Businessmen balk at new drug war tax
February 12, 2008
By Brent Curtis Herald Staff
The owners of several bars, restaurants and eateries in Rutland told the city's aldermen Monday they don't want to bear all of the financial responsibility for bolstering renewed efforts to fight drugs and violence.
Following a citywide vote seven years ago, the aldermen created a 1 percent rooms, meals and entertainment tax. Through the years, the tax has collected an average of $450,000 a year on purchases of prepared food, liquor sales at bars, admissions to the movies and more.
Passed in the wake of a drug-fueled triple murder in Rutland, the tax was designed to support the city police department which, at that time, was asking for two additional detectives and a dispatcher.
The police got what they asked for from the tax. But seven years later, law enforcement officials say they need two additional officers and $100,000 more annually in their overtime budget to combat a new surge of drugs and violence that has contributed to three shootings and one death since mid-November.
The good news is, the city doesn't have to come up with extra funds to pay for police overtime through the end of the fiscal year.
Thanks to $30,000 worth of donations received last week from Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and an anonymous donor, city officials said Monday there would be enough extra money to pay for additional police work until the end of June.
But where to come up with the $230,000 to pay for the new officers and overtime promises to be a contentious question.
Just as they did in 2000, city officials have three options — raise taxes, raise revenue or cut spending elsewhere.
But while the 1 percent tax was the solution during the last crisis, business owners paying the tax said they shouldn't be called upon again to pay for the needs of the police.
"All of us here are businessmen and the city is a business, too," Muckenschnabel's bar owner Marty Muckenschnabel said standing before the aldermen and a room packed with business owners and law enforcement officials at City Hall. "The city is a business. You have to run your business the way we run ours by being more efficient, learning to do without and cutting if necessary."
"We're not Wal-Mart, Kmart or Sears," Three Tomatoes restaurant owner Alan Frye said. "There's not enough business downtown to help meet the need and if you want to lose more businesses, then raise the tax."
Particularly galling to a number of the business owners was the news that only a portion of the revenue raised from the 1 percent tax have gone to support city police over the years.
How much of the tax money has gone to support the police is difficult to say since revenue from the tax is deposited directly into the city's general fund as opposed to a designated fund. Since the three positions added to the police department remain, city officials estimated that the police budget has seen a $225,000 annual boost from the tax.
But many of the business owners said they were dismayed to learn that the tax dollars also support budgets for recreation, City Hall offices, the fire department and other general fund activities.
"I'm upset because (the tax) was sold to us as being 100 percent for the police and obviously that's not the way it's been used," said David Boynton, owner of the Village Snack Bar. "I think you told the people something wrong. I think you lied to us and we passed it."
The business owners in the room aren't the only ones who have said they feel deceived by the use of the tax revenues.
At a recent public hearing on the escalation of drugs and violence locally, city police Detective Ray Lamoria told the aldermen and a room full of residents that he and other members of the department felt betrayed after the revenues were divided.
Some of the newer aldermen have also questioned the use of the funds. At the same hearing at which Lamoria spoke, Aldermen David Dress read a newspaper advertisement paid for by former Mayor John Cassarino's election campaign that only mentioned the benefits to the police department that would be gained by passing the tax.
But some aldermen on the board in 2000 and 2001 said the former mayor never promised all of the funds to the police, nor did the board include any requirements on the use of the funds when it adopted the tax.
"I think what was marketed to the public and the public perception is different," said Board President David Allaire.
The board decided to leave the issue of how to pay for additional police and overtime in committee for further discussion.