Rockingham, Grafton, Athens voters approve budgets with Irene’s toll in mind

Rockingham, Grafton, and Athens voters went to the polls last week with budgetary items topping the list of hotly debated articles.

Rockingham was said to be “paying the piper” after level funding budgets over the last few years. Grafton found a way to lower the town's costs for repair and cleanup - drastically - following Tropical Storm Irene, and Athens decided to disband a library committee, buy the Athens Elementary school, and become a member of the National Insurance Program overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Rockingham voters passed a slight increase in the municipal budget, “due in part to a decrease in the grand list,” according to Municipal Manager Tim Cullenen.

But voters at Town Meeting on March 5 made sure to let the Selectboard know that residents already struggling might be reaching the tipping point.

Voters in the villages of Saxtons River, Gageville, and Bellows Falls - all within the town of Rockingham - cautioned that many residents are just hanging on, and while the increase might seem insignificant to some, it's not so for those desperately trying to hang onto their properties.

Steve Hearne said that increasing taxes is “eminent domain by another name,” and that “at some point we have to stop and level fund the budget. [The new budget] is putting pressure on fewer and fewer people to pay those taxes.”

Outgoing selectboard member Ann DiBernardo responded, saying, “This is really nothing. It's basically paying the piper for level funding the budget over the last several years.”

The budget passed in paper ballot, 75 to 38.

A measure to double the property tax exemption for disabled veterans and qualified family members was passed, but voters rejected a measure to extend a five-year property tax exemption to the Bellows Falls Moose Family Center #527.

Voters also rejected appropriating $41,000 to match a 2012 Transportation Enhancement Grant awarded Rockingham by the state for a new sidewalk along the Happy Valley Road to the Saxtons River recreation area.

Mike Ghia, a resident of Saxtons River, said his kids walk the distance along the roadside and that he does not consider it a safety issue.

“The side of the road is pretty wide along there,” he aid, noting he was not aware of any safety-related incidents. Other residents agreed.

In elections on Tuesday, with only nine write-in votes for the two open school director positions, the school board will need to make appointment to fill the seats.

Fast meeting in Grafton

Last Tuesday, Grafton voters were “in and out by 11:30 a.m.,” according to Town Clerk Kim Record. “Everything passed.”

Voters faced a 5-percent increase in the K-6 operating budget to $1,390,740, for the Grafton Elementary School, due to an increase in special education needs in early education, as well as a higher assessment from the supervisory union. The budget passed 63 to 7.

Tropical Storm Irene was front and center in several articles.

In a vote of heartfelt confidence, the Fireman's Association request for operating expenses to the tune of $23,000, as well as $8,000 for the Fire and Rescue Squad, both passed easily.

Assistant Chief Keith Hermiz noted the influx of new members on a level-funded budget, and expressed his gratitude at the continued support from the town.

Sally Warren took the opportunity to thank all those who “cooked, worked, and cleaned up” following the town's struggle to survive the aftermath of the storm. Grafton, one of the hardest-hit towns in southern Vermont, was also one of the quickest to restore its infrastructure.

Voters also passed a bond vote for $1 million to finance both the capital improvement costs of relocation and construction of the Town Garage destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene (estimated at $350,000) and to cover costs incurred by the storm (estimated at $650,000).

Discussion was led by Bill Kearns, who removed himself as moderator for the duration of his presentation. Kearns began by reminding voters that “45 out of 55 miles of infrastructure were made impassable by Irene on Aug. 29, 2011. No roads were passable going in and out of town, with the exception of a tenuous route to Chester.”

The $4.055 million in repairs to date will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal-Aid Highway Program.

The town drew $3.575 million from the town's $3.9 million People's United Bank credit line and $480,000 from town coffers to cover these costs. Kearns noted that when property taxes came in a month early last October, the whole line of credit did not need to be used.

Kearns also noted that several spring projects involving replacing several culverts, repairing a retaining wall, and work on the Howland Mills Bridge - estimated at $758,000 - are eligible to be reimbursed by FEMA “as completed.”

A contractor's estimate of $400,000 to fix the retaining wall was contested by FEMA assessors, who thought it should be closer to $100,000.

Kearns said Grafton participates in a federal disaster assistance program that provides guidance on mitigation discretionary funding available to “promote measures that reduce future loss to life and property, protect the federal investment in public infrastructure and ultimately help build disaster resistant communities.”

He estimated the various projects falling under the policy at $1.2 million.

Kearns said it would cost the town $47,000 to participate in this program, as opposed to the Vermont Agency of Transportation grants available to towns that would cost the town $240,000.

“After the 406 mitigation projects are approved by FEMA, the maximum cost to the town would be $47,505.30,” said Kearns, who recommended that figure to the voters.

Kearns said that the town would not do any work without knowing if it would receive the funding for the project from FEMA, and without verifying that every project done has met FEMA eligibility requirements.

He noted the state announced it would increase its payments for federally eligible infrastructure repair to limit any municipality's payment to no more than a 3-cent increase to its property-tax rate.

“All in all,” Kearns said, “the town is looking at a total of $6.1 million in projects with the town's share estimated to be $47,000; everything else should be reimbursed.”

The next portion of the article dealt with what to do with the storm-damaged town garage. Don Dougall told voters, “If Article 15 passes, the town would be saying to the Selectboard, there's $350,000 to build a building and that's it, rather than build a new building that would then have to be paid for.”

The vote passed by Australian ballot, 121 to 45.

Athens buys its old school building

Voters in Athens at Town Meeting on March 6 approved all the budgetary items, including $801,261 for the town school district shared with Grafton, to defray the cost of more special-education needs in early education.

Voters supported purchasing the Athens Elementary school building and property “not to exceed $255,000,” as well as the appropriating $9,000 for “the purposes of establishing a clear title” to the Brick Meetinghouse.

The total school and town budget increased by 1.11 percent to $1,197,311 in 2012.

The town also voted to become a member of the National Flood Insurance program from FEMA.

According to the FEMA website, “When property owners receive financial assistance from the Federal Government following a presidentially declared disaster, they may be required to purchase flood insurance coverage.”

Athens did establish a line of credit for $250,000 following Irene for repair of roads damaged by the tropical storm, and the town used $243,192.86. Wyman said FEMA would reimburse 75 percent of that figure, with the state matching the town's 12.5 percent to cover the entire bill.

Town Clerk Darlene Wyman retained both her clerk and treasurer positions, while Stephen Fine replaced Elizabeth Agostini as town moderator.

Agostini, a lawyer, was thought to be more useful as the delinquent tax collector, Wyman said.

“People are having a hard time and we have $133,970 [in delinquent taxes] still outstanding going back to 2010,” he said. Approximately six properties went to tax sale last year.

Wyman said, however, that the 2010 grand list reappraisal had increased, and she didn't think that it would change much, “though one person did lose their barn in the flood.”

Wyman didn't think that would make much of a change in the grand list.

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