Wendy M. Levy/The Commons
A reminder to Putney voters that there would be no articles regarding the Act 46 school merger at Town Meeting.
Wendy M. Levy and Randolph T. Holhut contributed to this report.
Originally published in The Commons issue #398 (Wednesday, March 8, 2017).
GUILFORD — Voters breezed through the Town Meeting warrant on March 7, passing all articles by unanimous voice vote.
This included $956,653 for the highway budget, which was $34,947 less than the current budget, and $849,918 for the general fund budget, which is a $60,996 increase over the current budget.
Roads Commissioner Dan Zumbruski noted that “the budget is down a little” because of the retirement this year of two long-term employees: Allan Belleville and Pete Higley.
Selectboard Chair Sheila Morse praised the Highway Department employees for their hard work. She told a story about “getting texts every few hours about ice dam warnings” between Friday night and Sunday morning.
When she alerted Zumbruski, Morse said, he replied, “We’re already on it,” and he said his crew was in the process of “checking all waterways” for ice dams.
Morse noted this conversation took place on a Saturday night, after Zumbruski and his crew had already spent time that week plowing and sanding the roads.
Morse pointed out this year’s Town Report is dedicated to them. Attendees then gave the Highway Department a standing ovation.
All the social-service organization requests, amounting to $14,130, were approved, as well as $6,363 for Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), a regional economic development project of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation.
Selectboard member Dick Clark asked SeVEDS Project Specialist Jen Stromsten, “Can you give a definitive answer for what you would do for Guilford?” Stromsten mentioned SeVEDS’s planning work on the region’s economic conditions and noted people live and work throughout the area, which affects Guilford.
Clark accused Stromsten of “circling [his] question.”
She said, of direct benefits to Guilford, “I can’t specifically say,” but mentioned a few of SeVEDS’s programs that help residents.
Resident Bill Murray spoke in favor of SeVEDS, saying that small states like Vermont “have no access” to development money from the federal government without entities like SeVEDS, which work collectively with economic development organizations in New Hampshire and western Massachusetts to give a bigger voice to the region.
Stromsten told Resident Richard Davis that there is no designated state funding for the organization, and most of the project’s money comes from municipal funding, the state Agency of Commerce, and the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation.
The town school budget of $3,041,000 was approved, $5,456 decrease. However, equalized per-pupil spending rose from $15,281 to $17,120 for the 2017-18 school year.
Voters also approved a $150,000 bond for heating system improvements at the Guilford Central School, as well as an article asking the WSESU Study Committee to consider “a full and thorough examination” of alternative school district mergers.
About 185 voters who attended the meeting got an update from Town Administrator Peder Rude on the Route 5 bridge replacement project slated for this summer.
Rude said the Agency of Transportation has approved emergency-service access to a turnaround on Interstate 91, and announced a May 25 public hearing on the bridge project.
The AOT’s approval of the town’s request will allow emergency vehicles to access the south side of town without having to detour through Bernardston, Mass., during the bridge reconstruction.
PUTNEY — Town Meeting voters on March 7 spent hours discussing an article that requested that the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union Act 46 Study Committee explore alternatives to a merger.
An amendment came from the floor to ask the Town School Board to examine merger alternatives. Many residents took the opportunity to express their frustration and confusion about the state educational reform statute and questioned whether the board thoroughly considered options other than a merger.
WSESU Act 46 Study Committee Chair, and Putney Central School District Board Chair Alice Laughlin scolded voters, reminding them that she and her committee members “spent thousands of hours on this” and said that to suggest otherwise is offensive.
She claimed none of the people who drew up the petition placing this article on the Town Meeting warning attended any School Board meetings, nor did they reach out to board members.
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, attributed some of the School Board’s challenges to the situation in Montpelier.
“The legislation is in flux,” Mrowicki said, adding, “You’re trying to hit a moving target.” He said there’s a battle with the new administration over the entire budget, especially with education funding.
Voters approved the town school budget of $3,303,760. Outgoing WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley received a standing ovation for his work, prompted by Laughlin.
The Windham & Windsor Housing Trust sought a five-year exemption on the municipal and education taxation on Putney Cares, beginning April 1. Instead, voters gave WWHT a one-year exemption.
The Housing Trust is in the process of becoming the full owner of the property; once that purchase is complete, the organization will pay a reduced tax on it, according to information supplied by Selectboard Chair Josh Laughlin.
The East Putney Community Club received a five-year exemption for Pierce’s Hall.
In other business, voters passed the sewer fund budget as outlined in the 2016 Town Report, authorized the Selectboard to borrow up to $175,000 to purchase a dump truck, approved a $8,106 request from Southern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), and established two reserve funds — for roof replacements and sidewalk repairs — of $10,000 for each from the Capital Reserve Fund.
The general fund article was amended to reflect a correction to the Windham Solid Waste Management District assessment and an addition of $13,000 to increase the Windham County Sheriff Department’s law-enforcement contract to 40 hours per week, beginning July 1. Voters approved the budget of $1,217,364.
Voters approved $878,898 for the Highway Fund. Josh Laughlin said voters approved the purchase of an excavator after “a big discussion” about whether the town should enter into an agreement to purchase the vehicle over 10 years and allow the town’s skilled highway crew to operate it, or whether to continue to contract out the work.
The budget didn’t change with that decision, because the $17,000 would have gone toward paying the contractors had the article been rejected.
Finally, voters approved a a non-binding resolution, submitted by Maggie Cassidy and Nancy Olson, “declaring [the town’s] intention to welcome and protect the rights of immigrants and refugees who seek to come to our state and our community.”
In town elections, Josh Laughlin was elected to a three-year Selectboard term; he ran uncontested. Meg Mott was re-elected as moderator; also uncontested. Denise Germon was elected as Putney’s new town clerk.
BELLOWS FALLS — Voters in Rockingham approved the fiscal year 2018 town budget of $5,382,600 at the Annual Town Meeting on March 6 at the Bellows Falls Opera House.
Interim Town Manager Shane O’Keefe told the 140 voters in attendance that while municipal spending was up 4.3 percent over this year’s budget, the amount to be raised by taxes, $4,381,875, was only 0.5 percent higher than this year. The budget was approved by a majority vote.
Voters unanimously approved a total of $77,603 for social service agencies, as well as giving the OK for spending $396,972 to operate the Rockingham Free Public Library, with $347,070 to be raised by taxes.
A resolution asking TransCanada, or subsquent owners of the Bellows Falls Dam, to modify operations to reduce riverbank erosion and set up a mitigation fund to reimburse landowners and towns along the Connecticut River for erosion damage was also approved.
STRATTON — At the behest of the School Board, the town has voted to leave the Windham Central Supervisory Union and join the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.
According to Town Clerk Kent Young, most of the town’s students attend either the Mountain School in Winhall or Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester. Both schools are in the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union.
Voters took about 85 minutes to get through that and the other articles during the annual Town and School Meetings on March 7.
According to Young, of the 177 people on the town checklist, 33 showed up for the Town Meeting, and 34 were present for the School Meeting.
All of the money items on the Town Meeting warrant were approved as written, including $972,913.11 for the general fund, $910,800 for the highway fund, $30,068 to support 23 local service organizations, and $52,150 for the Stratton Mountain Volunteer Fire Company.
Articles were also approved that set the annual 2017-2018 tuition rate to the Mountain School at Winhall up to $15,000 per pupil for resident students in K-8; the annual 2017-2018 tuition rate to Burr & Burton Academy up to $16,700 per district-resident pupil for grades 9-12; and the annual respective K-6 and 7-12 tuition rates to all other private or approved independent schools up to the announced Vermont Union Elementary School tuition rate.
Voters also approved the School Board expending $690,592 for the education budget, which means the town will spend $15,944 per equalized pupil, which is 11 percent lower than spending for the current year.
TOWNSHEND — Voters sped through the Town and School Meeting warrants in record time on March 7, said Town Clerk Anita Bean.
She said it was the first time she can remember getting through a meeting without a request for a paper ballot, and that nearly the entire Town Meeting warrant was acted upon before the lunch break.
Voters approved appropriating $420,389 for the town budget; $431,867 for the highway budget; $120,000 for a front-end loader for the Highway Department; $47,400 for the town library; $10,000 for the Fire Department capital expenditure fund toward future purchase of a pumper; and $1,750 for the old-cemetery fund.
They also approved a $1,400,900 budget for the town’s education budget, which results in spending an estimated $17,368 per equalized pupil, a 5.6-percent increase.
Voters also authorized the Selectboard to acquire, by gift or purchase, land for a municipal forest.
WESTMINSTER — Town Meeting voters on March 4 passed the town and school budgets but rejected a $9,500 appropriation for Southeastern Vermont Development Strategies (SeVEDS) and postponed applying some of the town’s surplus funds to several reserve funds.
There was more discussion about Act 46 than there was about the $4.4 million town school budget, which funds grades K-8, and passed with little debate.
Westminster is one of the five towns that would be part of the proposed Windham Northeast Unified Board. Chief among the voter concerns: the loss of local control and, for parents and students, the loss of the tradition of choosing which school they wish to attend for grades 7 and 8.
Voters approved adding $6,000 to the budget to increase the salaries of Fire Chief Cole Streeter and his two deputies, but Streeter said he wanted the money to be used instead for the volunteer fire department.
They also added $8,000 to hire consultants to study a renovation of the second floor of the firehouse to provide sleeping quarters for overnight firefighters.
The SeVEDS funding was rejected on the grounds that the town saw little benefit from the economic development group to justify the money they sought.
Voters rejected proposals to use the town’s surplus to set aside $100,000 for a capital-improvement fund for Town Hall and $140,000 for the town’s “rainy day fund.” They did agree to use $100,000 of surplus money to reduce the property tax burden.
According to town officials, most of the surplus came from a special appropriation after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 to reimburse the town for rebuilding the Gageville Bridge.
Finally, voters unanimously approved a nonbinding resolution for the town to support immigrants and refugees.
WILMINGTON — The tradition of voters meeting on the first Tuesday in March to make decisions on budgets and other town business will continue.
Voters at this year’s Town Meeting on March 7 emphatically rejected a proposal to have budget items and public questions voted upon by Australian ballot.
But before they could take that vote, they had to hash out what the original article was asking for.
The warrant article read: “Shall the Town of Wilmington adopt its ballot system for any article relating to the following question: ‘Shall the Town of Wilmington adopt its budget articles and vote all public questions by Australian ballot?’”
As it turned out, the article was apparently misworded. According to Town Moderator Bob Fisher, it was meant to seek whether the town should have a vote by Australian ballot on whether future budgets and questions are voted upon via Australian ballot.
While supporters of the article said the intent was to get more townspeople to participate in budget decisions, since many cannot take time of from work to go to Town Meeting, opponents said the article would eliminate Town Meeting in its current form.
Ultimately, voters amended the article to ask whether the town should go with the Australian ballot system, and rejected it by a voice vote.
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