Town rejects increase for farmland protection

Voters closely scrutinize the town budget

DUMMERSTON — The major issue facing the approximately 130 Dummerstonians who spent about five hours in the Elementary School gym at Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday involved proposals to increase the town budget for farmland protection and social services.

By paper-ballot votes, Town Meeting voters rejected a proposal to double the town's allotment to the Farmland Protection Fund by $2,500 to $5,000.

And voters increased the town's contributions to local health and welfare service nonprofits - for example, Brattleboro Senior Meals and the Women's Freedom Center - by $875, from $10,350 to $11,225.

A Selectboard-appointed committee that has been studying the issue had learned that the town gives significantly less than its neighboring towns.

Mark Whittaker, who often takes a stand as a strong advocate for the financially disadvantaged, spoke on both articles.

Whittaker argued that even a $2,500 increase to the Farmland Protection Fund, proposed by Eesha Williams, would hurt those who were living close to or below the margins.

“We've discussed this year after year after year,” Whittaker said. He suggested that people could privately write checks to the fund if they wanted to.

“I commend the Selectboard for recognizing how many people are struggling. Every dollar counts. Do fundraising, but do not pin this on the backs of the broken people,” he said.

The fund already held $30,000 and has only once been asked for a contribution - last year, when it contributed $18,000 toward the purchase of the Bunker Farm.

Selectboard member Zeke Goodband said that he had discussed the issue with the Walker Farm's Jack Mannix, a former longtime Dummerston selectman, and Mannix said that he was pleased with $2,500.

“What was important to Jack is that the town show support for farmland protection, and the amount is immaterial,” Goodband said. “The intent was always to use the money as seed money to leverage the real money. He told me to tell you he's happy with the $2,500 in the budget.”

But the topic of increases returned in a similar fashion later on.

In the case of the $875 increase for social services, Whittaker said even this small amount would be “the straw that broke the camel's back.”

“People are living on a shoestring,” he said. “Find other avenues to raise this money. I don't think people realize that some camels can't take that straw.”

Former Selectboard member Tom Bodett spoke in favor of increasing the donations and catching up with other towns.

“If we're really fundamentally opposed, we should eliminate these services and take the hit from the neighboring towns,” Bodett said. “If we don't believe in the game, we shouldn't be playing it. But if we're playing, we should be doing our part. Our budget stops at our town line, but our communities do not.”

'Plain Jane' school budget

The school budget was far less contentious and only 40 people stuck around for the discussion.

“There's not a lot of change,” said School Board Chairman Amy Wall. “It's a most unremarkable, plain-jane budget.”

The money that was allotted last year for an IT person was used instead for a second first-grade teacher for one year, Wall reported.

The school has hired a new food service vendor and that's “going very well,” Wall said. The budget includes raises for teachers, but those anticipated expenses are approximations since a new contract must be negotiated soon.

The school budget is not over the cap the state puts on school expenditures.

“This is one of those magical times when all the stars seemed to align,” Wall said. “We will not incur penalties, and we will maintain the quality programming we enjoy here in Dummerston.”

In general, voters made incremental changes to budgets that were more or less set in solid cement long before Town Meeting even began.

This year, the four-hour town portion of the meeting came first, resulting in a final budget of $431,747 for the town and $487,476 for the highway department.

The school portion came in at under an hour and resulted in a budget of $3,245,829.

There were no contested races on the ballot this year. Goodband was returned to the board for a three-year term, while newcomer Jerelyn Wilson won a two-year seat to the Selectboard.

Incumbent Rick Mills and newcomer Christian Avard won one-year seats on the Selectboard, while Barbara Taft was elected to fill a vacancy on the Lydia Taft Pratt Library board.

Other unopposed incumbents included Town Clerk Pam McFadden, Town Treasurer Laurie Frechette, Brattleboro Union High School Board representative Ruth Barton, Lister Charlotte Annis, and Moderator Cindy Jerome.

In the town budget, salt prices have gone up, worker's compensation insurance costs have gone up, and copying costs have come down, according to Selectboard Chair Ezekiel Goodband. There's a new cleaning service for the Town Office, and the contribution to the volunteer fire department has increased.

The town voted to bid out the job of painting the community center with a $12,000 cap on the project costs. Tax payments for February will now be due on the 20th of the month, instead of the 6th.

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