Our cherished small town way of life is going to pot and ironically, pot might be able to save it. There are a number of meetings across the state asking for input on what to do with revenues from the legal taxation of cannabis.
There have been proposals to dedicate the funds to drug education and cleaning up our water. These are admirable goals and should be considered. The small towns, however, need to be a central part of any discussion about this potentially bountiful new revenue source.
One of the quirks of Vermont is the lack of a countywide political system. In most states, there is an intermediate branch of government between the capital and the local mayor (or select board). The effect is cost-shifting expense to the local towns. Time after time, when facing large statewide problems, the smaller entities are hit with relatively higher costs. This is especially true of towns with small populations that rely on volunteers and lack many managerial positions. Nearly 40 percent of Vermont’s towns have less than 1,000 residents, almost 70 percent less than 2,000.
I am the former Select Board chair and current road commissioner of Plainfield, population 1,260. I can vouch for the detrimental legislation that has negatively affected our town’s ability to do everything from hiring vendors to managing roads. Small-town Vermonters should expect significant increases in local property tax rates despite what politicians promise. Emergency services and health care costs, alone, will burden smaller towns going forward. This will be on top of tone-deaf mandates from Montpelier.
I predict, in the coming decades, towns will merge to gain economic efficiency. That will mean the complete disappearance of a cherished way of life as these small entities are the bulwark against the increased homogenization of our culture. Losing towns will directly impact the character of our state as small town meetings and historical societies go the way of the dodo bird.
In order to safeguard what we hold dear, we must step outside our comfort zone and adopt something that, to many, will be abhorrent. Marijuana legalization has been adopted on our northern and southern borders. It appears likely it will proceed in Montpelier. Although many might have moral objections, it would be prudent to harness this new source of funding to, ironically, help small towns stay solvent. Municipalities with populations of less than 2,000 should be the exclusive areas permitted to sell legal cannabis. In addition, the state should follow New York’s liquor statutes and restrict shops to single individuals who live within a few miles of the store and hold no other cannabis licenses (in other words, no chain stores.) A significant percentage of gross revenues collected throughout the state can be allocated directly to the treasuries of towns with populations of less than 5,000, which compromise nearly 90 percent of all municipalities.
In the last few days, I’ve read news stories highlighting the difficulties of small-town survival. Randolph is suddenly without a police force. East Calais is fighting to preserve their general store, an institution which is steadily vanishing from the Vermont landscape. I know the governor and many citizens are uncomfortable with the state sanctioning the legal sale of weed. But that must be balanced against the threat of weeds collecting on our small main streets.
Affordability has been the catchphrase of many politicians trying to manage Vermont in an era of skyrocketing costs. In this instance, small towns cannot afford to miss out on this revenue stream. Cannabis funding must directly benefit small municipalities via local ownership. In addition, town treasuries should directly receive a portion of this new tax. Please contact your representatives and press them to include these measures to safeguard our local way of life. Remind them that, in terms of small town solvency, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Bram Towbin is a Plainfield resident and former Select Board member.