PUTNEY—During the year’s first few Selectboard meetings, Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard and members of the Board continued working through next year’s budget to have it ready for March’s Town Meeting.
Highlights from the Jan. 4 and 11 discussions include law enforcement, water and sewer fees, recycling, and restructuring the town’s financial department.
After the Windham County Sheriff’s Department announced earlier this year it was raising rates and cutting patrol hours, town officials and the Public Safety Committee began to explore options for the town’s law-enforcement needs, including a proposal submitted by Putney resident and Brattleboro Police Department Detective Lt. Jeremy Evans for a municipal police force.
At the most recent of the numerous public meetings hosted by the Public Safety Committee, Stoddard said the attendees’ “tone” was not in favor of a Putney Police Department. The greater need seemed to be for a community social worker, Stoddard said.
Putney resident Janet Goldstein appeared at the Jan. 4 Selectboard meeting to advocate for and present some information on establishing a town police force, or at least a sort of enhanced constable position.
Selectboard Chair Josh Laughlin encouraged Goldstein to continue gathering information and data to present at Town Meeting. At the Jan. 11 meeting, the Selectboard unanimously voted to appoint Goldstein to the Public Safety Committee.
Stoddard told Goldstein this issue was unlikely to get decided at Town Meeting because creating a police department is “very involved and time-consuming,” but she reminded Goldstein the Selectboard could call a Special Town Meeting in April or May, for example, to raise additional funds for the project if the voters approve.
“We have the luxury of time because we have the Sheriff’s Department covering us,” during the current contract, Laughlin said.
During the Jan. 4 meeting, the Selectboard unanimously approved the contract, which began Jan. 1 and ends June 30, for an amount not to exceed $25,480 for 80 hours per month.
Water and sewer: popularity has its rewards
The town’s sewer budget went up by 2.3 percent compared with last year, but Stoddard said residents will see no rate increase “because we’ve added some users,” and she expects more properties to begin using the service in 2017.
The town’s water budget tells a similar story. Although the overall budget increases by 4.4 percent, the rates remain the same, partly because of new customers last year and the anticipation of even more in the coming year. Stoddard provided another reason for the level rates: Town officials adjusted accounts this past year to properly bill users.
“We actually may even be able to lower the rates in the water department,” Stoddard said. She and Board members discussed setting aside some of the extra money brought in through water-bill revenue in a depreciation reserve.
The Selectboard unanimously voted to accept the budgets for the water and sewer at the Jan. 4 meeting.
What about the MRF?
With the decision to close the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s Materials Recovery Facility, towns without transfer stations, such as Putney, must figure out what to do with their residents’ recycling. Stoddard told Board members Putney’s bins collected the second-most recycling in the district.
The Selectboard and Stoddard discussed a number of options, including maintaining their own roll-off collection bins, and where those bins should go to possibly prevent nonresidents from using them. But the yearly fees — including a quote of $60,000 from one private hauler — were too much for the Board. All parties agreed there was not enough time to budget for building a town transfer station.
At the Jan. 11 meeting, the Board settled on adding $40,000 to the budget for recycling, with the understanding that they are still gathering information on options and their costs.
The Treasurer’s office
After more than a year of Stoddard’s and the Board’s discussing Town Clerk and Treasurer Anita Coomes’ lapses in managing her responsibilities — such as submitting dog licenses and fees to the state, and filing payroll and other tax forms to the state and the IRS — Stoddard came up with a solution: Change the structure of the town financial department.
Stoddard presented the Board with a general fund budget that includes a line item for a new town employee: bookkeeper. This 15-hour-per-week appointed position includes nearly all of the tasks currently ostensibly performed by the treasurer, except signing checks, which the treasurer will continue to do.
The bookkeeper is also an appointed position, which gives the Selectboard something it doesn’t have with an elected official: oversight. A large part of the Selectboard’s challenge around this issue has been that it couldn’t officially direct, reprimand, or replace Coomes, because the treasurer is an elected position.
Stoddard eventually began performing some of Coomes’ duties to avoid further financial penalties levied by the state tax department and the IRS. Coomes told The Commons the reason for her troubles was a lack of experience and knowledge with the new computerized systems.
In the proposed budget, Stoddard changed the treasurer’s stipend to $1,500 for the year, down from the current rate of approximately $22,000. The job’s hours are reduced from about 20 per week to about two.
According to information Stoddard shared with the Selectboard, Coomes doesn’t plan to run for town clerk this year, but she wants to remain the town’s treasurer. The Board discussed keeping Coomes on until June 30 to assist the new bookkeeper in the transition.
“I hate to be the chair of the Selectboard that decides to eliminate a position that Anita would like to have, but I’m not sure it’s realistic to keep that position” at the same level of responsibility, hours per week, and pay rate, Laughlin said at the Jan. 4 meeting. “This seems like the most logical approach,” he added.
The Selectboard unanimously passed the general fund budget at the Jan. 11 meeting, thus approving the changes to the town’s financial department.