BARRE — The fate of a twice-defeated school budget is now squarely in the hands of Barre and Barre Town voters many of whom were automatically mailed ballots they haven’t yet returned.

The clock is ticking.

Last week more than 2,900 absentee ballots went out in the mail — 1,303 in Barre and 1,623 in Barre Town. On Wednesday — one week before a special election that will determine whether voters are collectively ready to approve a budget for the Barre Unified Union School District, just more than one-third of them — 1,055 — had been returned.

Through Tuesday, only 111 of the Barre ballots had been returned, though City Clerk Carol Dawes said that number jumped to 403 after Wednesday’s mail was processed.

In Barre Town, newly elected Town Clerk Tina Lunt said Wednesday’s mail pushed the absentee vote total in that community to 652.

There is still time, just not as much as a Facebook message posted on behalf of an anxious School Board seemed to suggest Tuesday. Posted barely eight days before a high-stakes special election the message lacked a level of urgency.

“As we face the third round of voting on the Barre Unified Union School District budget, we would like to thank the residents of our community for your concern and interest in our students as you cast either absentee ballots over the next couple of weeks or vote in person on June 9th,” it began.

June 9 is the right date for the special election. It is also next Wednesday and voters who think they have a “couple of weeks” to mail in their ballots could be days too late.

Clerks in both communities have sought to underscore the tight turnaround time, with Dawes including a bright green reminder along with the pink ballots she is using for a special election that will be held in six days.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. next Wednesday at the BOR ice arena in Barre and the gymnasium at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School. Though, if form holds, the vast majority of ballots will arrive in the mail or be deposited in advance in drop boxes at City Hall in Barre or the municipal office building in Barre Town.

For those concerned about spending, the $49.95 million budget on next Wednesday’s single-issue ballot compares favorably to earlier versions, both of which narrowly passed in the city, but failed by slightly wider margins in the town.

A $50.5 million budget proposal failed by 111 votes —1,471-1,582 — on Town Meeting Day in March and last month a $50.4 million version came up 12 votes short — 1,395-1,407.

A series of cuts proposed by administrators and embraced by the board effectively erased what had been a nominal tax rate increase previously projected for Barre while further adding to a sizeable reappraisal-related rate reduction forecast for Barre Town.

One is simple to explain the other isn’t and has prompted complaints at public meetings, online and in print that board’s oft-repeated assertion — one included in Tuesday’s Facebook post – is, at best, misleading.

The board’s claim that approval of the budget would require no increase in Barre’s tax rate and allow for a projected 29-cent reduction in Barre Town’s tax rate is mathematically accurate. On that, even the budget’s most vocal critics agree. Their gripe is the fact the tax rate is going down has far more to do with the reappraisal than the budget and while it makes for a good sound bite it ignores a key piece of the equation.

The problem?

It has to be because, as Board Chairwoman Sonya Spaulding noted in response to multiple posts on the matter, that information isn’t available.

“… This post does not say that your tax bill is going down, as we cannot approximate what each property owner will have for a value on their property when re-assessment is completed,” Spaulding wrote.

That is also true and won’t change before next Wednesday.

Barring any setbacks, change of appraisal notices are expected to be in the mail by June 24, arming town residents with information that will enable them to calculate their education property tax based on the projected 29-cent rate reduction.

In Barre, that’s not a problem. With very few exceptions a home assessed at $200,000 for tax purposes last year is still assessed at $200,000 this year and projections suggest the education tax rate — just under $1.42-per-$100 assessed property value — will drop by a fraction of a cent.

What’s it mean?

It means the education property taxes on that theoretical $200,000 were roughly $2,838 before any adjustments for household income were made and would be $2,836 if the budget is approved next week.

No change.

Then there is Barre Town where the common level of appraisal will jump from just under 80% of fair market value to 100% of fair market value when the reappraisal is finished later this month. That change is primarily responsible for school officials’ projection that the education tax rate will drop from just under $1.64-per-$100-assessed property value to about just under $1.35-per-$100-assessed property value — a 29-cent reduction.

What does that mean?

It depends.

If a home that was assessed at $200,000 last year was still assessed at $200,000 this year, it would translated into a $582 reduction in the property tax bill.

The problem, critics claim, is that theoretical $200,000 home will be worth considerably more following the town’s first reappraisal in 15 years.

How much more?

To paraphrase Spaulding: who knows?

Until the change of appraisal notices arrive it’s all just guesswork.

It is, but that doesn’t make it a useless exercise.

Take that theoretical $200,000 home. Before any income-related adjustment the education tax on that home, based on the much higher tax rate is about $3,276.

If the value of that home were to double, the education tax bill for that $400,000 property based on the lower tax rate would be about $5,387 — a year-over-year increase of $2,111, notwithstanding the 29-cent rate reduction.

A 50% increase in the value of that same property would push its assessment to $300,000 and result in an education tax bill of $4,040, or an increase of $764 before any income-related adjustments.

A 25% increase would translate into an assessment of $250,000 and an education tax bill of $3,367 before any income-related adjustments. That’s a little over $91 more than the bill on the same home taxed at the higher rate this year.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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