One of the core objectives put forth by Gov. Phil Scott in his inaugural address was the need to bring growth and vitality to the “small towns and villages that have struggled for decades.” He said it was time to be creative understanding that “old answers are not the solutions we need for the future.”
What the governor is addressing has been addressed before. By every governor for the last half century. It’s also an obvious point; Vermont’s economic strength is concentrated in Chittenden County, which leaves us more have-nots than haves.
Governors, as candidates for the office, tour the state and hear and see the laments as they course their way through the state’s 237 towns, nine cities, five unincorporated towns and four gores.
There isn’t anything equal about how our growth and our wealth is spread. Governors broach the subject, as do legislators from the affected areas. But figuring out how to make any real progress has proved elusive. If it were easy, or obvious, it would have been done long ago. Why the issue? As a state, our tool box is limited.
That limitation means we need to be extra creative and to think of new ways to use the tools we do have. That’s Governor Scott’s purpose when he said, “One of those tools, Tax Increment Financing [known as TIFs], allows towns to keep a portion of their state tax dollars to fund projects that spur private investment, add housing and attract new jobs and development. Now, keep in mind, without TIFs, these projects would not have been built. Right now, TIFs are only available to our larger cities but if lawmakers will work with us, we can make this available to smaller towns in every region.”
The governor is looking at places like the City of St. Albans, where its TIF turned the city’s fortunes around. It’s been a $60 million public/private partnership that has turned a city that was living on poverty’s edge into a city recognized as one of the most vibrant in Vermont. That investment will also ultimately strengthen the education fund [property taxes increase as property valuations rise] which served as the TIFs funding mechanism.
The city was aggressive in its use of the TIF, but the results are nothing short of remarkable. Good ideas are the fundamental lever that moves things forward. They are what spur us to think beyond the ordinary.
There is no reason the City of St. Albans’ TIF project can’t be replicated from one end of the state to the other. Each TIF would be different in scale and direction, and the timing would have to be considered, but the premise would remain the same. The TIF tool is the only affordable means by which the public and private sectors can make any progress repairing Vermont’s rural environs.
The basic premise to economic development at any level is that what is built will eventually need to be rebuilt. Things die. They fall into a state of disrepair. Take a drive through rural Vermont’s towns and villages. You will see more that needs to be torn down and rebuilt than you’d like to think. If not TIFs then what?
It’s time to be aggressive. So many of our towns are falling apart and the leaders of those communities don’t have the tools to rebuild them. The governor’s push to expand the use of TIFs is one way to change that narrative.
by Emerson Lynn