Editorial Roundup: New England

Hartford Courant. April 25, 2022.

Editorial: Car taxes in Connecticut are unfair

Let’s get right to it: The way car taxes are imposed in Connecticut is simply not fair.

How can they be when the same car with the same value is taxed differently depending on which town or city we live in.

Consider this: Hartford’s current tax rate is 74.29 mills (leaving out the complications of any special services districts and that the mayor has proposed to lower it). However, because of a relatively new cap on tax rates for motor vehicles, the Hartford rate for our car in this example is 45 mills, using fiscal year 2021-22 rates.

So, if we live in Hartford and our car has an assessed value, for property tax purposes, of $10,000, our bill would be $450. (A mill is equal to $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessment.)

The bill for that same car in Madison would be $288. This calculation also excludes any association tax districts and uses the basic Madison tax rate of 28.85.

So even with a change that allows the cap on the tax rate, the difference in payments for the same fictional car is more than $150 a year. If the car’s assessed value were higher, the difference would be higher as well.

The equation isn’t exactly an elephant in the room: Folks have been complaining about car taxes for about as long there have been car taxes.

Scroll down to check the 2021-22 tax rates in all Connecticut towns, per state data.

“Again, it’s really inherently unfair that a Toyota in East Hartford costs more than a Toyota in a lower-mill-rate town,” House Speaker Matt Ritter of Hartford said recently.

He hit the nail on the head, as the saying goes.

But there might be help on the horizon.

Ritter has said Democrats are near an agreement with Gov. Ned Lamont on cutting the car tax.

The complicated part is that there are different plans being floated and those plans vary and depend on what the tax rate is in each of Connecticut’s 169 towns. Gov. Ned Lamont, for example, wants relief for towns with a tax rate above 29 mills. A different plan would bring relief to towns with tax rates of 32.46 and higher, the Courant’s Chris Keating has reported.

The important part is that there appears to be agreement that a cut will happen.

If it does, the state would reimburse municipalities for the lost tax revenues. We understand that there is worry that the state reimbursements would end if the state were to face difficult financial times in coming years.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is one of the groups that, while favoring the tax-cut plan, has said it worries about the reimbursement ending.

Lawmakers must not let this happen.

This is a chance for the state to bring the absurd nature of car taxes in this state to a point that resembles equity.

Ritter also used Hartford as an example when he spoke to the plans: “You’re going to see in Hartford, for example, essentially a 12-mill-rate reduction from what you paid in January to what you paid in July,’’ he said.

Using our example, that would mean the car tax on our fictional car in Hartford would drop to $330. That’s not the same as you would pay in Madison, but it would be a lot closer.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. April 27, 2022.

Editorial: CT housing crisis is not a game of Monopoly

There’s no ignoring the most outrageous idea in the 135-page draft of a regional housing plan from the Western Connecticut Council of Governments.

In short, it suggests towns could buy their way out of developing affordable housing by paying a neighboring municipality that has a surplus.

As a strategy, it’s like changing the rules in the game of Monopoly so people living on Park Place or Boardwalk could pay a penalty to keep housing on the likes of Baltic and Connecticut avenues.

The good side of the report is that it gives a sense of what council leadership is thinking. That bad side is what they’re thinking.

Still, Connecticut has a reliable allergy to the word “regionalization,” so it’s worth embracing that the council is striving for solutions that stubbornly elude most of our towns.

The issue is universal in Connecticut, so the rest of the state can learn from the approach taken by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which represents Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Sherman, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

If you want to try a game other than Monopoly, guess which of those municipalities reached mandated housing goals. That’s right, the answer is Danbury, Norwalk and Stamford. The only cities in the group.

If the buyout approach is embraced, it will not lead to the creation of more affordable housing in Connecticut.

Nor would it expand diversity in our towns. That doesn’t seem to be the council’s intent. The word “diversity” appears only three times in those 138 pages, always preceded by “economic.”

Diversifying our communities demands hard work, which proposals like this one simply dodge. It reads like misdirection to maintain the status quo.

“I think that suggesting policy like that moves us backward in the state of Connecticut and not forward,” said Christie Stewart, director of Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity.

The report lands at a time when two forces are colliding. The clock is ticking to the end of a five-year deadline set in 2017 that requires municipalities to submit affordable housing plans. Meanwhile, advocates are declaring a housing crisis in Connecticut.

The pandemic spurred the housing shortage. Housing prices are so elevated that they have created a trap. Even homeowners tempted by the lure of selling their property at a high profit margin face the same sticker shock when looking to relocate. Homelessness, which was steadily trending downward, reversed course in 2021.

The draft does spotlight key nuances of the issue. For example, data on residents who live and work in the same community range from Stamford (39%) to Bridgewater (8%). Stamford, of course, is Connecticut’s shining business center, while Bridgewater is a leafy suburb with few jobs to speak of.

Wednesday is the deadline for the public to comment on the plan. Our opinion is that Connecticut’s towns should invest in letting people in, rather than locking them out.

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Bangor Daily News. April 27, 2022.

Editorial: This Legislature had a lot of money to spend – and accomplished a lot

The full Maine Legislature convened in the State House in January for the first time in nearly two years. Lawmakers had a lengthy agenda and a lot of money to spend. The money helped make much of the ambitious agenda a reality.

From affordable housing, utility accountability, and college education to PFAS contamination, substance use disorder and sexual assault in the military, the second session of the 130th Maine Legislature should be remembered as a session that began amid concerns about rising COVID cases and ended with significant progress on a number of contentious and complex issues.

This session, which has been extended for a day in May, began with positive financial news as state revenue forecasters twice revamped their predictions for the state’s revenues in upcoming years, with a tally of $1.2 billion in expected excess revenue.

Gov. Janet Mills, building on a Republican idea, early this year committed to sending a significant portion of that revenue back to taxpayers and $850 check will soon be sent to most of the state’s taxpayers.

This was not the only significant investment that came through the governor’s supplemental budget proposal, which also included $20 million to fund free community college for the high school classes of 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023 who saw their educations disrupted by the pandemic. Additional funding for Maine’s public university system allowed them to not raise tuition.

The budget, enacted by the Legislature with strong bipartisan support, also includes $60 million to establish a fund to begin to address the growing problem of PFAS contamination of land and water in Maine. Lawmakers also passed laws to stop the spreading of sludge containing PFAS on Maine farmland and to tighten state law to prohibit the importation of out-of-state construction and demolition debris to Maine landfills.

Three bills backed by tribes in Maine dominated the waning days of legislative action. While the larger question of tribal sovereignty remains unanswered as a comprehensive bill has been pushed to May, when the Legislature will convene for a day to consider vetoes from the governor, significant progress may be at hand. The Legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to enable the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point to regulate drinking water for its residents. A bill that would give tribes some tax relief and control over mobile sports betting, which would be new in Maine, awaits the governor’s signature. Mills said she would veto that bill, which her office helped negotiate, if the larger sovereignty bill comes to her desk.

In a letter to the tribes last week, the governor asked the tribes to end their efforts to pass the sovereignty bill but called for continued negotiations between her office and the tribes. Such negotiations must continue and can be bolstered by the progress made this session.

The Legislature also enacted a law to strengthen utility accountability by requiring the Public Utilities Commission to set metrics for evaluating performance of Maine’s electric utilities and to set penalties for poor performance. This bill comes largely in response to years of customer dissatisfaction with the state’s largest electric utility, Central Maine Power, which has been plagued by billing and reliability problems.

Another new law requires the PUC to speed up work to modernize Maine’s electrical grid for the development and delivery of cleaner energy and to support the electrification of transportation and heating, which are part of the state’s Climate Action Plan.

On one of the most pressing issues facing Maine – affordable housing – lawmakers took modest steps to modernize zoning and allow more dense housing development.

At the end of session, lawmakers funded the beginning of a public advocate system for defendants who cannot afford legal representation. Lawmakers approved nearly $1 million for a rural public defender unit, a group of five defenders who will travel throughout the state. This does not solve the problem of Maine’s inadequate indigent defense system, but it is a step in the right direction.

In another surprise, recovery advocates and Gov. Mills reached a compromise on a bill to improve Maine’s Good Samaritan law, which protects some people from prosecution if they call for help for someone who has overdosed.

The governor also signed a law that calls for new investigations in how the Maine National Guard handles allegations of sexual assault.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of the work done by the 130th Legislature. But, it shows that, at a time when we appear politically divided, Maine lawmakers and the governor deserve credit for making important progress on many challenging issues.

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Boston Herald. April 25, 2022.

Editorial: Taming OT? NYC shows MBTA it can be done

Bad news for the MBTA — the cat’s out of the bag.

Thanks to a deep dive on the transportation agency’s payroll by the Herald, Massachusetts taxpayers and T riders are now aware that 38 MBTA employees earned $100,000 or more in overtime last year — including three who topped $200,000-plus. Compare that with New York City, in which a mere two MTA employees clocked in OT just over $100,000.

A fare hike will be an especially hard sell now.

And the MBTA may try. Betsy Taylor, chair of the MBTA’s oversight board told CommonWealth Magazine in December “without a fare increase over this five-year period, I have a serious problem. I know there are many people that would like us to consider reducing certain fares as opposed to increasing them, and I think this points out that if we were to consider that we very much need to hear proposals, hopefully from the same people, on what revenues might offset any such decreases. There clearly is a lack of revenue here.”

Here’s a proposal: Do what they did in New York City to tame the overtime beast — that will free up a nice chunk of change.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, in large part, runs New York City’s subway system. To tackle rising OT costs, the agency hired the law firm Morrison & Foerster in 2019.

The result? “We were able to hold the line,” said MTA boss Lisette Camilo in an MTA announcement. She added OT has dropped to a “manageable” level.

Two employees raking in big bucks in OT vs. 38 is the kind of manageable level the MBTA should aspire to.

“T management should hire the firm New York did and ask them to make a bid to do an independent analysis and put an end to overtime abuse here,” said Greg Sullivan of the Pioneer Institute, and a former state inspector general.

The T offered some reasons for the OT surge. “MBTA experience is that OT hours have been consistent at approximately 14-15%; recent increases moving to the far end of that range are responding to robust capital program, safety and vacancies due to the challenging labor market,” spokesman Joe Pesaturo said in an email.

The MTA also has a robust capital program — the agency’s 2020-2024 Capital Plan includes $54.8 billion worth of projects.

According to the MTA’s web site, the plan covers upgrading stations, investing in new buses and train cars, modernizing signals on the busiest lines, building the regions megaprojects, keeping bridges and tunnels in good working condition, as well as the MTA’s other infrastructure.

That could add up to an OT feeding frenzy. But it hasn’t.

The T’s Pesaturo noted, “To help improve service reliability while reducing the use of OT, the T is also ramping up hiring of new employees” in the new fiscal year.

Pesaturo said the T is looking to hire 152 positions “directly for service and transportation” along with 76 for the bus fleet, 41 for heavy and light rail, 119 for maintenance and security, 64 for system, power, and facilities maintenance, 41 for bus and rail maintenance.

In other words, spending money to save money.

The MTA OT edict stresses that a “modern timekeeping system” has held the agency to “greater accountability and validation of overtime spending” — and spreading the extra hours around.

Boston and New York are known more for rivalry than collaboration. But in this case, it’s worth it for T brass to head to the Big Apple for a transit agency tutorial.

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Barre-Montpelier Times-Argus. April, 28, 2022.

Editorial: Growing concern

The sun is out and the temperature wants desperately to get above 50 degrees for more than a day or two. For as frustrating as this spring has been to Vermonters, it has been especially challenging for Vermont’s farmers.

The weather — cold and rainy for the most part — has meant getting in crops (even into greenhouse tunnels) has been less than ideal. In fact, those farmers who rely on spring crops to kick start the growing season are not feeling this weather. At all.

As farm stands and farmers’ markets reopen, the supply of locally grown vegetables and goodies might be skimpy for a while. Offsetting that supply-and-demand conundrum could be higher prices being charged.

Two notices in as many weeks remind us just how valuable farms are to our local economies and to the heart of community building.

This week, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and NOFA-VT issued a news release encouraging Vermonters to buy directly from their local farms as much as possible this season amid rising fuel and supply costs.

The release states, “Vermont’s farms are central to what many of us treasure about our state. They set the backdrop for our iconic scenery, feed our families, schools and workplaces, provide the raw ingredients for the high-quality products for which our state is known, and create spaces for gathering. Farmers are the primary stewards of our working landscape and are on the front lines of building our state’s climate change resilience.”

It goes on, “When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the effects of supply-chain disruptions were being felt across the country, our local farms were near-by reliably providing fresh, nourishing food to people across the state. …However, running a farm is not an easy endeavor. Start-up costs can be prohibitive and the costs of maintenance and ongoing inputs are often high. So far this year, prices for farming inputs including fuel, seeds, building materials, packaging, hay, labor, and more have risen significantly.”

Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts, whose agency has done an excellent job in recent years in rebranding and marketing Vermont’s valuable sector, urged Vermonters to buy local by signing up for Community Support Agriculture shares, or CSAs.

“Now more than ever, Vermont farmers need support from us, their neighbors and community members. The best way you can help is by making a commitment to buy as much as you can directly from your local farmer,” he said.

According to the release, CSAs are “particularly vital for farms because they provide a more reliable revenue stream and support the up-front costs associated with planting and preparing for a new season. Farm stands have also become an increasingly valuable avenue for farmers to directly provide a growing variety and volume of local products to consumers. Farmers markets continue to serve as a unique community connection and pivotal marketing opportunity for our agricultural community.”

“When you buy from a local farm, you are investing in a thriving future for Vermont’s agriculture,” NOFA Executive Director Grace Oedel said. “You are helping tend a secure, steady food supply close to home — where all are nourished and land is well tended.”

Recently, a notice was issued to the media about Farm Stand Together, a mutual-aid food program providing gift cards for use at farm stands across Vermont. It launched in February.

Through the program’s website — farmstandtogethervt.org — Vermonters experiencing food insecurity are invited to request gift cards to use at their local farm stand.

It is a pilot version of Farm Stand Together. While there is no formal eligibility process, applicants are prioritized based on need, location and farm-stand capacity. Gift cards will provide a minimum of $50, but the final number of cards and total funds distributed through the program are dependent on the number of applications and the level of need from applicants.

Farm Stand Together is organized by Meaghin Kennedy and Justin Reidy, who relocated to Vermont from Oregon three years ago before the most recent wave of COVID-induced migrations. NOFA of Vermont is consulting on the project, as it runs similar food access programs subsidizing the costs of CSAs and farmers’ market products for low-income Vermonters.

Farming is the backbone of our state and always has been. Buy local and invest in the farms around you. That support will go a long way to warm the hearts of farmers waiting for the growing season to begin in earnest.

Visit nofavt.org/love-food-love-farms to find a CSA, farmers’ market, or farm stand near you.

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Rutland Herald. April 25, 2022.

Editorial: Stronger together

We are grateful that more communities around Vermont have been adopting the Declaration of Inclusion.

Journalist Patrick McArdle had an article in our Weekender that examined the movement that has brought some 45 municipalities on board.

Likewise, Republican Gov. Phil Scott last year issued a statewide Proclamation of Inclusion that “makes clear the State of Vermont condemns discrimination in all forms, and welcomes all people who want to live, work and visit Vermont.” The proclamation also established a statewide inclusion week, the second week of May, which this year begins May 8.

“The fact is, if we want stronger, more economically secure communities, we need more people and more diversity in Vermont. I hope this effort sends a message to anyone who wants to live and work in a safe, healthy and welcoming state,” the governor said.

It is an important message in such dramatically divisive times, especially now that Ukrainian refugees are arriving in countries around the globe after Russian forces two months ago invaded their country, reducing much of its infrastructure to rubble and killing its civilians. Many communities (and states including Vermont) are welcoming displaced families.

A cohesive message is needed right now.

“It is essential for all to know, Vermont seeks to achieve equality and equity and to create a culture in which racial, ethnic and other cultural disparities are openly acknowledged and addressed and where no one person is more likely to experience society’s benefits or burdens than any other person; and the State of Vermont is committed to growing and nurturing a diverse society in which we want our youth to live and prosper,” the governor noted in his proclamation.

In 2020, Franklin was the first Vermont municipality to include the Declaration of Inclusion.

Bob Harnish, of Pittsford, and Al Wakefield, of Mendon, crafted the overarching statement “that would build on Vermont’s agreed upon uniqueness, its long-standing reputation for being a leader in addressing injustices,” and ensures such injustices won’t happen in the Green Mountain State.

According to the website explaining the declaration, more specifically, the goal is to:

— Highlight the fact that we as Vermonters are not fully aware of the systemic racism that is present in our majority “white” society.

— Raise consciousness about the importance of diversity, the positive effect that diversity can have on our economy, and on equity and justice.

— Emphasize the importance of preparing our youth to live and prosper in the more diverse society in which we all will soon be living.

— Tell the world at large that Vermont welcomes all people to our state, which is struggling to maintain its population and its ability to fund basic programs for its citizens.

— Attract people with myriad skills and traditions to Vermont to live, work, and raise families in a state that values and encourages diversity in its population.

— Focus attention on examining employee manuals, police protocols, and hiring practices to promote fairness and equity in applying legislation, ordinances, etc., within our towns and the state as a whole.

— Employ best practices in coaching municipal and state employees, including police, to value and respect all citizens.

That’s precisely what we need to make Vermont viable economically and culturally. We need more people. We need diversity. We need to fire the economic engines, and take steps to update our demographics.

On the whole, we urge the other 200-plus Vermont communities to adopt the declaration and send the message loud and clear to the world that racial and cultural discrimination will not be tolerated here.

Vermonters have a rich history of celebrating freedom and diversity, including the abolition of slavery in 1777; activism in the abolitionist movement; our embrace of European immigrants to work in mines and quarries; recognition of same-sex marriage; state recognition of Abenaki peoples; and protection of undocumented immigrants from potentially overreaching federal enforcement, the governor noted in his proclamation last year.

Scott’s message shall stand the test of time: “(We) call upon all Vermonters to denounce prejudice, to openly acknowledge and address our own implicit bias and welcome and celebrate all people, of all races, colors, religions, national origins, sex, gender identity or expression, ages, disabilities, and continue to work together to ensure every individual can live freely, equitably, and express their opinions free from fear, intolerance and prejudice.”

Surely, we can do it again at the local level by demanding inclusion.

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