PUTNEY—On Tuesday morning at the Putney Central School, five students directed incoming cars into an orderly parking arrangement on the ice-covered lot. Inside the gymnasium, three sections of folding chairs quickly filled with attendees, the majority of whom sported an inked stamp on one hand.
One could be forgiven for thinking the house lights would soon fade and a band would take to the stage.
Not quite. Those stamps identified registered voters, there to make their voices heard and their votes count for the Annual Town Meeting.
Those voters reserved their energy for the three articles involving Landmark College, all of which sought tax-exemption for three properties owned by the school — two single-family dwellings housing faculty and staff, and the third used for “functions for our students,” said Peter A. Eden, the college’s president.
Discussion and voting took at least two hours, not including the belated lunch break after the first of the three articles, to slog through what were essentially the same article, but regarding different addresses on River Road.
The articles were amended — the first one, twice — to include end-dates for the tax-exemption to allow for revisiting, and the hours marched on with impassioned speeches for and against from townspeople, and Eden.
Mike Putnam encouraged the town’s “young people” to “pay attention,” adding “all us old-timers will soon be gone,” and accused the college of wanting to make Putney “a college town” by “buying up more and more of the town.”
Many townspeople mentioned the town’s financial situation, calling into question the wisdom of giving an already-tax-exempt institution even more tax breaks, especially when parts of River Road have not been paved for at least 23 years.
Some audience members encouraged the passing of the articles, noting Landmark’s contributions to the town.
Eva Mondon said: “We’re a town of educational facilities, and we’re foolish not to support” these articles, adding, “you can whine and moan, but Landmark College is major, and other towns beg for things like Landmark College to come to their town.”
After so much back-and-forth, all three articles were defeated, and they were the only ones of the day to do so.
No more Volvos for the road crew
After some discussion about the woes of the town’s malfunctioning Volvo grader, Town Meeting passed two articles calling for the town to borrow $240,000 to purchase a new grader and a backhoe.
Highway Foreman Brian Harlow told of the alarming transmission problems with the town’s current grader, purchased in 2006, which was expected to last 15 years.
“It’s a money pit, and we’re asking for trouble if we keep it,” he reported.
Selectboard member Joshua Laughlin assured residents “the new one would not be a Volvo,” causing them to erupt into laughter.
When Laughlin followed that with the news that Volvo “has gotten out of the grader business,” the townspeople applauded.
Of the 22 articles on the Town Meeting warrant, 12 were passed unanimously, and about half of those garnered no discussion among voters.
Voters decided 72-to-2 by Australian ballot to eliminate the town auditor position.
Two articles, about the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) group and TransCanada, respectively, elicited brief discussion before passing; the latter had one “no” vote, and the former was unanimously approved.
During the last article to round up any other business, Nancy Olson encouraged the Selectboard, in light of the day’s Landmark College-related articles, to establish a committee to assess tax-exempt educational facilities issues, and she volunteered for that committee.
Darrow family honored
During the meeting, the Selectboard attempted to present the Community Service Persons of the Year Award, but none of the recipients were in town.
Later that afternoon, Casey Darrow arrived to receive the award on behalf of his family, which owns Green Mountain Orchards.
Darrow had been out delivering a tractor.
Making up for lost federal school spending
The $3.6 million school budget for fiscal year 2016 inspired a lively debate.
Townspeople questioned School Directors and WSESU Superintendent Ronald Stahley on how the money will be raised, what can be done to lower costs, and why, if expenses have gone down, taxes are going up.
Stahley, and School Directors Alice Laughlin and Stephen Bouch, walked the audience through the school budget line items, acknowledging the frustration of juggling tightening budgets, cutting services, raising taxes, dealing with the reality of the area’s high poverty level and how that affects students’ lives and their ability to learn — all while providing students a good education.
Ellen Kaye noted “the federal portion of revenue has gone down 41 percent, which means we have $20,000 less, and we need to raise more than $10,000 from local contributions, so are we making up locally what the feds are no longer giving us?”
After Laughlin replied in the affirmative, Kaye noted “the feds’ priorities are war and profit-making, while we’re here fighting amongst ourselves over crumbs.”