayoral form options that the nine Vermont cities have adopted, including a mayor that also acts as a government manager (as in Rutland), and others in which there is also a city manager and the mayor fills more of a ceremonial role.

During the presentation at the Bennington Firehouse, Barlow said there are a number of options for a mayor, including both “strong” and “weak” mayor formats, largely depending on the extent of authority to appoint employees and oversee budgets.

In response to questions, Barlow added that some type of part-time mayor who could represent Bennington but not have managerial authority is possible, as is a formal designation of the select board chairman for such a role.

However, the type of mayoral format that has been considered at least twice in the past — each time rejected in townwide votes — was to replace the manager position with a mayor/manager position.

Petition drive mounted

In fact, Mike Bethel, long a supporter of such a change, said during the meeting that he is mounting a petition drive to place that charter amendment option before voters. He produced a ballot question to that effect, which he said was drawn up by attorney Paul Gillies, aiming for a town vote in March.

Bethel said he believes the vote would be binding, but certain details, such as the length of term for the mayor, might require further charter amendments, and implementation also would require a second annual town meeting vote.

He said Thursday that he already has close to half the approximately 500 signatures needed to place a question on the ballot.

The charter review committee had decided to postpone discussion of a mayoral format and the town manager position until after Barlow had given his presentation. The committee has been meeting Wednesdays at 11:45 a.m. at the town offices on South Street and is encouraging input from residents during meetings and through a comment box on the committee’s page on the town website.

That webpage also includes information on the review process thus far, committee meeting minutes and agendas; it also includes copy of the current charter and Powerpoint presentations by Barlow.

Local option tax

Concerning a proposed local option tax, officials believe it could bring in about $1 million in additional tax revenue, with a portion going to the state. It could be imposed as an addition to the state sales tax and/or to rooms, meals and liquor taxes.

Asked if the option tax revenue could be designated for a specific expense, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said he believes that could be done through use of a reserve fund added to annually.

Bethel suggested putting forth the option tax and other changes for the March 2018 annual town meeting while allowing further consideration of other issues if necessary for a later vote.

Sean-Marie Oller, co-chairwoman of the review committee, said she would like to see all of the suggested charter changes included in a report to the Select Board — preferably in time for the March ballot — without singling out any issue as more important.

Hurd said that since the Select Board will ultimately decide which, if any, proposed amendments to submit to voters, they could decide to hold out some issues for more consideration.

As to whether the amendments will be submitted to voters as a single package or by section, Select Board Chairman Thomas Jacobs said they “most likely will be voted on in sections.”

The final step, Barlow said, would be submission to the Legislature and governor for approval, as charter changes are considered amendments to state law. Basically, he said, state law is considered to be in effect unless a local charter provision specifically differs, in which case the town charter (assuming prior approval by the state) takes precedence.

Oller said the charter group intends to add detail in its report about every change in language or substance that it will recommend to the Select Board, including notes on discussions that led to the change.

Currently, Barlow noted, Bennington is one of 54 Vermont communities with a municipal manager format, in which the manager is hired by the select board but then typically has authority over hiring of employees and oversees the budget after it is adopted.

That contrasts with the more than 175 towns that have a more typical government format, in which the select board “acts more like the operators of a small business,” Barlow said.

Under the municipal manager format, he added, the board is more “like a corporate board” of directors overseeing a type of CEO in the manager.

Barlow also referred to the format used by most of the smaller towns like Pownal, Shaftsbury, Arlington and others in the county, principally noting that the government includes up to 16 independently elected officials — such as the town clerk, treasurer, listers and others — none of whom is directly managed by the select board. In some instances, a town administrator is hired to work with the select board.

The managerial format that Bennington has allows more direct accountability, he said, because it often includes a limited number of independently elected posts, with the select board appointing most, including the manager, and possibly adding positions like city planner or development director.

In the smaller towns, accountability typically comes in the form of “political remedies [elections] and social control,” as everyone is more likely to know their neighbors than in a larger community.

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