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Vernon struggles with spending priorities in a post-VY world

Town meeting stretches into third night as voters are divided over budget cuts

VERNON—In the Vernon Elementary School on Monday night, a long line of voters stretched down the hallway and around the corner, waiting to check into Town Meeting.

Almost 300 people attended the first night on Monday. A crowd just about as large was there Tuesday night. And voters are scheduled to return to the school on Wednesday night to finish the warrant.

During the first two sessions, voters approved transferring $75,000 from the education reserve and using $13,561 from the unassigned fund balance to defray taxes.

However, on Tuesday, voters also defeated the school budget by a 265–257 tally by Australian ballot.

And voters also approved creating a solid-waste fund to launch a new pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) program as required by a new state law.

VY’s shadow over the budget

On Monday, while waiting for the meeting to start, many residents spoke about the town’s major employer, Entergy, closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant within the next year and how it would affect town finances.

Without the plant, the town’s funding could drop dramatically, said residents.

Selectboard chair Patty O’Donnell said that in previous years, fewer than 100 people would attend the annual town meeting.

“There has not been a more important town meeting in Vernon for the last 42 years,” said O’Donnell to the standing-room-only crowd.

Statements from School Board and Selectboard members Monday night expressed a theme of budgetary expenses and choices outside of the town’s control.

One resident asked how the School Board planned to fund the school budget after Vermont Yankee shut down.

State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, who also serves on the School Board, said that the state took VY off the town’s tax rolls when Act 60 was first enacted in 1997.

The town has not received taxes directly from VY for years, Hebert said. The town does, however, receive a 25-percent discount on its education property tax from the state as a trade for hosting the nuclear plant.

Hebert hopes to work with the Legislature to step down the discount and help Vernon experience a “soft landing” after the plant closes, he said.

During discussion on the school budget, School Board members said that much of that budget was out of the board’s control, such as salaries, special-education costs, and insurance.

Still, the board reported that it had developed a responsible budget that balanced quality education with responsible spending.

“Further reductions would mean drastic changes to our programs,” said Hebert.

Audience members quizzed the board on its purchasing of technology. Voters also questioned why school costs have continued to rise despite decreasing enrollments.

Hebert said the school has tried to curb spending by increasing energy efficiency and by hiring paraprofessionals rather than certified teachers whenever possible. The board also anticipates savings in the next couple of years due to teacher retirements.

Still, said Hebert, “to maintain programs, you need a certain level of staffing.”

Voters approved two School Board articles that would defray education taxes in fiscal year 2015 only after questioning the board on whether spending down the budget surplus was prudent, since tough financial times lay ahead for the town.

Pay-as-you-throw approved

Voters approved establishing a fund for the PAYT program, though no money has actually been allocated.

Eventually, money in the fund will get the program off the ground, and then proceeds from the waste stream fees would sustain the program.

During discussion on moving from a tax-funded curbside pickup to the proposed new collection system, O’Donnell repeated that the state was forcing towns to go to PAYT.

A new law requires towns to enact a PAYT trash collection system by the summer of 2015.

Although the town still needs to determine the details for a PAYT system, the Selectboard anticipates that residents will pay for special stickers for each bag of trash.

O’Donnell said that the state passed the law — Act 148, enacted in 2012 — to force recycling. But, she added, she had also seen households abuse the system by throwing out enough waste to fill 85 bags of trash.

The board investigated constructing a solid-waste transfer station but decided the project would be too expensive.

“It didn’t seem like a prudent thing to be starting at this time” in light of VY’s closure, said O’Donnell.

Residents gasped at the estimated cost of over $3.30 a sticker for each bag of trash.

“The real fact behind all of this is the state has passed a law mandating this, so we’ll have to do it if we like it or not,” said O’Donnell.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #244 (Wednesday, March 5, 2014). This story appeared on page A3.

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