The Burlington City Council voted unanimously on Monday to form a special committee to hear public testimony about the city’s recent property reassessment, which raised taxes for most residents.
Sponsored by all six council Progressives, the resolution also tasks officials with analyzing the fairness of the city’s tax system.
The measure was spurred by public concern over this summer’s reappraisal, the city’s first in 16 years. Residents complained that the city downplayed how the reassessment would impact their tax bills, and that Tyler Technologies, the city’s hired consultant, made numerous errors in its calculations.
"These stories paint an unfortunate picture of a system that is not designed to support our neighbors," said Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), the resolution's lead sponsor.
"If we're serious about addressing the housing affordability crisis and truly wish to make homeownership more attainable for more residents, then we have to examine the inequity that's inherent in this regressive property tax," he added.
Seven Days documented residents' concerns in two cover stories earlier this year, including one that examined how homeowners were saddled with higher taxes while commercial property owners got a break. The pandemic played a role in both: home values skyrocketed during the buying boom, whereas commercial values — which are based on buildings’ cash flows — dropped due to the economic shutdown.
The councilors’ resolution says Mayor Miro Weinberger's administration could have prepared residents sooner for the tax burden shift. The problem was exacerbated when many Burlingtonians learned — after receiving their bills — that they wouldn't be able to offset the higher taxes with a bigger state tax rebate.
The resolution suggests more frequent reassessments, and that notices include “the actual or carefully estimated net impact on the homeowner’s tax bill.” It also asks city officials to investigate how to reduce the burden on low-income residents, such as by offering tax credits or increasing the commercial tax rate.
Councilor Mark Barlow (I-North District) said he would have preferred the language about tax fairness be included in a separate resolution. He said he worries that a higher tax rate for commercial properties or higher-value homes would drive businesses and residents out of the city.
"But we'll have time to process those questions," he said, "so I'll be supporting this resolution tonight, but with those reservations."
The council's Community Development and Neighborhood Revitalization Committee will begin studying the tax system in January 2022. A separate ad hoc committee will host public hearings on the reappraisal process, with the goal of submitting findings to the full council by June 2022. The report will include recommendations on how to support residents during reassessments and how to improve the appeals process, which is scheduled to wrap up before year’s end.
The ad hoc committee will be comprised of up to nine members, including one resident from each of the city’s four districts; at least two homeowners and two renters; one person who has served on the city's Board of Tax Appeals and another with experience on the Board of Assessors; and one city councilor. Councilors will accept applications until December 15; public hearings will be held before February 28, 2022.
Also Monday, councilors and the mayor — acting as the Board of Civil Authority — weighed in on proposed changes to the city's legislative districts. The state redraws district maps every 10 years after reviewing U.S. Census data.
The Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board has recommended that Burlington shift from seven total House districts, the majority of which have two members, to 10 single-member districts.
The proposal didn't win support from the city's Chief Administrative Officer Katherine Schad, who oversees elections staff in the city clerk's office. In a memo to the apportionment board, Schad wrote that the seven House districts, 12 city council districts and one Senate district already create a "complex reality" for election workers.
"An increase in the total number of Wards and Districts as created by either the legislative apportionment process or by local redistricting will undoubtedly require an increased workload for the elections staff in the Clerk/Treasurer’s Office, and may likely require additional staff, volunteer, equipment, and financial resources," she wrote.
Councilors have not yet discussed local redistricting but shared mixed opinions Monday about the plans. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said he's in favor of the proposal because it makes elected officials more accountable to their constituents, and creates a simpler election process when voters are only choosing one candidate.
"This isn't probably the exact map that I would draw or anything like that, but I do think it's an improvement from the way things are now," Hanson said.
New North End councilors Barlow and Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) both spoke against the apportionment board's plan.
"In Chittenden 6-1, where I live, we have two representatives. It works rather well," Barlow said. "Without a compelling reason to change it, and I haven't heard one, I would suggest staying with what's working for us already."
Councilors were asked to endorse Schad's letter, but Councilor Hanson moved to strike that from the council's motion. That amendment passed 7-6 with Weinberger, who has a vote as a member of the Board of Civil Authority, voting against. The board later unanimously agreed to send their feedback and Schad's letter, separately, to the state board.
Earlier in the meeting, councilors reviewed a slate of proposed regulations for short-term rentals. City planners began crafting the regulations in 2019 in an effort to limit the number of such properties, often found on websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo. Meagan Tuttle, who was appointed the city's planning director on Monday, said the rules aim to balance hosts' right to rent with the goal of preserving long-term rentals in a city already experiencing a housing crunch.
The proposal would allow hosts to operate short-term rentals only if the unit for rent is their primary dwelling or if they live in the same building. "Off-site hosting" would only be allowed if the rental is a seasonal home, or if the building also includes an "affordable" unit. Only one short-term rental unit would be allowed in most multi-unit buildings.
Councilors will deliberate on the proposal at a future meeting.
Watch the full meeting, courtesy of Town Meeting TV, below.