|VERMONT SECRETARY OF STATE - Jim Condos|
|State of Vermont
Office of the
Secretary of State
Volume 3 Number 10
Each of us has been touched in some way by the events of Tuesday, September 11th. The horror of watching the towers burst into flames and later, fall, has been etched in our memories forever. And it seems that everyone we speak with has a story about someone in their life who was directly impacted by the attack. And, of course, it is hard – so hard – to explain it all to our children. Especially since it is so easy, surrounded by our flaming forests, farm stands filled to the brim with the harvest of our dry – but fruitful summer, to feel safe and far away from the danger we now know exists around us.
Yet, we have to go on. Indeed, in the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington we have experienced many positive things. As a nation, our people have come together in ways that we have not since, perhaps, World War II or the Korean War. Our communities have come together to raise money, to give blood, to send our National Guards’ men and women to help. Our school children, our municipal workers and our civics organizations are honoring our police, rescue workers and firefighters – understanding that it could have been any one of them who would have given his or her life to help a stranger.
As one who always looks for the silver lining I find comfort in this great coming together. I find hope in the lessons we are teaching our children -- to love our country and the freedoms it offers us, to appreciate our public servants and our government leaders, and that each of us, no matter how small or far away, has something to give that can make a difference.
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A Voice from the Past
"Voice from the
Past" by Paul Gillies
Opinions Volume 3 Number 10 October 2001
The world before September 11 now seems so tranquil. We went about our daily lives in good humor, making out lists and running errands, as if that world would last forever. Then came the horror, followed by the depression, followed by war. How much has changed in just a few short weeks.
Get back to work, that’s what everyone says. The best way of showing we aren’t defeated is to live our lives in a normal way. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. You worry about repairing the fence, having the chimney cleaned, getting the oil changed in the car, and then something like this happens.
Then what? We listen, watch, read the news, until we can’t stand it any longer. Give blood, donate money, hold candles, pray. We all want to do so much more. We want to join the rescue effort in New York. We want to help the investigation. We want and need to participate. Going back to work just isn’t enough.
Remember the final lines of Casablanca (1942), when Rick turns to Ilsa and says, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"? Those words sound a little cheesy on the page, but they worked in the film.
In our daily lives, it is hard to keep the larger picture in focus. What we do is more distracting than what is happening on the other side of the world, because it isn’t right here in front of us. The shopkeeper in Jerusalem, the real estate broker in Beirut, the bookseller in Kabul, each has a similar challenge, even though war and violence are possible at any minute. Normal life goes on, because it has to.
Terrorists aren’t likely to attack a small town in the hills of Vermont, but New York was close enough. That attack took away our innocence. It moved us closer to the front, suddenly and without notice.
Going back to work is, in the end, what is required of us, because that is what we do. That is our work, our duty, our purpose. It may not seem as important, in light of the drama being played out on the world stage, but it is our contribution, our little part of the engine of civilization.
The routine of going to work can be great medicine in fighting the depression and the despair that follows a national trauma like this. It can take our minds off the headlines, and allow us some release for pent-up feelings. Best of all, it gives us access to others and their feelings and ideas, so we can gauge how we’re handling this crisis.
In time, life will return to a form of normalcy. Work’s little demands will be restored to their primacy, and the news will retreat to a smaller part of our attention. People are far more resilient than they think they are.
Still, we want this tragedy to have meaning. We don’t want to just go back to the way things were. We want some good to come out of all of this hurt and hatred. Certainly that is already happening. We have a greater appreciation for police, firefighters, rescue personnel and government generally, because of how they reacted to the attack. Maybe we have a better sense of community, a greater understanding of how we’re all in this together, of our obligations to those in need, maybe even a chance at bringing the nations of the world together.
We can hope. That’s something we do well.Secretary of State's Home Page
Opinions Volume 3 Number 10 October 2001
1. Property tax exemptions for volunteer fire department property must be voted at Town meeting.32 V.S.A. § 3840. Property tax exemptions for the volunteer fire department must be voted at town meeting. The voters can establish the exemption for up to ten years at the first vote and thereafter for five-year periods. The Vermont Listers Handbook provides a good discussion of property tax exemptions including a chart giving the source of funding for education property tax liability for locally voted exemptions. The handbook also includes a chapter on properties that are exempt under state or federal law, and another chapter on exemptions that must be voted by the town.
2. Building Rented By Church for Recreational Program is Not Exempt From Property Tax. The law permits property owned or "kept" by a church to be exempt from local property taxes if it is used for specific purposed listed in the law. Even if rental property can be considered property "kept" by the church, the recreational center would not be exempt because the law does not exempt property held by a church for recreational uses. 32 V.S.A. § 3832(2). It is an open question whether it may be possible to exempt the property from taxation through town vote. That is because although property used for recreational purposes may be exempt by vote of the town, the use of property is generally determined by looking at the owner – not the occupant. In this case the owner is using the property as rental property, which is not exempt. 32 V.S.A. § 3832(7).
3. Town Vote To Exempt Property Will Not Remove Assessed Value From Calculation of Town’s Education Tax Liability. When a town votes to exempt property from taxation it can only exempt the property from municipal tax liability. The town vote will not remove the assessed value from the calculation of the town’s education tax liability, and the property owner will not be exempt from paying the education tax on his or her property. 32 V.S.A. § 5404a.
4. Town Will Be Liable to Pay State Education Tax When It Abates Town and School Tax. The Board of Abatement has a lot of discretion when it is deciding whether and how to abate taxes on a property. While the board of abatement may only abate taxes for the reasons listed in the statute (see 24 V.S.A. §§ 1533-36) if the board chooses to abate it may do so in full or in part. This means the board can choose to abate only the town portion of the taxes. If the board abates the entire tax (including the education tax) the town will still be liable to pay out to the school and state (if applicable) the education portion of the tax amount.
5. Church must pay taxes on property purchased from non-exempt
landowner after April 1st. When a church or other exempt organization purchases or is given property mid-year it will not be exempt from taxation until the following April 1st. Not only do the statutes not provide a mechanism for granting an exemption mid-year, but the change in status of the owners is not covered by any of the reasons for abatement given in 24 V.S.A. § 1535. This means that the board of abatement would not be able to abate those taxes. When the listers prepare the next year's grand list, the property can be listed as exempt under 32 V.S.A. § 3802(4) and 3832.
6. Extra BCA members appointed to create political balance may only perform election functions. Vermont law permits the selectboard, upon request of an underrepresented major party, to appoint additional members to the board of civil authority to bring the major party membership up to three. 17 V.S.A. §2143. However, any member of the board of civil authority appointed to the board of civil authority can only participate in activities relating to elections. The member[s] appointed by the selectboard are NOT Justices of the Peace, they are members of the board of civil authority for election related duties only. The members appointed by the selectboard cannot perform weddings or civil unions, they may not participate in property tax appeal hearings, abatement hearings, etc.
7. Vermont law does not allow voters to petition to repeal a town plan that has been adopted by the Selectboard. 24 V.S.A. § 4385. Unless the town has voted at an annual or special town meeting to adopt the town plan by Australian ballot by the electorate, the selectboard has the final authority to adopt or reject a town plan. While the law permits citizens to present a petition with signatures of 5% of the voters in town to request the planning commission to consider amendments to a town plan, it may not petition for a public vote to repeal a particular plan. 24 V.S.A. §4384 (b).
8. New law permits selectboard to borrow for highway equipment without public vote. This past year the municipal financing law was amended (effective July 1, 2001). Under the new law, a selectboard can now approve borrowing for purchases of equipment for highway equipment without going back to the voters for approval. 24 V.S.A. § 1786(a), 19 V.S.A. 301(a)(3). This is a very limited delegation of powers and can only be used for equipment to maintain or construct highways or bridges within the town.
9. Acting zoning administrator can be used to issue permit to the zoning administrator. When a zoning administrator has a conflict of interest, or needs a permit for his or her own property, the planning commission, with the approval of the selectboard, can appoint an acting zoning administrator for the limited purpose
of handling the matters in which the zoning administrator feels he or she has a conflict. 24 V.S.A. § 4442.
10. Board should adopt policy on use of municipal buildings. It is a best practice for each legislative body -- selectboard, school board, or other public body -- that owns buildings, to adopt a policy outlining its rules and requirements for allowing other groups use of the town or school property. It is constitutionally permissible for a board to prohibit any and all use by outside groups. However, it is not good policy, and may cause discrimination claims, to allow use of the buildings by certain categories or types of groups and not other groups, unless there is a real difference in the type of use being requested. For example, it is reasonable and acceptable to limit use of certain rooms or spaces to groups of less than 30, or to meetings ending not later than 9 p.m. However, it may be discriminatory to allow the boy scouts to meet in a room, but to turn down a political caucus or a religious organization.
11. Board may restrict access to public building. Although public buildings are generally open to all members of the public, the selectboard can adopt reasonable rules restricting access. 24 V.S.A. § 872. For example, the board may adopt a policy prohibiting unaccompanied visitors from going into the workspace or private offices of its employees. The board may also ban a disruptive person from entering the municipal building. A selectboard may take this extreme step to protect town employees from a member of the public who has been harassing or threatening them.
12. Clerk Appoints Election Officials to Run Election. Only justices of the peace who reside in the village may be involved in administering village elections. 17 V.S.A. § 2103(5). This means that the clerk and trustees, serving as the Village Board of Civil Authority, must appoint and swear in assistant election officials. 17 V.S.A. § 2454. The Board of Civil Authority should make an effort to assure that at least on election official from each party is present at each polling place in the village.
13. Village Voter Checklist Is Taken From Names on Town Checklist of People Residing in Village. The village clerk is charged with automatically adding to the village checklist all voters on the town checklist who live within the village. This means that when a person registers to vote in a town that person is automatically included on the village checklist. No additional action or application is required of the voter. 17 V.S.A. § 2126.
14. Most Villages use town grand list assessments to set tax rate. When the village uses the town assessment for assessing property taxes in the Village, when the town assessment is adjusted, the village assessment must also be changed. This means that if a resident grieves his or her taxes, and the listers or BCA make an adjustment lowering the property assessment, the both the town and village grand lists must be adjusted to reflect the new assessment.
15. Board of Civil Authority Quorum For Tax Appeals is 3 or More. When a board of civil authority is conducting tax appeals the board can only act if it has at least three members present. (This is enough to do the site inspection.) It is, of course, better to have more, but three is all that is required. See 24 V.S.A. § 801.
16. Inspection Committee Has Discretion to Decide Which Part of the Property to Inspect. When conducting a tax appeal, three members of the board of civil authority hearing the appeal form an inspection committee. This committee may decide what it needs to see in order to inspect a property well enough to report back to the full board of civil authority on property tax appeals. 17 V.S.A. § 4404. If the inspection committee does not see some part of the property that the appellant wanted it to see, it can return to the property a second time within 30 days from the tax appeal hearing. The inspection committee then gives its report to the full board within 30 days from the hearing. The board of civil authority must hear and consider the report, but it also considers all of the evidence presented at the hearing, so that the final decision may differ from the inspection committee report.
17. Property owner who brings appeal must permit inspection of premises. If an appellant refuses to allow the inspection committee to inspect whatever parts of the property (both outside and inside) it wants to inspect, the appeal shall be deemed withdrawn. The inspection committee must give reasonable notice of the time and date of the inspection.
18. Members of the public must be allowed to go along on inspections. An inspection is part of the public meeting that makes up the tax appeal. While 1 V.S.A. § 312(g) provides that the open meeting law will not apply to "site inspections for the purpose of . . . making tax assessments or abatements" this provision does not exempt site inspections that are part of the tax appeal process. This means that if a member of the public or the lister wishes to go along on the inspection, the property owner may not prohibit them from going on the property. Note that no member of the public or listers who tag along may comment during the inspection. The
landowner’s comments should be strictly limited to showing the inspection committee around the property. Also, while all three members of the inspection committee must inspect the property, it is not mandatory that they inspect it at the same time.
19. Voters May Not Initiate Ordinance (except Ethics). The electorate of a town cannot force the selectboard to adopt an ordinance; and, except for rules of ethics, the voters have no authority to petition for a public vote to adopt an ordinance. The law does give the voters some input into the ordinance process. If the selectboard passes an ordinance, the voters can force a public vote on the issue. To do this, the voters must present a petition to disapprove the ordinance signed by 5% of the legal voters within 44 days following the adoption of an ordinance by the selectboard. 24 V.S.A. §§ 1972, 1973. If a petition is submitted, the selectboard must call a special meeting to submit the ordinance to the voters.
20. Selectboard Cannot Force Delinquent Tax Collector To Accept Salary in Lieu of Fees. The law permits the selectboard and the delinquent tax collector to come to an agreement about assigning fees to the town, and accepting a salary instead. This arrangement makes sense in towns where the delinquent tax rolls might be high. However, unless the delinquent tax collector agrees to such arrangement, he or she is entitled to the 8% penalty reflected in the law. 24 V.S.A. § 1530.
21. Delinquent Tax Collector Pays Own Expenses. Although many towns provide their delinquent tax collector with telephone, computer, office supplies and postage, this is not required. A collector who receives the 8% fee can be expected to pay his or her general expenses from the amount collected in fees.
22. Selectboard does not have to fill vacancy with next highest vote-getter. In one town a newly elected official resigned shortly after taking office. So long as the board posts the vacancy as required by law, it may fill the vacancy until the next election with any person the board prefers. 24 V.S.A. §§ 962, 963. There is no requirement that the board give special preference to – or appoint - the person who got the next highest votes for the office. There is also no requirement that the board take applications or hold interviews before appointing a replacement. Remember though – the appointment is only until the next election. If the voters are unhappy with the choice they can petition for a special election to fill the position.
23. Special Meeting Agenda May Not Be Changed Prior to the meeting. A board may make last minute changes to the agenda of its regularly scheduled meetings. However, when the board schedules a Special Meeting the agenda cannot be changed. The two kinds of meetings are treated differently because all the open meeting law requires of a regular meeting is that an agenda be available sometime before the meeting. 1 V.S.A. § 312 (c)(1), (d). It is not unreasonable to make last minute changes to an agenda - so long as it is done with enough time for interested members of the public to be apprised of the change. However, the open meeting law specifically requires that the reason for a special meeting be part of the public notice of the special meeting. 1 V.S.A. § (c)(2). This means that for special meetings the board must stick to discussing only those topics included in the public notice.
24. Agenda Must Provide Specific Topics to be Covered. An agenda for a board meeting must give board members and members of the public an idea of what is to be covered at the board meeting. The agenda should not say merely "old business/new business." Rather, the agenda must list the topics that the board anticipates to cover. Some boards use similar agendas each month because they go over the same topics at each meeting. Other boards’ agendas vary greatly from meeting to meeting.
In our monthly Opinions we provide what we believe the law requires based upon our legal judgment, years of observing Vermont’s local government practices, and Vermont Court decisions. This information is intended as a reference guide. This information is not intended to replace the advice of legal counsel.
Secretary of State's Home Page
A reminder that the Vermont State Archives and Vermont Historical Records Advisory Board are offering grants to municipal clerks to help assess and address record preservation. The grants provide funding for an on-site consultation with an archivist to identify needs. The archivist then provides a report that the clerk can use to develop a plan for managing town records.
Several towns, including Stannard, Middlebury, Manchester, and Marshfield have received grants already. Members of the Chittenden/Grand Isle Clerks' Association submitted a collaborative grant that will allow them to compare needs and look toward common solutions and best practices. Some municipal clerks have joined with other local record curators to enhance cooperation where possible. St. Johnsbury, for example, has used the grants to support a program involving the town clerk, the Fairbanks Museum, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the St. Johnsbury Academy, and the St. Johnsbury Historical Society. Their on-going effort allows them to share a professional archivist and explore other ways to effectively use limited resources.
Monday, October 8
Columbus Day. 1 V.S.A. § 371
Thursday, October 25
State withholding tax return is due (actual date by which return must be postmarked is shown on printed form) if reporting less than $2500 per quarter; more than $2500 requires a monthly report.
32 V.S.A. § 5842
Wednesday, October 31
Last day to file Form 941 (quarterly withholding return) with the IRS.
Tip of the month
From the VMTCA
By Linda Spence, Manchester Town Clerk
When someone calls your office requesting "legal advice" or inquiring as to the validity of something we believe it wise advice to err on the side of caution. Town Clerks/Treasurers are not lawyers and should not be offering legal opinions or attesting to the validity of any documents in their office, other than vital statistics and voter info. The liability issues that present themselves are enormous. We are "the keepers of the records" not the translators thereof. There is nothing wrong with telling your constituent that the records are available for their perusal and you will be happy to photocopy whatever they would like.