by Gerard Renfro, Montpelier
“I want to borrow 20. You gave 15. You owe me five.”— Abbott and Costello routine
As Montpelier enters another season of consumer gluttony, I would like to review a few ways the town cheats itself when it fails to recognize its economic problems.
There is the old issue of inadequate payment in lieu of taxes payments where the government and non-profit sector avoid their fair share of property tax — a long term problem that drains our taxes. More recent is the statewide austerity effort (last May) directed at teachers benefits. Unions were successfully holding their own against individual school districts during contract negotiations. Governor Phil Scott’s attempt to override the union right of collective bargaining failed, but what should bother everyone is his successful attempt to demonize teachers for having decent jobs and benefits.
Meanwhile, job- and benefit-secure administrators promote school consolidation, while yet another tax draining non-profit, the Montpelier Development Corporation, is born. According to the June 15 Bridge, the corporation’s mission is to “foster business and economic development” by considering “all sides” of what affects Montpelier’s economy. Oddly, the sides never looked at are corporate corruption that extends from the 1980s to the 2008 recession, the over bloated military budget and the loss of middle class jobs. If these problems did not exist, small towns could foster local economies that could in turn pay taxes needed to support their public institutions.
Of course, local only counts when you can count on local. Despite our claim to support local, almost all essential items downtown are from some sweatshop in a foreign country. This is because our national industrial jobs are gone. With those jobs go our taxes. (I have no love of industrial pollution or worker drone factories, but unregulated sweatshop factories are worse.) Nowadays, for essential items, we must go out of town. This takes business away from local retailers and gives it to the big chain stores that offer lousy wages and benefits. This makes employees less able to pay taxes while increasing the overall tax strain when those employees become dependent on government support, the very thing being constricted with austerity because of a loss of taxes. What nonprofit or government body has ever spoken to this issue?
Fortunately, while we stink locally, we can act logically.
One simple habit to change would be to use credit/debit cards less. A single store can lose over $10,000 on plastic fees each year. Keep in mind that for each item sold, a retailer makes only so much profit beyond the wholesale cost. Most of that goes to operating expenses and taxes. Whatever is left, if anything, keeps the business afloat during the “off season.” Every time someone uses plastic, some of that profit is lost to the card-use fee. The amount of money wasted by local business here in Montpelier is probably somewhere between $100,000–$200,000. This represents the loss of more than two good jobs per year. Instead of going to a potential employee, who would be a local consumer and taxpayer, it goes to some corporate account.
Just as credit card use is a customer practice that is wasteful for retail stores, there are certain practices of retail managers that are disrespectful to employees. Occasionally a manager might ‘terminate’ a worker without official notice. The basic tactic is to simply not put a worker on the schedule, thus providing zero work hours. This spares the retailer from paying for unemployment costs by preventing the worker from filing for unemployment. Another tactic that I have heard of is the practice of keeping a certain number of workers under half time employment so the retailer can avoid health care costs. I understand that retailers feel overburdened by regulations, but dumping on the workforce is unfair. If a local business wants our loyalty, it should make the effort to earn it. Manipulating rules to cheat workers is not the way.
Doing the ‘local thing’ does not mean merely avoiding the mall or internet. It means recognizing and acting on the interdependency of our community. Giving lip service to “think global, act local” is not enough. Expecting answers from some government/non-profit alliance is ridiculous. Changing our awareness of false fixes, our sense of responsibility to each other, and our spending habits with the aim of local production is a small start.
Gerard Renfro thanks the teacher’s union representative and local businesses who contributed to this article.