BARRE — The Granite City has a new tax rate and a new task force, though the latter won’t be seated for more than a month and will have until the end of October to recommend steps the city should take in response to an expected increase in its homeless population that is happening right now.
With the state pivoting away from the federally subsidized motel voucher that was its pandemic-long solution to the problem, small encampments have started to crop up in Barre.
That includes one near a small steel storage container at the fringe of Hope Cemetery that was discovered, dismantled and its contents disposed of Monday by city staff.
At the end of a gravel road about 100 yards from the maintained section of Barre’s cemetery, the campsite was not occupied at the time it was dismantled, but homeless advocates said four people claimed to be staying there.
At least two of them were women, according to Councilor Ericka Reil.
“They were just looking for a safe place to camp,” she said.
Reil joined Councilor Teddy Waszazak in calling for the creation of a homelessness task force similar to one she serves on in Montpelier as an advocate for people with disabilities.
Waszazak said the ending of the motel voucher program and the anticipated influx of homeless residents warranted the creation of a task force similar to one that has existed in Montpelier since 2019.
However, he stressed he didn’t believe Barre should necessarily follow Montpelier’s lead and a local panel should consider the problem in the context of the community.
“We should have a policy that works for Barre,” he said.
Reil, who volunteered to chair the yet-to-be-appointed task force, agreed, suggesting what ever the panel recommends won’t solve a problem that is bigger than Barre and predated the pandemic.
“This is a Band-Aid,” she said.
The proposal prompted pushback from Councilor Michael Boutin, who predicted the task force would recommend a solution he wouldn’t support and argued comparisons to Montpelier ignored one important fact.
“Barre has a homeless shelter (Good Samaritan Haven), Montpelier does not,” he said, suggesting he wanted no part of a policy that would permit camping on some city-owned properties.
Though councilors in Montpelier haven’t determined precisely where camping should be permitted, they will consider the recommendations of their task force and cemetery and parks commissions when they take up a policy recently drafted by staff next month.
Boutin predicted the task force would likely recommend a similar policy. He said allowing camping on city-owned property in Barre was a “non-starter” for him and, he believed, for a majority of city residents.
“If you are upset about it as a Barre City resident, you should say something,” Boutin said, directing his comments at the public access audience.
The rest of the council wasn’t with him, and the only online participant, Carl Hilton VanOsdall, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, endorsed the creation of the task force and expressed his hope it would work collaboratively with local clergy.
VanOsdall said the Barre Interfaith Group has been working on food and housing insecurity issues for more than a decade and recently invited organizations like Capstone Community Action, Good Samaritan Haven and Aldrich Public Library to participate in its regular meetings.
Emel Cambel and others on the council said they viewed the creation of a task force as a small, but meaningful step.
“We have to look at systems that we have set up and that have stood for a very long time that enable people to fall very quickly through the cracks,” Cambel said, suggesting she liked the idea of exploring an issue that is far bigger than Barre through a hyper local lens.
So did Reil, who sought to allay Boutin’s concerns about camping.
“It’s not a floodgate to say: ‘Yes, camp in Barre,’” she said. “This is saying: ‘we see you. You’re here. You’re visible.’”
Reil proposed a seven-member committee that she hoped would include a member of law enforcement, a social worker and a representative of the homeless community.
Though Boutin voted against the motion, councilors agreed to form the task force, agreed to recruit members for the next month and give it three months to report back with a recommendation.
Jeff Bergeron, the city’s director of buildings and community services, said he hoped that recommendation wouldn’t open the door to more encampments at Hope Cemetery.
By rule, the city’s cemeteries are open to the public between 7 a.m. and sunset, and Bergeron argued that shouldn’t change.
“I’m sorry, but Hope Cemetery is not just a cemetery, it is an art museum,” Bergeron said. “It is a draw to people from around the world. Not just the state, not just the United States, but around the world.
“There are people who come here to see the beauty of that cemetery and to have tents pitched in areas of the cemetery is unacceptable,” he added.
Waszazak said he appreciated that concern and hinted the Cow Pasture — 67 city-owned acres — might similarly be off limits.
“I think we should have a policy that works for Barre,” he said.
That will have to wait, but with all the pieces finally in place, councilors were able to belatedly set the tax rate for the fiscal year that started earlier this month.
The good news?
The increase in the municipal portion of the tax rate is a little over 2 cents less than projected heading into Town Meeting Day.
That makes the bad news not so bad.
The tax rate set by the council Tuesday night — the one that will pay for the day-to-day operation of a full-service city and cover the shrinking costs of local agreements is up roughly 4 cents to $1.9769-per-$100 assessed property value.
When you factor in recently received education tax rates that are set by the state and were delayed as result of the belated approval of the school budget this year, City Clerk Carol Dawes now has the rates she needs to calculate tax bills, get them printed and mailed to property owners next week.
The education tax rates — one for homesteads the other for nonresidential properties — are less than 1 cent higher than the “no increase” school officials were predicting heading into their third budget vote next month.
The new homestead rate is $1.4268-per-$100 assessed property value, which when you add on the just-set municipal rate of $1.9769 pushes the total tax rate for homeowners to $3.4037-per-$100 assessed property value. Last year the comparable rate was $3.3565 — a difference of a little less than 4 cents.
The new nonresidential education rate is $1.6974-per-$100 assessed property value, which jumps to $3.6743 when you add in in the municipal rate. That’s an increase of a little less than 5 cents over last year’s rate of $3.6268-per-$100 assessed property value.
No matter which rate is used to calculate the bill, the first installment won’t be due on Aug. 15 this year. Because of the delay in setting the rate, the first installment will be due on Sept. 15. The traditional due dates for the remaining installments are not affected.