Public hearing held on SAD 44 cost-sharing formula change proposal

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BETHEL—On Oct. 3 about 45 people attended a public hearing regarding a proposed SAD 44 cost-sharing formula change.

District voters will decide on the proposal at a referendum Nov. 6.

Some officials and residents of School Administrative District 44 hope the proposed formula, which is more favorable to Newry, will encourage those residents to remain in the district, rather than continue their school withdrawal process.

Two previous proposals to change the formula were defeated by district voters, the most recent one by a narrow margin in November of 2017.

Assessments to the SAD 44 towns are currently based 100 percent on valuation, leaving Newry with the highest share, at about $3 million of the roughly $8.4 million total.

If approved in the referendum, the formula change’s impact would be phased in over a nine-year period, with the final version of the formula remaining in place thereafter.

For the first two years of the phase-in town taxes would be calculated with 95 percent based on valuation and 5 percent on student population. For the next three years, they would be based 90 percent on valuation and 10 percent on population. For the next three years it would be 88/12 percent, and then finally shift to 85/15 percent for 2028 and beyond.

The proposal also carries a major change from one that was narrowly defeated last year: If the change is approved its implementation would be contingent on Newry residents voting to end the town’s current SAD 44 school withdrawal process. The vote on whether or not to terminate the process would happen in March of next year.

Negotiations between Newry and SAD 44 to come up with a withdrawal agreement for Newry residents to vote on are stalemated. Such an agreement is required for withdrawal to proceed.

At the public hearing, SAD 44 attorney Bill Stockmeyer explained the cost-sharing proposal. Stockmeyer has previously worked with SAD 44 on the Newry withdrawal process.

He presented two scenarios, one explaining the impacts of a Newry withdrawal, and the other the impact of the proposed formula change.

If Newry were to vote to withdraw from SAD 44 there would likely be a $2 million tax shift from Newry to Bethel and Woodstock, he said. A withdrawal could also threaten the existence of the school district, district officials have said.

“If we were to lose $2 million we would see some significant changes to the district if the district were able to continue,” Superintendent Dave Murphy added.

“We need to have the education for the children,” businessman Dennis Doyon said. “Without education families are not going to either stay or not going to move to this area, and if it ends up happening to our area it becomes extremely saddening. This is an easy vote.”

Local businessman Ron Savage said the $2 million shift would significantly affect real estate and new construction.

“That $2 million tax shift will compound with the fact that if people can buy land in Newry, with a lower tax base and build their house closer to the skiway, they will,” Savage said. “Bethel, Woodstock and Greenwood will receive less new construction because the taxes will be so out of skew between the three towns and Newry. The higher our taxes the more people are going to want to build in Newry.”

If the referendum passes and Newry votes to terminate the withdrawal, Bethel and Woodstock would experience a one percent tax increase per year over the nine-year period, according to Stockmeyer.

Greenwood would have hardly any tax impact because its valuation percentage (12.5 percent) is nearly identical to its share of students from the area that attend SAD 44 schools (12.43 percent).

Not all expressed satisfaction with the formula proposal, with one wondering why the question is still around.

“Overall, I’m sorry to see the same question going to vote for a third consecutive year. Voters have already rejected it twice. When will ‘no’ finally mean no?” Bethel resident Michele Varuolo Cole said. “The current school tax method really is the fairest way to do things and I hope it stays that way.”

Selectboards in Newry, Greenwood and Woodstock have endorsed the change, according to municipal officials. Bethel selectmen are expected to discuss it at their Oct. 15 meeting.

swheeler@bethelcitizen.com

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