Infrastucture costs, merger to dominate meetings

Merger on the ballot; Wright and Mickle vie for BF village president

BELLOWS FALLS — With the end of the fiscal year, and the annual Village Meeting of the Bellows Falls Village Corporation next week, Trustee Sandy Martin and president Nancy McAuliffe say goodbye, having signed off on the fiscal year 2017 budget.

The budget boasts a 0.535-cent decrease in the Village General Fund tax, whose revenues fund village administration, fire, police, and parks.

The last decrease, Town Manager Willis “Chip” Stearns wrote, “was in 2007, when the last town appraisal went into effect.”

With that said, however, a significant part of the village's aging wastewater infrastructure is in need of replacement, at no small cost. These repairs under pressure to be funded to coincide with upcoming water line replacements.

The lines also transport wastewater to be treated under contract from Walpole N.H., as well as from Saxtons River, North Westminster, and Westminster.

Voters will be asked to approve a bond for $1.8 million for improvement of the wastewater collection system improvements in an Australian ballot vote.

In addition, Village residents will vote on an additional $1,892,200 for the General Fund, with $1,785,850 to be raised by taxes.

“The two values are not related to the same source of funds or activity,” Stearns explained.

“The $1.892 million is the budget for the general fund with a portion to be raised by taxes,” he noted. “The $1.8 million is additional bonding authority for Wastewater Collection System improvements which will be paid over time by wastewater user fees.”

'Two birds, one stone'

In an email to The Commons, Stearns said the bonding authority is being requested “so that, in the same streets that water mains are being replaced, we can combine the replacement of wastewater collection lines, which often end up with damage appearing years later, since they are clay pipe that's more than 40 years old.

He called the simultaneous upgrade of the water and wastewater lines as a “two birds, one stone” project.

As a result, the affected streets will not require work “for 10, 15, or even 20 years since they will be completely updated. The total costs of replacing aging wastewater lines will be funded in part by leftover, or 'uncommitted,' fund of $745,000, and will be used.”

An informational meeting on that vote will be included as part of the regular Village meeting on Monday, May 16, starting at 7 p.m., in the auditorium of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

Voting of village officers and the wastewater debt ballot question takes place on Tuesday, May 17 at the Masonic Temple at 61 Westminster St., with polls open between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Village residents can register to vote with the Town Clerk until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 11.

Special meetings on merger, zoning

Two Special Town Meetings for voters in Rockingham, have been warned, creating a complicated dance leading to the Village election.

Rockingham voters will be called to vote by Australian ballot on Tuesday, May 17 on multiple special articles, including a municipal merger that has been the subject of study as well as hot debate on and off for nearly 40 years.

The merger vote will be done in another separate paper ballot, following a final public meeting on Saturday, May 14 at 2 p.m.

If passed, the merger will take effect on July 1.

In a separate Special Town Meeting notice, town voters are asked to decide on five-year tax exemptions for the Bellows Falls Village Corporation, Saxtons River Village, Bartonsville Grange, and the Bellows Falls Area Senior Center.

Those articles will be considered by acclamation on Saturday, May 14, immediately following the public hearing.

Two final articles on the warning will be decided the following Tuesday by Australian ballot.

The questions come as a result of Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark's bid to locate a detention center, first at the former Chemco building at the south end of the Village and then, in an attempt to address Villager concerns, to be located in a spot overlooking Herrick's Cove; both to huge protests by town and village residents alike.

Voters will be asked to amend change definitions to zoning bylaws and, in a non-binding vote, to weigh in on whether a detention center should ever be located within Rockingham as an advisory vote to the Zoning and Planning Commission.

Contested presidential race

With former Trustees president Nancy McAuliffe and Trustee Sandy Martin stepping down, two candidates for the one-year president seat have thrown their hats in the ring: former Trustee Deborah Wright, and Myles Mickle, a lifelong Vermont resident who is a newcomer to municipal politics.

Mickle graduated from Bellows Falls Union High School in 2005, then went on to receive a B.A. in history from Castleton University. He is currently serving on the Rockingham Certified Local Government board, and said he looks forward to and hopes to bring a “fresh perspective” to the challenges ahead.

He said the most important role of president is that, “I'll listen. I'll run the meetings. A large part of the job is facilitating effective public comment.”

“People feel like they are not being heard,” Mickle said. “In the recent merger hearings, for example, people complained that their input was being denied so the vote wouldn't be delayed. I'm willing to take the extra time. That's the other part of the job.”

Having grown up in the area, he said he has “its best interests at heart,” and his, “strengths are in mediation and keeping an open-mind.”

Wright said of her bid for Village president, “We need board members, and a president, that keep those charged with [their] duties on task and accountable.”

She comes with some experience having served as a Village Trustee from 2011 to 2013, and a track record of conflict with municipal employees.

She served as vice chair of the Rockingham Free Public Library Board of Trustees from 2012 to 2014, vigorously defending the board's dismissal of Library Director Célina Houlné.

Houlné subsequently was reinstated as part of a settlement of a wrongful termination lawsuit. Wright subsequently brought a civil lawsuit naming multiple state and local library trustees.

In addition, former town manager Tim Cullenen has recently named Wright as a catalyst for his dismissal in his recent lawsuit against both the town and the village.

In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court on Feb. 19, Cullenen asserts that on Nov. 14, 2012, Wright, then a trustee, filed a formal personnel complaint that described him as “rude, arrogant, disrespectful [and] hubristic,” setting into motion a sequence of personnel actions that culminated in his dismissal the following April 16.

Both matters remain in litigation.

Wright told The Commons that the biggest issue facing the Village is “apathy from public leaders on issues as far-reaching as drugs, housing, community engagement, job creation and more, [which] reflects poorly on our entire population.”

She said that if elected president, she will “engage public input in areas of community concern through committees, focus groups, and work to find common practical solutions to our goals and problems. We have the same difficulties as many other municipalities, we can find common ground to resolve them.”

Uncontested races

An uncontested battle for two two-year seats - one vacated by the exiting trustee Sandy Martin, and the other held by long-serving incumbent, Stefan Golec - sees another newcomer to politics, Steve Adams, with his name on the ballot.

With no challengers, both Golec and Adams will be seated.

Golec continues his dedication to public service and wrote to The Commons, “I hope to bring more transparency and trust to the people we serve and to improve relations between the Village Trustees and the people we serve as I believe open communication is the key,” adding he would like to see, “a board goal [of] shaving 5 cents off next year's Village tax rate.”

He noted several issues Villagers are facing, “such as the TransCanada appeal of their property value assessment,” maintaining the “downtown designation” with the state “especially in reference to the status of the 'Island' in regards to development,” and making sure the Town Plan is completed by June 1.

Golec noted he would “like to see some restraint on spending in both the Village and the Town, the burden placed on taxpayers of tax increases is causing some in our community great difficulty, while others are considering leaving the area. We also we need to be able to more with less, especially in administration.”

Adams is literally a native-born son, born in the old Rockingham Memorial Hospital and brought into the world by three nurses who remain friends today, he said.

Having landed an executive position with an international tech company, he notes his experience with dealing with large corporations.

But Adams said that part of his job also deals with small-business owners whose concerns were been largely ignored in the Village when the “detention center fiasco” came to town a few months ago.

But, he said, his personal interests are to preventatively address the problems kids growing up in the Village are facing, as early as Kindergarten, with after-school and summer programs that successfully encourage high school graduates to go on to enter either a vocational school to learn a trade, or college.

He said the importance of these early education opportunities develop skills early on of something as simple as dealing with the public.

He added, “As a Trustee, from the Village perspective, we really have to look at how we're doing things. Small government, the way it works now, is a broken system. It doesn't work anymore.”

“We rely on a tax base we have zero control over,” he said, citing the recession as an example of “taxes continuing to go up, while people lost their jobs, then were foreclosed upon, resulting in a smaller paying tax base.”

That means trustees must look at “everything we spend money on. Why are we spending $600,000 for a fire department” that is not covering any of its own costs? he asked.

He noted other towns that generate revenue from operating their own ambulance services instead of contracting to other firms. He also suggested similarly contracting out the Bellows Falls Police as an alternative to the Windham County Sheriff's Department for neighboring towns.

Adams said he did not want any elephants in the room, and that open discussion about everything is welcomed from his perspective.

He added, though, that he's not a fan of the merger.

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