The Vermont Legislature is considering a bill that would exempt property owned by state-recognized tribes from property taxes and recognize that Vermont lands “are the historic and current territories of the Western Abenaki people."
The legislation, which won preliminary approval in the Senate on Friday, states that “stewardship of these lands was removed from the Abenaki by European governments and settlers" and acknowledges “the Abenaki people as the traditional land caretakers of Ndakinna, which includes parts of Vermont, New England, and Quebec.”
Sen. Ruth Hardy, a Democrat, told fellow senators Friday that the bill “is a direct and intentional step forward in this recognition process and restoration of the relationship between Abenaki land and people.”
To be exempt from the state and municipal property taxes, the property must be used for the purposes of the tribe and not leased or rented. The tax exemption is intended to lower tribes' costs "to allow them to dedicate more their financial resources to furthering tribe related activities,” Hardy said.
Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan Band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, said the tax exemption allows the tribes to be able to use those resources “to help uplift our people” with food security and other needs. It also allows tribes, which rely on grants and donations, to accept land without having to worry about whether they can pay the property taxes, he said when interviewed in February.
“It’s really a moral issue about not having us pay the taxes. It’s the right thing to do,” he said.
Richard Menard, chief of the Abenaki Nation of Missisquoi, said the tax exemption would be a big financial advantage for the tribe, which also relies on donations and grants.
“Our property taxes on our tribal building is like $6,000 a year... That would definitely help us out a lot," he said
The tribe runs a food shelf, and with refrigerators and freezers, the utility bill is high, he said. It also buys food for the program, he said.
The tax exemption currently would apply to four properties in the towns of Barton, Brattleboro, Swanton and Brunswick Springs, Hardy said. The effect on the education fund from the statewide property taxes is very small at $7,000, Hardy said. There's also a small municipal property tax implication, that varies by the towns, she said.
If given final approval in the Senate, the bill would go back to the House. If approved and signed by the governor, the measure would take effect July 1.