Trustees, Selectboard tackle questions on merger

Three board chairs meets to discuss new attempt to merge town and two villages

BELLOWS FALLS — The Joint Board of Rockingham met last week in a special meeting to consider a seven-page proposal for merger.

Selectboard chair Thom MacPhee said he was the one who pulled together the chairs of the three municipal boards - himself, BF's Roger Riccio, and Saxtons River's Louise Luring - as well as James McAuliffe and Paul Obuchowski, who have long considered the merger option for the community.

Obuchowski assured the boards that the meetings which produced the proposal violated no open meeting laws as they were meeting as individuals. MacPhee reiterated the same to The Commons later.

However, at least one BF trustee said he felt “blindsided” by the merger proposal: “I only learned of the four months of 'group' meetings at last Thursday's Joint Board meeting,” Trustee Andrew Smith told The Commons.

“Anyone seeing the agenda in advance might have reasonably expected a discussion about exploration of a merger plan, or perhaps each board considering appointing a committee. Instead, four of the Trustees got their first-ever look at a 'Plan of Merger' when we arrived for the meeting,” he said.

“The provenance of the document and the lack of detailed information were only two of the red flags. That this plan was presented with the expectation of an immediate vote for the purpose of initiating a merger was unthinkable,” he added.

MacPhee explained that he wanted to tackle this recurring theme of merger for reasons of efficiency. He also said it was clear to him the merger issue should again be reconsidered after the “aborted attempt” by the Village Charter Committee to change the charter from the town manager form of government to putting more onus on the Trustees for management of the routine governance and oversight of Village business.

MacPhee noted that “there are two boards governing 5,500 people. Every Tuesday, the office people gotta scramble and start getting prepared for the next meeting - it's a vicious cycle.”

He said the proposal made changes neither to personnel, in terms of cutbacks, nor to departments: “It's a matter of efficiency in how the [municipal] government runs.”

He also said the plan would save Saxtons River and Bellows Falls money: “Obviously it would save the cost of the Trustees' salaries, the cost of elections, and audit costs,” MacPhee noted.

The costs would be shared a bit more with the Town of Rockingham, he added.

For instance, Bellows Falls and Saxtons River pay for their own fire district. The merger proposal creates one Rockingham fire district for which residents would pay one tax.

“That's not a big tax savings, but it's something,” MacPhee said.

The two boards agreed at the Oct. 3 Joint Board meeting not to mandate a committee, but rather to have the citizens' group go back to the drawing board and return with more facts on costs and benefits.

MacPhee said the group would return once those questions had been addressed, and that he looked forward to continuing the discussion.

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