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Questions on police coverage, library funding dominate debate at Town Meeting

VERNON—While the first part of Vernon’s Town Meeting happened on Leap Year Day this time around, the pace of the proceedings more resembled a car stuck in the mud.

In the span of just under four hours, townspeople voted on only two of the 27 articles in the warning — and the last one, for the library budget, happened during the final few minutes just after a failed motion to decide by paper ballot.

Other hot topics were the school budget, Senator Jeanette White’s legislative update, the presentation of a special award to outgoing School Board member Matt Coombs, and a round of “Happy Birthday” to resident Pete Crossman. As Moderator Tim Arsenault noted, “I rarely get to do this because [Crossman] only has a birthday every four years."

The general fund inspired the most debate, with townspeople requesting presentations about many of the major line-items.

The town offices were first on the firing line, including a debate on the search for a town administrator. Selectboard member Emily Vergobbe updated townspeople on the process, noting that on March 7, the Town Administrator Search Committee will submit applications to the board. She said the town had contracted with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) to help the town with the search.

Some of the debate centered around whether the Selectboard had the discretion to use any of the funds budgeted to pay the town administrator’s salary for fiscal year 2016 to pay the VLCT to fill the position. Arsenault directed the question to Lawrence Slasen, Vernon’s attorney, who assured the audience the board had that authority.

The recreation department mostly got a good reception, as did the highway department. After Deb Berryere questioned whether the town needed to spend $46,000 on salt, Roads Commissioner David Walker answered, “Yes.” He reminded Berryere that although “we’ve had a nice winter this year... we don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the winter."

Mike Ball elicited some much-needed laughter from the room when he asked townspeople to “please, support the culverts.” Ball said “those culverts did exactly what they’re supposed to do” during storms and floods in the last few years, noting other area towns had much worse damage than Vernon.

Board Chair Chris Howe thanked the roads department for doing a great job. She said, “I’ve seen [them] waist-high in the water in people’s yards."

The final battle of the evening was waged in the library, or at least in the article deciding its budget. Patty O’Donnell cautioned residents against voting hastily, although “by the time we get to the library budget, we’re tired, we’re fried, and we want to go home."

To prove her point, O’Donnell spoke passionately in favor of reducing the library’s budget, noting that even though she said she often reads two books at once and thus supports the institution, the library budget is too high and should be reduced from $121,656 to $50,000.

A lengthy back-and-forth ensued, with residents professing their love for the library, librarian Kris Berberian explaining why she needs the current level of staffing — state regulations dictate no librarian works alone in the building — and residents expressing concern with a budget they are not sure the town can afford.

O’Donnell’s motion to reduce the library budget failed. Don Rosinski moved to amend the library budget to last year’s amount: $106,607. O’Donnell made a failed attempt to move the vote to a paper ballot. Article 5 — with Rosinski’s amendment — passed.

With just a few minutes to go before the meeting hit the four-hour mark, residents voted to recess. At 10:23 p.m., Arsenault struck the gavel, and everyone left the building in an attempt to find their cars in the cold, damp night.

Second night issues

As Vernon faces declining tax revenue from the decommissioning of Vermont Yankee, voters expressed the challenge of retaining services while needing to rein in the budget during the second night of Town Meeting on March 2

According to Howe, who also serves as the town’s Emergency Management Director, as of April 30, Entergy will cease funding emergency management offices, even in towns included in the Emergency Planning Zone (EPZ).

But, Howe said, because Vernon hosts the nuclear plant, they may get some funding, but it will not be much. She estimated “maybe $5,000.” During town meeting, voters decided whether to appropriate, through taxes, $15,000 to continue operating the emergency management office.

Howe said that money goes toward all operations of the office, including purchasing supplies such as computers, paper, and telephone and Internet services. As director, Howe also gets what she described as “a little bit of a stipend,” which she shares with her otherwise volunteer staff.

One member of that staff, Selectboard member Josh Unruh, noted that, up until this year, Entergy funded “consistent training and... drills.” He pointed out the emergency management office handles more than just VY-related emergencies. Hurricanes, train derailments, and other events require the office’s services to evacuate schools and senior housing, for example, Unruh said.

Without funding from Entergy, Unruh said ”we essentially have no emergency management committee anymore."

Although resident Gordon Christiansen said the town is spending too much money, and can afford “no more free lunches,” not enough townspeople agreed with him. The motion to fund the emergency management office passed.

During the discussion on the second of two cemetery-related articles, Don Rosinski provided much-needed comic relief when he caught himself almost describing the town’s plot fees as “dirt cheap."

After the laughter in the room settled down, Rosinski revised his statement, “This sounds inexpensive."

Until town meeting, Vernon’s plot fees included the price of cornerstones. But, as Cemetery Committee member Marylynn Scherlin told townspeople, this meant the town took a loss on nearly every transaction.

The town asked voters to change the pricing structure to the same plot fees, but cornerstones would cost extra.

Rosinski asked what other towns’ cemeteries cost in comparison. Although Scherlin reported “the average plot in Brattleboro is somewhere around $400 to $500,” an amendment made to double the town’s plot rates failed.

Both articles passed: to raise $5,000 in taxes to repair cemetery headstones, and to add the price of cornerstones to plot fees.

And, like other area towns, Vernon debated whether to stop automatically mailing copies of the town report to all residents, and Vernon jumped on that bandwagon.

The town seeks to mail a postcard announcing its availability, inviting voters to call the town offices if they want a copy mailed to them.

Board member Sandra Harris explained the logic behind the proposal. Because many copies of the town report end up in the recycling bin, Harris said, the town can save money by only mailing it to those who request it.

Slason, Vernon’s town attorney, confirmed at town meeting that state statute dictates anyone who requests a town report will receive one.

When resident Brandy Brow questioned the wisdom of changing this policy to save what she estimated as less than $300 in mailing costs, Lister Carol Hammond offered the correct figures. Printing 1,000 copies of the town report costs approximately $1,100; labor for the project costs about $1,600 — and that’s with two volunteers; and postage costs about $325.

The motion passed.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #347 (Wednesday, March 9, 2016). This story appeared on page D4.

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