As a result of writing about the Census 2020 effort last week, I learned some interesting information. A constituent from Saxtons River called to tell me something that might help explain why the return rate for Windham County has been so poor.
She explained to me that she and her husband had not received anything in the mail regarding the Census – no postcard, no form. When her husband inquired at the Saxtons River Post Office, he was told that they had received postcards but were unable to deliver them because of the way they were addressed.
I took a look at the postcard that I received in the mail and found that it was addressed “To Resident At” my mailing/physical address. That works well for folks who live in rural or residential areas with mailboxes at or near their physical addresses. However, in Saxtons River, many people have mailboxes at the post office, and the post office staff does not know who the “resident” is at a particular physical address. As a result, many of the cards were returned to the Census Bureau and residents did not get their Census information.
It is very important to be counted. What’s at stake? The Census, conducted every ten years, determines how more than $675 billion in federal funding is distributed “to local communities for schools, roads, and other public services”. It is also used to “determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and your political representation at all levels of government”.
Second-home owners should have received information in the mail as well, but if not, they too should contact the Census Bureau to indicate that no one is living in their Vermont home on a permanent basis.
There may be a concern about the privacy of the information that is provided on the Census form. Please be assured that all answers are confidential and private and protected by law. Violation of that confidentiality is a federal crime with serious penalties including a prison sentence and a fine of up to $250,000.
In the way of confession, I had not filled my Census 2020 form out when I wrote about it last week, but I vowed to do it. It turns out that it was very easy and didn’t even take the suggested ten minutes. If you have a big family, it might take a little longer, but it couldn’t be simpler or easier to fill out. If you haven’t already completed your form and mailed it back it the postage-paid envelope, you’ve lost it, or need help filling it out, there are other ways to go about doing it. You can call toll-free 1-844-330-2020 or go online to my2020census.gov. So, no excuses, it’s easy, please get it done!
Unemployment insurance continues to be a problem for some, but it seems that there may be some light at the end of the tunnel. Complicating things was the addition of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) Program that is funded with federal dollars. It is meant to help people who are self-employed and do not pay into the regular Unemployment Fund.
Many Vermonters are self-employed and have been prohibited from working as a result of the Stay Home, Stay Safe Order issued by Governor Scott. It is important for them to receive assistance so that they can keep their households afloat until they are allowed to go back to work. The PUA program was set up quickly and is separate from the regular unemployment system but it is in need of people to staff it.
As a result, Speaker Mitzi Johnson asked for members of the General Assembly to volunteer to be trained to assist with the application process. Approximately two dozen members volunteered and are being trained this weekend to pitch in. An additional form was provided to all legislators to help constituents who have been calling repeatedly without success to try and get benefits, either under the regular unemployment program or the PUA.
As I have checked back in with folks that have contacted me over the last few weeks, it seems that most have gotten some relief. What seems to be standard is that people who are self-employed are getting the minimum $191 plus the $600 in federal money until their tax return from 2019 can be checked to determine what they are really owed. Most people are happy knowing that progress has been made and that they can pay their bills.
This week, the House met via Zoom to pass two bills critical to Vermonters during the COVID-19 pandemic. S.333 is “an act relating to establishing a moratorium on ejectment and foreclosure actions during the COVID-19 emergency”. A more common understanding of the word “ejectment” is eviction.
The goal is to prevent people who have had no income due to the coronavirus from becoming homeless. It is not meant to be a rent or mortgage-paying “holiday”. If you have the funds to pay your rent or mortgage, you should do so. If you miss payments, you will be expected to pay them in the future. It should be noted that S.333 will not protect tenants with dangerous or illegal behavior.
We also passed S.344, which is “an act relating to temporary municipal tax rate provisions in response to COVID-19”. The goal here is to allow municipalities to provide temporary flexibility regarding the payment of property taxes given that some folks have been without a paycheck.
S.344 allows the legislative body of a municipality to do three things. They may by a majority vote “extend or establish a new time and method of payment for the municipal property tax and statewide education property tax collected by the municipality from taxpayers”. It allows them to establish a grace period for, decrease, or waive any penalty, interest, or fee for the late payment of either the municipal or education property taxes that they collect. It also allows them to reduce the municipal property tax rate but not the education property tax rate.
It states explicitly that it does not apply to any deadlines, penalties, or interest imposed on a municipality regarding the payment of the statewide education property tax due to the State or a school district. This could put a municipality in a bind and require it to borrow money to pay the bill. The House Ways and Means Committee has been working with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and State Treasurer Beth Pearce on a way to help towns with short term borrowing for the FY2020 payment if necessary. Some towns already do this, but it is understood that going forward a longer-term solution will be required. The Ways and Means Committee is beginning to explore what that might look like. It is also possible that Congress will make money available to municipalities for municipal expenses, but it’s been mostly conversation and no action yet.