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Cold Weather, Hard State


by Peter Miller

Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece was first released to Vermont Digger on March 27, 2014. As released, Peter Miller’s opinion piece opened with a few paragraphs that described the punishing, relentless winter just passed. As we publish Peter Miller’s piece for our April 17 issue, the hardest part of the 2013-2014 winter has passed. And we decided to pick up Peter Miller’s piece after his description of the 2013-1014 winter as he goes on to report on how tough it is for ordinary Vermonters (carpenters, farmers, mom and pop store owners, repair people and the like) to make ends meet and continue to live here.

Fire and Ice…the cold that freeze-sucks my body is matched by the heat it creates in the belly of my psyche—the heat of anxiety. After all this, how am I going to pay my bills?

This anxiety attack hit hard when I, and many homeowners throughout Vermont, received our property tax bills last summer, and we saw the increase in the homestead education tax. That bill might as well have stamped on it: “You cannot afford Vermont!” (Thirty-four towns turned down their school budget this past Town Meeting Day. I was lucky I am so poor, for I received for last year a hefty payback. Still, I’m behind.)

This past fall, I was traveling through Vermont, delivering my new book to bookstores and talking to strangers. People told me they placed their homes for sale or had seen their neighbors put up for sale signs right after the tax bill was in the mailbox.

I talked to a young woman who lives in Wolcott. “My husband and I both work, but I don’t know how we can make it.” Worry lines were creasing her forehead and puckering her natural beauty.

“We recently retired,” said a friend who is now a clerk in a bank. “We don’t have as much work and our retirement funds are not enough to live here anymore. We have to move. Vermont is not what it used to be.”

“My house has been on the market for a year and no one has made an offer,” said a store clerk. He frowned, and looked away to something only he could see. “I want to leave but I have to sell first.”

Bleak it is. Vermont property taxes are rated among the top ten most expensive in the country. This week in Vermont the average cost of fuel oil is $3.92 a gallon (17 cents below average); propane, $4.34 a gallon ($1.17 above average); gasoline, $3.59 a gallon (eight cents higher in Waterbury) and electricity, 17.05 cents per kilowatt hour (fourth highest in continental United States). Food costs keep climbing in this  “…one of the ten coldest years in US history.”

A friend in New Mexico pays a property tax of $1,400 for their adobe home, and it is appraised at half a million and could be sold for more. When they lived in Middlesex, they paid a $3,900 property tax on a house they sold for $150,000.

Many of us “new poor folk” are independent Vermonters, meaning we work for ourselves. Creative people (I’m a writer and photographer), mom and pop owners of village stores, people who work the woods or land, carpenters, landscapers and repair people—these are the Vermonters who crafted Vermont and gave it a flavor so different from most of America. Many of us are bereft of any lifeline­—associations, lobbyists and public relations firms. Bankers don’t like our sporadic cash flow. We are the grunts of Vermont.

Many a Vermonter has a certain foreboding of their future, and it is evidenced by the ads and editorials you see in Vermont Life and Vermont Magazine. Most of us can’t think of buying some of the lush windows and kitchens shown in ads. Luxury homes and their gardens are marvelously photographed and landscaped. Then there are the magazines that advertise estates for sale that run from $900,000 to $3 million or more. The thrust here appears to be that Vermont wants the newcomers with big bucks and then hit them with a property-education tax that makes them shed dollars like melting snowflakes, but hey, many a new Vermonter can afford it.

“What are we going to do, just work for a bunch of wealthy people?” said the son of a farmer who sold his farm. “We can’t afford to buy a home or land in the town we grew up in.”

Banks have often turned their backs on the self-employed and some frown on approving loans for older people, unless their assets are quickly convertible. Many independent Vermonters have switched their banking to credit unions. And did you see there are more restrictions on your home insurance plan?

I love Vermont—have ever since I moved here in 1947. I love the hillside farmers I have met, the beauty of the land. I have written five books on Vermont that are recognized as classics on rural Vermont. I have been recognized as Vermonter of the Year and honored by the Vermont State Legislature and the US Senate for my documentation of rural Vermont. “I am a treasure to Vermont,” I was told. “You can’t move away.”

I don’t want to leave the Vermont that has been such a large part of my life and soul, but I cannot afford to live in Vermont, own a home and pay property taxes and support the money our towns and state say they need so they can support me. I see our mountains becoming billboards for subsidized wind turbines. A Canadian firm owns our two largest power companies; other businesses are interested in pipeline and transmission stations to send energy through Vermont not to Vermont. We need a return to the values that made this state free in thinking and bound by a common unity of spirit. I’m suggesting that we need to embrace the democratic principles of governance by the people—legislators need to hear our stories so they can make informed governmental decisions on funding during their sessions in Montpelier.

Wishful thinking, and meanwhile…many creative people have given up and taken salaried positions. Rob Hunter, the director of Frog Hollow, which is located in Burlington and is Vermont’s leading gallery for craft and art, reports a number of artists stopped paying dues, as they cannot afford to create art they can’t sell. True, it is tough all over for creative people. The copyright is under attack. New business models created by CEOs with the expectations that every intellectual property is as free as the Internet has crippled photography, illustration, writing and music creators. The effect reverberates. With the money crunch, buying artwork is not an option for average Vermonters. I put off repairing my car and winterizing my house because I need to pay taxes and buy fuel oil.

Alpine skiing, my favorite sport, is too expensive, and new Vermonters have posted most of the land I used to bird hunt on. Instead of thinking of new book projects, I repair my house, shovel snow, spread salt and haul firewood. Because of the cost of gas, I don’t drive around the state looking for photographs or people to talk to; I argue with the companies who charge me too much on those monthly costs and stare aghast at my shrinking income, but I thank god for Medicare.

We self-employed Vermonters grumble but we have carried on, and every so often we remember that we live in beauty. That’s the Vermont Way and I think it is coming to an end.

This tome started out as a rant but it is not. It is a fact and a warning that perhaps the people who run this state have shot themselves in the foot. My house, according to one real estate agent, is over-appraised by a large amount and this is true for many homeowners. Our old homes were built large to hold families and farm workers and usually had little or no insulation. When houses are reappraised lower, will the towns raise taxes or lower salaries or cut staff? It is getting to the point where self-employed Vermonters might do better going on the dole and using state and federal funds to pay their bills.

Back to the effects of a cold, cold winter…the cold that travels down my backbone—that seesawing of temperatures—is here to stay—says Roger Hill, our knowledgeable northern Vermont meteorologist. (www.weatheringheights.com)

Roger gave me the statistics on minus zero days this winter in my region. Roger went on to say this cold-ice, flooding and blizzards, according to a study at Rutgers University, is likely to become a constant for residents of Canada, North America and Britain. The high altitude jet stream, a river of air, is sucked up north. As the Arctic temperatures are rising rapidly, more so than the rest of the world, the jet stream slows down and creeps over the polar region, sucking up cold from the arctic sea that is no longer ice-capped so it is not reflecting back the heat of the sun. The meteo-techies feel the cold jet stream is going to hover over our small state for a while.

I love my home state but I can’t afford to own my house, and now I hear rents are way too high too. Well, my old house is an anachronism and so am I. I have to minimize or go off the grid. I do have an out, and it is my 18-foot, 45-year-old Airstream trailer, but damn it makes my Jeep over indulge at the gas pump.

Peter Miller is a photographer and author who recently published A Lifetime of Vermont People, a collection of photos and stories on rural Vermonters created over the past 63 years. He is 80 years old and lives in Colbyville, Vermont.