New tool to help demystify Vermont education property taxes

Published: Feb. 28, 2020 at 4:50 PM EST
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It's an issue that affects all homeowners in Vermont: property taxes. You know how much you pay but do you know why?

The issue has been in the headlines recently as South Burlington faces criticisms from some residents over concerns the district's estimates on how much property taxes would go up as a result of a $209 million school renovation bond aren't accurate.

When our Cat Viglienzoni investigated, she learned there's no real way for anyone to accurately predict the impact of a project like that on property owners.

That's still the case but now there's a new push by the state to help all Vermonters make a more informed decision at the polls on Town Meeting Day.

Here's how you can see how much your town's school budget will affect you.

Douglas Farnham might be one of the few people in the entire state who actually understands how your education property taxes get calculated. In 30 minutes, the Vermont Tax Department economist can walk you through the state's highly complex system. But even he admits it's a lot to take in.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: On a scale of one to 10, how complicated is our tax rate?

Douglas Farnham: It's absolutely a 10.

And that, he says, is frustrating for Vermonters who are trying to vote on school budgets but feel like they don't know how their vote will affect their pocketbooks.

"When you go to town meeting you have an estimate but you're not actually voting on a tax rate," he noted.

That's because that tax rate is set at the state-- not local-- level.

It stems from a Vermont Supreme Court case in the late 1990s which said towns should have equal access to education funding. Act 60 was born. It's complicated because it's trying to be fair, taking into account everything from income to property values to student numbers to statewide spending.

Cat Viglienzoni: Does it need to be this complicated?

Doug Farnham: I don't think it needs to be this complicated... We should have a goal of a simpler and more transparent system.

But that's a deeper conversation for another time. For now, to help you navigate it, the department created an online tool. Plug in your income, town, property value and your district's per-pupil spending, and you can see how changes in spending affect your wallet.

"It helps you estimate, based on what you're voting on for the coming year, what net taxes are due," Farnham explained.

There's also a section for towns where they can see how their estimated changes will impact their taxpayers.

"We're not trying to influence peoples' decisions, we just want people to feel a little bit better, have a little more information because the way the current system is structured, it's very difficult to feel like you have all the information you need to make a good decision," Farnham said.

Now back to South Burlington's bond vote. There isn't a way to use the tool to figure out how the bond would impact your property taxes if you live there because the tool isn't designed to look over the 30-year span of a project like that. We asked the school district and they said there's no way to get exact per-pupil spending amounts over that length of time because the bond debt is just one of many factors in that number.

So this tool is more useful for determining the impact of something like a school budget.