Some Vermonters want to 'Live Free or Die'

Killington wants to lead other Vermont towns in an exit strategy - to join low-tax New Hampshire.

They may not wear breeches or padded doublets. Nor do they boycott tea. But a group of 21st-century revolutionaries in Vermont say they want nothing short of a tax revolt. Their plan? Secede to New Hampshire as a means to save millions in property taxes they say unfairly penalize resort communities across the state.

The push began in Killington, a ski town of 1,000 some 25 miles west of the New Hampshire border, where residents voted last spring to explore the practicalities of becoming Granite Staters. Now there are similar rumblings in Dorset, Manchester, and Ludlow. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly located Killington, Vt., as being east of New Hampshire.]

If pushed to the edge, says Tom Glavin, town manager of Dorset, where Killington officials spoke with residents at meeting of selectmen last week, it is a course he'd be willing to help chart. "We can 'Live Free or Die' in New Hampshire," he says, referring to that state's motto, "or be oppressed by Vermont."

The effort has stirred resentment and plenty of snickers across the Green Mountain State. But it goes, also, to the core of cultural identity: How easy is it, after all, to adopt a different state bird or swap mottos - especially when the states have long viewed each other as competitive cousins? For the loudest critics, it's a far cry from the idealism that fueled America's forefathers. This, they say, is simple greed: The tax system was restructured in 1997 to better fund schools. Few believe Vermont will one day be a state speckled with enclaves of another.

But Dave Lewis, Killington's town manager and the movement's pioneer says, "It's a worthy road to take." In Dorset last week, he spoke earnestly about saving Vermont towns from tax oppression even as the legislature and supreme court dismissed Killington's pleas. "We are under no illusion that it will happen overnight, or that it will happen at all," he says.

Many insist it's not necessary. "No one is being squeezed," says Dorset resident Melissa Hurst, who spends half the year in New York City. "We are taxed more heavily because we can be. We can afford it." Even as the town loses money, some point out, resort communities are bolstered by Vermont's label: green pastures and maple syrup that are synonymous with Vermont underpin the local economy.

What is missing from the dialogue, says Linda McWain of Manchester's American Museum of Fly Fishing, is the New England tradition of independence. "Vermont should stay in Vermont and work on its own problems," she insists. If New Hampshire were to revamp its tax system after Manchester seceded, what then?

Dorset and nearby Manchester are the stuff of mountain paradises. Nestled among the Taconic and Green Mountain ranges, main streets are lined with elegant homes and town greens are dotted with inns and general stores. The hills beyond are a spread of rolling farms.

Yet, idyllic views can be deceptive, says Ivan Beattie, a horse breeder and Manchester selectman for 20 years. "Manchester may be a wealthy town, but a town is made up of people. Towns don't pay taxes, people do," he says, as he feeds oats to his horses.

A seventh-generation Manchester resident, he says the farm he has tended for more than 25 years is his life and being a Vermonter his identity. Still, he worries that some day, if the economy remains weak and property taxes keep rising, he'll go out of business. He says others in the community are worse off (even with lower-income rebates).

Back on Manchester's main street, Rep. Judy Livingston (R) of Manchester was preparing to host a dinner party at her house for Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas. She says she has been fighting against unequal property taxes for years, but takes the side of pragmatism. New Hampshire, she says, is simply different. The Granite State has a denser population and laws that encourage industry. Who would plow winter roads? How far into Vermont would the New Hampshire state police drive? Would town residents need new driver's licenses?

Mr. Lewis shrugs off such details. The tax difference is hard to ignore: According to one economic study, Killington's taxes would be halved if the town seceded. Now the town pays $20 million to the state and only gets $2 million for schools and municipal aid.

Lewis insists he doesn't want to make his town a low-tax fortress. "We're not moving anywhere," he points out. "Our neighbors are still our neighbors." And maybe, he posits, secession would actually foster interstate cooperation.

Maps are not likely to be redrawn any time soon. Killington - and others - would need approval from both state legislatures, Vermont's Governor Douglas, and the US Congress. In the state capital of Montpelier, the movement draws laughs. Ms. Livingston says a favorite joke in the capital is, "What are they going to do? Build a bridge from Killington to New Hampshire?"

Meanwhile, Governor Douglas "is hopeful ... that [town officials will] direct their attention to developing legislative solutions rather than focusing on public-relations gimmickry," says Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for the governor. They shouldn't forget, he adds, that the Killington ski mountain belongs to the state.

Even if the movement is merely a gesture, discontent with the tax system remains, and secession - however unlikely - at least infuses the discussion with new life, says Livingston.

And while it does, it may pay homage to the past, echoing, in its grandest sense, the Revolutionary War. "We are the colonies, revolting against the oppressive British," says Mr. Glavin.

The tea bags he found scattered on the floor after Dorset's selectmen meeting only proved his point. A coincidence? He seriously doubts it.

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