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Advocacy Updates: Municipal Capacity, Revenue, and Governance

VLCT has identified capacity, revenue, and governance as a key topic to follow during the 2024 legislative session. Check back for the latest updates on this issue. Or, view our Weekly Legislative Reports page to see everything we're following. 

VLCT’s overarching Legislative Priorities are to expand the capacity of and increase revenue for local government. The ever-increasing responsibilities of local government and lack of state funding necessary for effective municipal governance demand legislative action. Several bills being discussed this session have the potential to support our efforts or, as noted in the issues discussion below, further strain local government. 

For history and background on this update, see the January 19 entry below.
 

House Ways and Means Moves Improved Municipal Tax Abatement and Municipal Tax Sales Bill  

The House Committee on Ways and Means moved out of committee the latest version of H.629 on a vote of 9 to 3.  Many of VLCT’s most pressing concerns have been addressed and are summarized in VLCT Testimony from Feb. 16.  The most distressing change remaining in H.629 would cut the interest rate from 1% to 0.5% for investors that purchase properties at tax sale. After talking with many collectors of delinquent taxes, we believe this would result in fewer investors interested in bidding at tax sales, which would in turn force municipalities to pay a higher share of delinquent property taxes to the state. This would place a further burden on taxpayers who do pay their property taxes on time and would take away tools that help municipalities collect delinquent taxes.  

Although VLCT succeeded, thanks to your input and advocacy, in making significant positive changes to this bill, we cannot support it at this time and will continue advocating to restore tools that help municipalities collect and pay delinquent property taxes.   

 

Hybrid Meeting Mandate Removed 

If you have been following S.55, the original three page bill proposed to amend the Open Meeting Law to authorize public bodies to meet through electronic means without designating a physical meeting location — and VLCT strongly supported that effort. However, the Senate Government Operations Committee added several new sections and a very problematic Hybrid Meeting requirement.  

Because of your advocacy against that unfunded and unrealistic mandate, we are pleased to share that the committee removed the mandatory hybrid meeting requirement for municipal meetings. Thank you for taking time to write to your legislator, testify, and have conversations! Without your advocacy, the bill would have almost certainly left that committee with the new requirement. The only senator who remained steadfast on retaining the hybrid meeting requirement was Senator Tanya Vyhovsky, who represents Essex Junction, Colchester, Winooski, and Burlington. You may wish to send your thanks to Senators Hardy, White, Clarkson, Norris, and Watson for their willingness to change their minds. 

While the bill isn’t perfect –it removed the $250,000 grant program for communities), has a few technical issues that should be corrected, and creates a time-consuming study committee to evaluate how to host more inclusive municipal meetings – it is far better than where it was, and we’re thankful the committee worked with municipalities to make the most important change of eliminating the hybrid meeting requirement for municipalities. Please see the latest version of S.55 Draft 4.2. Thanks again for your advocacy! 

    

Power Grab in Montpelier: State Control of Municipal Ethics and Conflicts 

The House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs has been working on a Municipal Ethics Bill (still in Draft form so no bill number has been assigned) since the beginning of the session. This bill largely follows the recommendations of Christina Sivret, Executive Director of the Vermont State Ethics Commission, and dismisses the efforts of municipal officials across the state who care deeply about ethics and work hard to earn the public trust of residents.  

As you know, VLCT provides model policies and regular training on the subject of conflicts of interest. VLCT Executive Director Ted Brady provided comprehensive written testimony to the committee a few weeks ago. It’s distressing to see the committee move ahead without incorporating feedback from our members and addressing the concerns we have raised. VLCT has provided a compromise framework and draft legislation that would result in a uniform municipal conflict of interest and unethical conduct policy for adoption by every municipality. Both the House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs and the State Ethics Commission appear to be more interested in taking away local control and accountability and holding municipal officials accountable in Montpelier by an unelected board.  

The current draft bill would repeal the existing laws governing municipal ethics and conflicts of interest and: 

  • Create a new 10-page Municipal Code of Ethics  
  • Require a new mandatory training (the number of hours determined by the State Ethics Commission) within 120 days for every municipal officer (elected or appointed) 
  • Have the State Ethics Commission determine continuing education and training requirements for all municipal officials every three years 
  • Require each municipality to designate a “senior-level” employee as a liaison to the State Ethics Commission and would be required to attend “educational seminars” determined by the State Ethics Commission on a regular basis 
  • Require all municipalities to post the new Municipal Code of Ethics and ensure it is made available to all members of the public 
  • Maintain records of who has received required ethics training  
  • Designate a municipal officer responsible for receiving complaints alleging violations of the new Municipal Code of Ethics, investigate complaints and maintain records of each compliant and disposition of each compliant for the duration of the municipal officer service plus a minimum of five years and, upon request by the State Ethics Commission, promptly provide a summary and outcome of each complaint. 

See our Legislative Alert about this issue – and please consider sharing your concerns with a member of this House committee or your town's representative!  

Concerning Changes to Municipal Tax Abatement and Municipal Tax Sales 

H.629 proposes to make significant changes to the municipal tax abatement and tax sale process. Testimony from VLCT Executive Director Ted Brady expressed our members’ concerns with the bill as proposed. VLCT has committed to work with this bill’s sponsors and other interested partners to find common sense solutions that don’t further strain municipal budgets and that do recognize the challenges some lower income property owners face under the existing process. Please let us know if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions about this issue. You can also visit our MAC resources on property tax abatement and tax sale
 

Making Remote Open Meetings Permanent  

S.55  proposes to amend the Open Meeting Law to authorize public bodies to meet through electronic means without designating a physical meeting location. VLCT strongly supports this bill as proposed; however, a new draft of the bill is in the works which seeks to compromise on the concerns expressed by the Secretary of State, who does not support remote-only meetings. Ted Brady’s testimony shared our members’ support for remote meetings and noted the resources VLCT provides to help members manage both remote and hybrid meetings.     
 

Requiring a State-Run Municipal Ethics Framework 

The House Committee on Government Operations and Military Affairs heard testimony from Christina Sivret, Executive Director of the Vermont State Ethics Commission, on a proposed Municipal Ethics Framework. We know Vermont municipal officials care deeply about ethics and VLCT provides model conflict of interest policies and regular training on the subject. Please read Ted Brady’s December 8, 2023 Feedback to the Vermont Ethics Commission expressing our concerns about the current approach and unintended consequences.  

Please stay tuned for updates on these issues and more legislation affecting municipal capacity, revenue, and governance.   

Publication Date
12/14/2023