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Peter Miller, peter@petermillerphotography.com 25 August.

We Vermonters who work for ourselves are suffering. Let’s put it this way. The average Vermonter has very little disposable income. State, town, school taxes and fees, property and school taxes, the 5th highest electrical rate in the country, above average costs of fuel oil, propane and gas make us downright poor. Our state government is spending more than it takes from us

Vermonters who have read my book, A Lifetime of Vermont People, email or visit. “We love Vermont,” they say, “we have family here, but our pension is too small.” Some sell, some can’t find a buyer. Younger people leave the state looking for decent paying jobs.

Vermont statistic trackers say enough new comers are moving in to balance the disenfranchised that are leaving. The head on this Forbes article, from last April, says it all: Tax Happy Vermont Becoming A State Where Only The Rich Can Afford To Live.

The rural Vermont culture of self-government, earning enough to get by and that inner sense of being a Vermonter is being replaced by a homogenized, wealthier, more sophisticated “transplant”. Some of these new Vermonters adapt beautifully to our Vermont Way, as I have. Many, though, carry their home state on their backs when they arrive. They want dirt roads paved and fancy sport facilities. The need dog parks and larger police department that will respond to calls when somebody they don’t recognize walks near their home.

They have deeper pockets than the self employed Vermonter so they buy homes and tear them down to put up larger and more expensive structures. They apply for town positions or are elected to the state legislature and create new bills to raise the cost of living. A new culture is nudging out our rural way of life. Long time residents from New Hampshire and Maine who have stopped in my Waterbury gallery say that is also happening in their state. .

I am a writer and photographer and my professions have been mangled in this century by the digital revolution. I started an Airbnb and decorated the rooms with my photographs and installed a photo library. Even so, I had to borrow to pay my property tax, the first time since I have been filing in this state since the 1950’s. And you know, I prefer writing and photography to being a chambermaid!

I have a new book project because of comments made to me by stressed-out Vermonters.. The Vanishing Vermonter, The Loss of a Rural Culture, will be published in the spring of 2017. So far I have interviewed and photographed nine people who expressed their thoughts on this “new” Vermont. How will I pay for it? I will crowd fund and put up on my blog sections of the book as I write them. (www.petermillerphotography.com).

Paul Hannon-7

Paul Hannon, master mechanic and owner of his Irasburg Garage for 30 years.

Paul Hannon is a mechanic who for 30 years has owned a garage in North Irasburg. He is the first person I interviewed for The Vanishing Vermonter. When we ended our interview he said, with a sigh,

“I am losing hope”

Vermont is a bellwether state. Our canary in the cage is gasping, our lead sheep is bleating. The hope and pride of my people has become fragile.

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The July 14 issue of Waterbury Record included a section called Reader’s Choice, 2016. In it was a write up naming me Mr. Waterbury for my coffee table books on Vermont.

The following letter was written to the Waterbury Record, which published in the July 14 issue a section called Readers’ Choice, 2016. In it was a short squib about Peter Miller, who they named “Mr. Waterbury”. This is my reply:

I am honored to be a Mr. Waterbury that nobody knows. That’s good! However, I must decline the title. You see, I am the Mayor of Colbyville.

Colbyville is somewhat of a hamlet, which is a cluster of houses and a church. Well we had a church but they moved, wisely it turns out, due to creeping sprawl and traffic overload on Route 100. This hamlet has no known boundaries and we truly are in servitude to Waterbury. We pay gawdawful taxes to the state, town and village of Waterbury, for which we are whacked with the back of the hand. As one town official told me years ago, Colbyville is a dumping ground.

I was not elected mayor; it just came to be after years and a pig roast I held on Ben & Jerry’s property in celebration of my new book, A Lifetime of Vermont People. No politicians, bureaucrats, town officials or media attended the event and that was good too.

However, for all we have been dissed we are home to three big businesses. There is the new Fairfield Inn, under the umbrella of Marriott and a Burlington developer. It is truly a sore sight for tired eyes; The Alchemist, where a bunch of alchemists concoct Heady Topper, so hoppy that two cans of this ale will addle your head; and Ben& Jerry’s, owned by Unilever, a Brit-Dutch conglomerate that is one of the world’s wealthiest food companies. Here in Colbyville Ben&Jerry’s sells thousands of ice cream cones for $5.00 each. They are much smaller and more costly than the ones sold a few years ago. However, the imbibers are all smiles when they have an ice cream cone pasted to their face.

There is a difference between the pairing of their English boss and his Vermont fiefdom. Unilever supports Hilary Clinton for the presidency and gave her between $50 and $100 thousand. Ben & Jerry’s—Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield,—the flesh and blood characters that started the company in a Burlington gas station and made multi millions when they sold out to Unilever, are strong supporters of Bernie Sanders. These three flatlanders were originally New Yorkers but they morphed well into Vermonters.

Back to Colbyville. We residents are a gaggle of independent Vermonters more in tune with Ethan Allen’s sense of a free and independent country instead of being taxed-squashed by the town, state and Feds, as if King George is still squatting on the throne.

We are meeting to vote on some important issues. Should we secede from the town and village of Waterbury, the state of Vermont, which is out of control, and the United States government, which is turning scary? Can we stop that slimy creature called Sprawl? And should we rename our cluster of buildings and GPS coordinates to…Ben&Jerryville or Heady Topper Town?

Peter Miller
Mayor of Colbyville

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Starlining to a New Future.

January 6 is the Epiphany and my birthday. My daughter Hilary, who was visiting, treated me to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, playing in Stowe.
We settled down in the middle of the theater. Unfortunately, no 3D glasses were given out for this show but never mind. My hand balled around a cluster of popcorn, I waited in the dark and suddenly, the screen lit up, Star Wars popped my eyeballs and I surged into reverse hyperspace and time, to Manhattan in late May, 1977. I was 43.

I had just crossed 86th and 3rd, lingered at the Papaya King for my favorite lunch, —two of their beef hotdogs in hot buns, a piquant yellow mustard along its carcasses and I was sucking it down with a medium sized Papaya Juice. YUM! One of New York’s best lunches.

I then walked a few doors to Lowe’s theatre, bought a ticket to Star Wars which had recently opened, and settled in to a crowded theater. Ahh —the scent of grass! The audience was lighting up creating an inversion. No problem if anyone was un- prepared; there were two young men walking up and down the aisles, whispering “Smoke? Smoke?” This was the City before The Invasion of the Yuppies and Political Correctness. Studio apartments were rarely over $700 and we all knew how to spot bicycle thieves and muggers working the streets.

I bought a ticket, I forget how much, $5.00? and waited in the dark with hundreds of others, until the screen perked up and we were in a new world, millennia’s in the future of good and evil, of saber fights, a prejudiced bar tender (We don’t serve this kind…your droid!”). And stitched throughout were visual and spoken puns straight out of comic books. We made friends with Han Solo, a rebel, a bandit but a man with a heart; Princess Leia, tough, brash and determined; Chewbaca, a Wookie Robin and the wonderful droids and Obi Wan Knobi whose life would end with the sacrifice to Darth Vader. What an evil symbol he is for the dark side of us.

And of course we saw the Empire destroyed with a missile attack by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader escaping into space and the victory celebration and awards by Princess Leia to Han Solo and gang. How wonderful!

38 years later I am thinking back and now understand how that movie replicated our lives, or did we shape our lives from this movie?
I and my friends,—we were Han Solo. And so what if your buddies did not like to lose at chess and wore a rug? Luke was our naive self, and Obi wan Knobi was our mentor, for we still had respect for our elders—as long as they were hip. And of course, evil was clobbered. And Princess Leia, with her determination and sharp tongue, taught us to admire the new feminism.

That night, in bed, I thought of myself in the 1970’s era and how I never fitted in. We hated Yuppies, the Vietnam war and learned to distrust politicians. We lost so much with the assasinations of President Kennedy and his brother Robert,who would have been our next president. We went on to see wars we should never have considered; the destruction of the middle class with Reagan’s trickle down theory, as the political wealthy took over. We fear our country is copy-catting the growth of National Socialism in Germany during the 1930’s.

Ahh, but then I go back to the movie, to the moment Han Solo pushed his souped up hot rod into hyperspace. WOW! The theatre erupted with gasps, shouts and cheers.

We hope we can again use hyperspace to starline ourselves to a better world.

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Carroll Shatney“I had no idea,” says Peter Miller, author and photographer, that my book A Lifetime of Vermont People, would have such an effect on its readers.”

The book is a collection of 62 written profiles with black and white photographs of Vermonters taken over the last 60 years.

The author wrote a summary of those years and the changes he noticed—The interstate, gentrification, the banks, the direction of the legislature and small changes, such as posted land, the Vermont accent, and…the end of a classless society. Most of the comments and letters received by the author, discuss their inability to cope financially and a rising anger about the legislature and the state government.

“They are not out friends anymore,” said a cleaning lady and she practically shouted it.

 “I feel violent,” said an auto garage owner when thinking about the direction the state is moving towards.

 “Our pensions don’t cover our costs,” said a recently retired couple, we would like to leave but can’t find a buyer.”

 “We have given up on our dream of building a house on our land in Walden. The state legislature’s two bills concerning a carbon tax are what really scared us into that decision. I don’t see how the older population in Vermont will survive the push for more wind and solar farms and the costs associated with migrating off fossil fuels. We just wanted to live out our retirement years in peace and quiet, staying warm, enjoying nature, family and friends. Looks like we’ll be doing that in Maine.”

“I cannot tell you how much your new book (A Lifetime of Vermont People) means to me. I was moved to tears after I bought a copy in St. Johnsbury and pulled over at a rest stop and began to turn the pages. This sudden release of emotion surprised me and when I thought about why, I think it was because of who and what we have lost here in the state I call home.”

Some Vermonters now realize their home is not an asset but a liability because of the property tax, student tax, and the cost of energy and upkeep.

And it is ironic that Vermont will welcome refugees from other countries but there is no comment about the Vermonters who want to leave Vermont. They are refugees from one of the most expensive states in the union.

I have spoken to so many that I plan to do a book called the Vanishing Vermonter….An Endangered Species. I will interview a bunch of them and let them tell their story. I will also have a section where Vermonters can comment about what to do about bringing Vermont back home.

The more I think about this anger the more I realize it is about the cost of living, for sure, but embedded in their souls is that foreboding anxiety that we are losing our way of living—the culture—that has made our state so unique.

The book A Lifetime of Vermont People is available at independent Vermont bookshops and at Peter Miller’s website, http://www.silverprintpress.com.

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COLD WEATHER, HARD STATE

(Peter Miller is a photographer and author who recently published A Lifetime of Vermont People, a collection of photos and stories on rural Vermonters created over the past 63 years. He is 80 years old and lives in Colbyville, Vermont. This was first sent out on 27 March to Vermont Digger, which they are publishing today)
 

 

Cold penetrates my neck, creeps down my backbone, seeps into my limbs…cold…I am cold…my arms …fingers…toes.

         Thirty days of below zero weather since December, not counting March…another eight—ten? I wear socks, flannel pajamas and sometimes a sweater when I slip under the wool blanket and duvet in my unheated bedroom. Like so many others in this state, my house is frigid as I cannot afford to keep the thermostat above 60 and I turn it down at night, and then make sure the faucets are dripping. Yes, I have suffered frozen pipe syndrome. I insulate, I conserve, I do what I can, but the energy costs are ever more each year. This winter I have spent, so far, close to $5,000 on fuel oil, propane and firewood. I am only warm when I sit in front of my wood stove. Yes, I live in an old house, as do so many Vermonters.

         The temperature soars to just under 50, then like a burst bubble, dips to 10 below, sometimes in a day. The snow-rain-sleet blends into a porridge that flows onto roads and sidewalks, settles on walking paths and invades garages; by alchemy it smooths into the hated black ice.

         Sometimes it is too cold for salt to melt the ice spread on roads. Cars slither down ditches and burrow into snow banks. Lawyers are off the mark with fistfuls of torts for those with fractured wrists, elbows, shoulders, cracked hips and ribs. Concussions too. Yes it is a slip and fall type of winter and hospitals harbor many of these injuries; nine people attached to broken wrists sought succor one day at a Burlington ER.

         Fire and Ice…the cold that freeze-sucks my body is matched by the heat it creates in the belly of my psyche—the heat of anxiety. After all this, how am I going to pay my bills?

         This anxiety attack hit hard when I, and many homeowners throughout Vermont, received our property tax bills last summer and we saw the increase in the homestead education tax. That bill might as well have stamped on it: “You cannot afford Vermont!” (34 towns turned down their school budget this past Town Meeting day. I was lucky I am so poor for I received for last year a hefty payback. Still, I’m behind. )

         This past fall I was traveling through Vermont, delivering my new book to bookstores and talking to strangers. People told me they placed their homes for sale or had seen their neighbors put up for sale signs right after the tax bill was in the mailbox.

         I talked to a young woman who lives in Wolcott. “My husband and I both work, but I don’t know how we can make it.” Worry lines were creasing her forehead and puckering her natural beauty.

         “We recently retired”, said a friend who is now a clerk in a bank. “We don’t have as much work and our retirement funds are not enough to live here anymore. We have to move. Vermont is not what it used to be.”

         “My house has been on the market for a year and no one has made an offer,” said a store clerk. He frowned, and looked away to something only he could see. “I want to leave but I have to sell first.”

         Bleak it is. Vermont property taxes are rated among the top ten most expensive in the country. This week in Vermont the average cost of fuel oil is $3.92 a gallon (17 cents below average); propane $4.34 a gallon ($1.17 above average); gasoline, 3.59 a gallon (eight cents higher in Waterbury, VT); electricity (17.05 cents per kilowatt hour, fourth highest in continental US). Food costs keep climbing in this “…one of the ten coldest years in US history”.

         A friend in New Mexico pays a property tax of $1,400 for their adobe home and it is appraised at half a million and could be sold for more. When they lived in Middlesex, Vermont, they paid $3,900 property tax on a house they sold for $150,000. Another refugee Vermonter living in Florida tells me if I sold and bought and lived in his community, I would save over $5,000 a year in living costs. “You can’t afford to own a house in Vermont, “ he said, “You now support those who rent, on welfare and town and state employees who have a helluva lot more benefits than you.”

         Many of us “new poor folk” are independent Vermonters, meaning we work for ourselves. Creative people (I’m a writer and photographer), mom and pop owners of village stores, people who work the woods or land, carpenters, landscapers, repair people — these are the Vermonters who crafted Vermont and gave it a flavor so different from most of America. Many of us are bereft of any lifeline­—associations, lobbyists, and public relations firms. Bankers don’t like our sporadic cash flow. We are the grunts of Vermont.  

         Many a Vermonter has a certain foreboding of their future and it is evidenced by the ads and edit you see in Vermont Life and Vermont Magazine. Most of us can’t think of buying some of the lush windows and kitchens shown in ads. Luxury homes and their gardens are marvelously photographed and landscaped. Then there are the magazines that advertise estates for sale that run from $900,000 to $3 million or more. The thrust here appears to be that Vermont wants the newcomers with big bucks and then hit them with a property-education tax that makes them shed dollars like melting snowflakes, but hey, many a new Vermonter can afford it. 

         “What are we going to do, just work for a bunch of wealthy people?” said the son of a farmer who sold his farm.  “We can’t afford to buy a home or land in the town we grew up in.”

         But there is also a light side. One new homeowner in Stowe who bought fancy digs was talking to his landscaper (He mows the lawn, plows the garden and the driveway) and pointed to a neatly stacked woodpile of about three cords. “That wood looks shabby. Do you think you could get rid of it?” he asked the landscaper.

         He looked at it and thought, hmmm, it’s been there three years, good hardwood…maple and beech…worth about $300 a cord mid winter….”Yes Sir, I can haul those logs away and you know what, I won’t even charge you a cent!”

         Banks have often turned their back on the self-employed and some frown on approving loans for older people, unless their assets are quickly convertible. Many independent Vermonters have switched their banking to credit unions. And did you see there are more restrictions on your home insurance plan?

         I love Vermont—have ever since I moved here in 1947. I love the hillside farmers I have met, the beauty of the land. I have written five books on Vermont that are recognized as classics on rural Vermont. I have been recognized as Vermonter of the Year and honored by the Vermont State Legislature and the US Senate for my documentation of rural Vermont.  “I am a treasure to Vermont,” I was told, “You can’t move away.”

         I don’t want to leave Vermont that has been such a large part of my life and soul but I cannot afford to live in Vermont, own a home and pay property taxes and support the money our towns and state say they need so they can support me. I see our mountains becoming billboards for subsidized wind turbines. A Canadian firm owns our two largest power companies; other businesses are interested in pipeline and transmission stations to send energy through Vermont not to Vermont. We need a return to the values that made this state free in thinking and bound by a common unity of spirit. I’m suggesting that we need to embrace the democratic principles of governance by the people — legislators need to hear our stories so they can make informed governmental decisions on funding during their sessions in Montpelier.  

         Wishful thinking, and meanwhile…many creative people have given up and taken salaried positions. Rob Hunter, the director of Frog Hollow, which is located in Burlington and is Vermont’s leading gallery for craft and art, reports a number of artists stopped paying dues as they cannot afford to create are they can’t sell. True, it is tough all over for creative people. The copyright is under attack. New business models created by CEO’s with the expectations that every intellectual property is as free as the Internet has crippled the photography, illustration, writing, and music creators. The effect reverberates. With the money crunch, buying artwork is not an option for average Vermonters. I put off repairing my car and winterizing my house because I need to pay taxes and fuel oil.

         The Central Vermont Community Action Weatherization group was going to winterize my old house and lower my heating costs 15%, they said. So a flock of them finally showed up, white suited and wearing helmets—look-a-like astronauts. They found Vermiculite that I put in the attic over 30 years ago.

         “It has asbestos in it,” the boss said. “We don’t work in houses like these,” and they left. White suits and helmets marched out. He promised I would get a sample testing of the Vermiculite. I never did.” (However, CVAC did install a new fuel oil furnace in my cellar that burns as much fuel oil as my old one but doesn’t leak carbon monoxide.)

         Alpine skiing, my favorite sport, is too expensive and new Vermonters have posted most of the land I used to bird hunt on. Instead of thinking of new book projects, I repair my house, shovel snow and spread salt, haul firewood, because of the cost of gas don’t drive around the state looking for photographs or people to talk to, argue with the companies who charge me too much on those monthly costs, stare aghast at my shrinking income but I thank god for Medicare.

         We self-employed Vermonters grumble but we have carried on and every so often we remember that we live in beauty. That’s the Vermont Way and I think it is coming to an end.

         This tome started out as a rant but it is not. It is a fact and a warning that perhaps the people who run this state have shot themselves in the foot. My house, according to one real estate agent, is over appraised by a large amount and this is true for many homeowners. Our old homes were built large to hold families and farm workers and usually had little or no insulation.  When houses are reappraised lower will the towns raise taxes or lower salaries or cut staff? It is getting to the point that self employed Vermonters might do better going on the dole and using state and federal funds to pay their bills.

         Back to the effects of a cold, cold winter…the cold that travels down my backbone—that seesawing of temperatures—is here to stay says, Roger Hill, our knowledgeable northern Vermont meteorologist. (www.weatheringheights.com)  

         Roger gave me the statistics on minus zero days this winter in my region. Roger went on to say this cold—ice, flooding and blizzards—according to a study at Rutgers University, is likely to become a constant for residents of Canada, North America and Britain. The high altitude jet stream, a river of air, is sucked up north. As the Arctic temperatures are rising rapidly, more so than the rest of the world, the jet stream slows down and creeps over the polar region, sucking up cold from the arctic sea that is no longer ice-capped so it is not reflecting back the heat of the sun. The meteo-techies feel the cold jet stream is going to hover over our small state for a while.

         I love my home state but I can’t afford to own my house and now I hear rents are way too high too. Well, my old house is an anachronism and so am I. I have to minimize or go off the grid.  I do have an out, and it is my 18-foot, 45 year old Air Stream trailer but damn it makes my Jeep over indulge at the gas pump.

 

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Going Bust in Vermont

Gas for my car is, at the local station, $3.49 a gallon. Propane just went up another 50 cents so I am paying $3.60 a gallon and it is going higher. Some have paid $5.00 a gallon. My property taxes are increasing due to a new fire station. Even vegetables in the supermarket have escalated in price, and hamburger with 80% fat (could be more for all I know) is $4.00 a pound.

With such high expenses, Vermonters watch it very carefully. It is why they don’t dine out very often, do not buy clothes unless it is absolutely necessary, stay away from the dental technician, cancel vacations or trips to relatives.

And shun books and photographs. This last I know too well, for it is what I sell. Independent book stores are dwindling, and so are the chains—Borders is in bankruptcy. Vermonters rarely buy my photographs, and I am caught between two rocks. Galleries want 50% commission on sales. If I keep the price low at Vermont galleries, I can barely cover expenses. If I put it too high, no one buys. If I use a bookstore to sell my books, I lose up to 65% of the retail cost in commissions. Out of state galleries tell me to raise my prices and forget the local market.

So I decided to switch sales to the internet and I now have two websites. http://Www.petermillerphotography.com holds my portfolio; http://www.petermillerimages.com is home for my books and photo archives, which I am slowly putting online. Both sites have shopping carts.

The web is beginning to work, with sales coming in from Boston, New York, Maine, Arizona and the mid-west. To pay for this, to reinvent myself, I have to up my line of credit. My house secures this line of credit. Let’s not include my other assests, such as my photo archive and stock photography income.

So the bank, where I have not missed a mortgage payment in 30 years, turned down my LOC application. I have more than enough assets, I have cash flow to pay my bills, but I do not show enough income on my tax returns to satisfy the bank. Of course this has always been true; photographers can expense and depreciate most of their income.

I am applying to a credit union and I will let you know what happens. I hear from others who are self employed that their long-term banks are turning them down.

I’ll write more about this later.

What is happening, though, with the high cost of propane, fuel oil, property taxes, and general expense of living, is that many Vermonters are leaving the state—or planning to leave, if they could only sell their home at a decent price.

And it makes sense. One couple I know left Vermont for New Mexico and bought a house with a similar appraisal. They estimate they save $10,000 a year in expenses; their property tax is $4,000 lower.

Vermont was founded on entrepreneurs—the self-employed. Almost all of the people in my books, Vermont People and Vermont Farm Women, are self-employed. Now it pays to be employed by the state, town, or large corporation, the type of people the banks love because their income is assured (and these employees have pensions, vacations and other benefits).

Well, there are a lot of generalities peppered in here but you get the idea.

 

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