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Selectboard considers defunding nonprofits in FY18 budget

VERNON—Local nonprofits and their clients that rely on Town Meeting money narrowly avoided losing the entire Vernon funding stream earlier this month.

The Selectboard came very close to eliminating the line item in the budget that provides taxpayer funding to local organizations.

Early each year, officials with organizations that serve a town’s residents submit a petition containing the signatures of at least 5 percent of registered voters to the Town Clerk asking for inclusion on March’s Town Meeting agenda. The organizations also ask the town for a specific dollar amount to fund their operations. Voters decide whether to approve the funding requests at Town Meeting.

In Vernon, voters approve a total amount as part of the annual budget. Via paper ballot, they vote for which organizations will receive funding.

As the Selectboard went through the proposed items on the 2017 Town Meeting agenda during their Jan. 3 regular meeting, Board Chair Christiane Howe made a suggestion for how the town should decide which social service organizations should receive public funding.

“Some of these [organizations], they don’t do anything in this town,” Howe said. “Why can’t we, as a Selectboard, [once] we get their petitions back, we put their name in a hat, literally, and we pick one.”

Selectboard Vice-Chair Sandra Harris told Howe “you can’t do that if they petition.”

Howe stood her ground, claiming the Selectboard has “a right” to either put the petitioner’s article on the Town Meeting agenda or leave it off, even if the petitioner met all statutory requirements.

“Can we nix this article altogether, even though they put petitions in?” asked Selectboard member Josh Unruh.

“You mean, not have [any money] go out to organizations?” Howe asked.

“Correct. Exactly,” Unruh responded.

“Some of those [nonprofits] are really helpful for our town,” Harris said.

“I give to charities personally, but I just don’t like somebody telling me that my tax dollars have to go to these charities,” Unruh said.

“I absolutely agree,” said Howe, adding, “I have a hard time with a couple of them."

“I’m not opposed to that,” said Board member Steve Skibniowsky, agreeing that Howe’s suggestion to “pull the whole thing right out” is “probably a more appropriate way to handle this.”

Unruh noted that if all of the organizations receive the funding they requested, “you’re looking at $15,000 or $20,000. That’s pretty significant.”

The amount taxpayers approved to send to nonprofits in the current fiscal year is approximately 0.841 percent of the town’s budget.

Vernon’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget is approximately $2 million, with $16,820 of that divided among seven nonprofit organizations.

With 2,206 residents (per the 2010 census) occupying 913 taxable parcels, each taxpayer’s burden to fund nonprofits in FY17 was $18.42, or, expressed per capita, $7.62.

When Howe asked for the Selectboard’s decision on whether to completely remove the nonprofit funding item from the Town Meeting agenda, Skibniowsky and Unruh voted in the affirmative. The other three members — Harris, Howe, and Emily Vergobbe — didn’t answer.

“I am not sure on what legal ground the Board would be standing,” Town Clerk Tim Arsenault told Selectboard members, suggesting they “speak with your town attorney.”

Town Administrator Michelle Pong took a look at her notes and informed the Board that, per statute, “you can’t do it.”

The Selectboard then moved on to their next item.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #393 (Wednesday, February 1, 2017). This story appeared on page C1.

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