At 10 cents for every $100, Mount Tabor’s municipal tax rate is among the lowest in the state. Although the rate has always been low, today it is nearly one third what it was in 1999. That’s the year the state’s transportation committee lowered the speed limit on Route 7 in Mount Tabor — against the recommendation of engineers at the Agency of Transportation.
Since then, a single police sergeant has issued over $2 million in traffic fines, mostly to speeding motorists. That money goes a long way in a town of 255.
- Population: 255
- Tickets issued: 1,292+
- Total issued in traffic ticket fines: $230,992+
- Total received in traffic ticket revenue: $131,074
- Revenue to town per resident: $524
- Amount spent on police department (FY17): $37,100
WHAT HAPPENED IN 1999
In March 1999, Wendell Davidson Jr., chairman of the Selectboard for the town of Mount Tabor, requested either a stop light be installed, or the speed limit on Route 7 in Mount Tabor be reduced from 50 mph to 45 mph. “It is very difficult for disabled or blind people to get across this road,” he wrote to the Agency of Transportation.
An Agency of Transportation engineering study supported a speed limit of either 55 or 60 mph. Short of other factors, such as limited sight distance or high crash incidents, federal guidance and best practices recommend the speed limit be set at the current rate under which 85 percent of motorists drive. In Mount Tabor, the 85th percentile was 57 mph. Instead, agency engineers recommended the speed limit remain at 50 mph.
They presented their recommendation at a public meeting held by the Vermont Traffic Committee. The Committee consists of three members: the state’s secretary of the Agency of Transportation, commissioner of Department of Motor Vehicles and the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety.
According to the minutes, no resident of Mount Tabor was present at that June 1999 meeting. The town’s law enforcement officer was present: Wallingford resident Nelson Tift.
He mentioned that two residents with disabilities cross the street and that a reduced speed limit “would be easier to enforce and lower the speeding in this area.” The committee then voted to reduce the speed limit to 45 mph: at least 10 mph below what federal guidelines supported.
These days, Tift sits in an unmarked blue car on Route 7 between 24 to 30 hours every week. Last year, he brought in $131,074 in traffic ticket revenues to the town — that's 3.5 times what the town spent on the police department.
That revenue has reduced taxpayers’ burden by more than 25 percent.
Adele Eichel, town auditor in Mount Tabor, was the only town official willing to talk to VPR about the money the town receives from traffic tickets.
"It would be foolish to say we don’t rely on it," Eichel said, "because we have become reliant on it, I think."
Amy Gamble, traffic operations engineer with the Agency of Transportation, doesn't find the events in Mount Tabor surprising.
“In cases where the town or citizens choose not to attend the meeting, the traffic committee almost always will simply accept the traffic operations recommendation,” Gamble said. However, she said, when testimony is given, the committee will “very often set the speed limit in accordance to what the town has requested.”
Such decisions have consequences. "If the speed limit is too slow," Gamble continued, "the public can perceive that as a speed trap." When most drivers perceive a speed limit as unreasonable, Gamble said, "the only way to get compliance is through heavy enforcement."
In the meantime, many residents support the 45-mph speed limit. Town moderator and local furniture maker Bob Gasperetti's story is well known around town.
"I was rear-ended 20 years ago and have never been the same," Gasperetti said. He was pulling out onto Route 7, at the time, from Brooklyn Road. Today, he says, he still suffers from the severe whiplash.
That story may be responsible for the belief in town that the Route 7 and Brooklyn Road intersection is a dangerous one. In fact, during a five-year period preceding the 1999 traffic engineering study, the crash rate at that intersection was 2.6 times below the average for similar intersections.
Special thanks to our news intern Tabitha Dudley for her assistance with this story.
This report comes from VPR's investigative reporting desk. VPR is committed to investigative journalism as part of its mission of public service. Have a tip for the investigative reporting desk? Send an email to VPR reporter/editor Emily Corwin.