Voters restore police patrols

Town funds budget items amid discussion of values

VERNON — Voters gathered on March 4 and 5 for Annual Town Meeting voters, approving a $5.96-million school budget and passing an amended fiscal year 2020 municipal general fund budget of $1.89 million with $1.57 million to be raised by taxes.

Voters amended the budget up in order to provide more coverage from the Windham County Sheriff's Office.

During the 3{1/2}-hour meeting Monday night at Vernon Elementary School, residents considered more than 20 binding articles.

“Vote with whatever color you have,” Town Moderator Tim Arsenault told Town Meeting attendees after a long series of paper-ballot votes.

Voters passed the night's agenda items from the floor or using paper ballots. All the agenda items passed, but a few were amended from the floor.

The agenda articles receiving the most debate were increasing coverage by the Windham County Sheriff's Office (WCSO), increasing funding for the Vernon Free Public Library, and preserving 146 acres of farmland.

Andrew Gantt told the audience he felt surprised that the body was “voting to raise money at every turn,” he said. “But we can't afford to be putting out any money now and continue to raise taxes.”

Munson Hicks characterized spending money on services and farmland preservation differently.

“This is really a vote about who we are, what do we want this town to be, what are the core values that bind us together as a town,” Hicks said.

The evening started with a packed auditorium. Residents stood at the back of the room and filled the chairs as the School Board outlined its budget for fiscal year 2020.

In Australian balloting the following day, the school budget was approved, 162-102.

There were no contested races on the ballot for town offices.

Voters override Selectboard budget, maintain WCSO coverage

Though voters later approved a line item to keep the WCSO patrolling the town at its current level of 40 hours a week, Selectboard initially proposed $1.83 million, which would have entailed slashing the county sheriff's contract to 19 hours a week for 2020.

Some audience members questioned this decision. They said the town needed more coverage given its number of school kids, the impact on the town of the opioid crisis, and the need for welfare checks for elderly residents.

“I really think that we need to have the sheriff's department not cut but increased to 20 hours a day,” Johnathan Hall said.

This amendment was defeated, 127–40, in a paper ballot vote.

Selectboard Chair Joshua Unruh said that people need to recognize that when the WCSO isn't on patrol, the town still has police coverage through the Vermont State Police.

“We are never without police coverage,” he said.

“I don't believe we're having a decrease in coverage; the coverage is just happening in a different way,” Unruh said, a statement that elicited a number of angry murmurs of “that's not true” from audience members.

Meanwhile, other audience members felt the town was paying too much.

Andrew Gantt questioned whether the WCSO does enough for the town. He made an amendment to cut the WCSO's budget line to zero, proposing that the town should instead rely on coverage from the State Police.

Voters defeated this amendment in a voice vote.

Mark Hanke made a third amendment to restore the WCSO's coverage budget from 19 to 40 hours a week, a measure that passed in a standing vote, 92–50.

For the first time, the board decided to pay the assistant fire chief a stipend. He will receive $1,000.

“We felt that his work deserved reward,” said Unruh.

Money for the stipend came from other savings realized after the board decided to no longer test its emergency sirens now that Vermont Yankee is no longer producing power and residents have access to other emergency-notification systems, like the state's VT-ALERT.

Residents also questioned the cost of stripping and repairing half of the floors of the Town Office building, though the budget item was approved as presented.

Capital plan and solid waste

The Library's budget and donations to human service organizations were debated, as was a measure to add to the town's Farmland Protection Fund.

Hannah Gantt asked that voters defeat $2,000 to fund a public fireworks display and instead raise the funds through individual donations. Voters approved this change.

Library trustees asked voters to increase the amount raised through taxes to fund the library.

The Selectboard had presented a budget of $82,855, of which $76,000 would come from taxes. The rest, would be funded from the library's Gift Fund.

The Trustees, however, asked for $86,855 with $80,000 from taxes.

Jean Carr, library director and Selectboard member, explained that last year's approved budget was just over $86,000. In essence, the amendment reflected level funding the library.

Unruh and fellow Selectboard member Chris Parker questioned why the library needed the increase. Couldn't it deliver the same services with the lower budget? they asked.

“Maybe not,” said Carr, noting that in recent years the town had cut the library's budget from approximately $115,000. The library had maintained services at that time by cutting staff.

Andrew Gantt said he loved the library but said that the body had just voted to up taxes by increasing the WCSO coverage. He added that since the voters had raised money in one part of the budget, then they must cut money elsewhere. He urged the audience to vote no.

The Library's budget passed as amended in a voice vote.

Human services spending approved, mostly

Four human service organizations had asked the voters to approve a total of $6,025 to support their work in town, despite Gantt urging voters to reject the spending.

The groups represented worthy causes, he said, but he added that he believed it would not be right for the town to ask residents to force donations through taxes.

In a paper ballot, voters approved funding for three of the four organizations.

Voters narrowly approved $800 for Senior Solutions, $1,850 for Health Care and Rehabilitation Services (HCRS), and $3,250 for Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Vermont & New Hampshire.

The electorate rejected $125 for Southern Vermont Transit, a.k.a. The Current.

Voters decide to add to farmland funds

After a vigorous debate, voters approved two articles related to the Vernon Farmland Protection Fund.

Town Meeting created the fund in 1982 to purchase development rights of agricultural land. According to a handout by the fund committee, the protection program's purpose is to conserve open land and help ensure the economic health of Vernon's farms.

Committee Chair Art Miller told the audience that the protection fund's goals align with goals outlined in the Town Plan.

First, voters approved using $110,000 to pay for a portion of the cost to permanently conserve 146 acres of farmland on Route 142. During debate, residents referred to the land - currently owned by Whitney Elms LLC - as the Dunklee Farm.

In a following article, residents approved appropriating $20,000 to start replenishing the Farmland Protection Fund.

Hannah Gantt said she enjoyed visiting the Dunklee property as a kid. She also noted that the property, which borders the Connecticut River, is being eroded by the river every year.

Approving the purchase of the 146 acres meant “we're dumping money into sinking hole - literally,” Hannah Gantt said.

Jessica Freeman disagreed, pointing out that residents spend a lot of time in the Town Plan discussing their values and their collective identity as a town, she said.

Consequently, she advised, the town needs to “pony up the money” to protect agriculture.

A note of thanks

The town dedicated this year's annual report to all its local volunteers.

“This evening, we wanted to let you know that you are appreciated,” Unruh read in a statement.

After he asked volunteers in the crowd to stand and be thanked, they received a round of applause.

The Selectboard and Planning Commission also thanked Administrator Michelle Pong for her work during the past year.

Patty O'Donnell of the Planning and Economic Development Commission noted that, traditionally, the town has taken years to update its Town Plan. This time, the plan was completed within one year, O'Donnell said. She credited this achievement to Pong's help.

“I think one of the assets we have in this town right now is Michelle, and I thank her greatly,” O'Donnell said.

Arsenault, who has served as Town Moderator for more than 20 years, said this year's meeting had tense moments, but they were not as bad as ones he'd seen in the past.

The most contentious was the year Vermont Yankee closed, Arsenault said. That year, voters decided many agenda items out of “fear for their future.”

“Vernon is in the position where we have ourselves in order and we're looking at the future with a positive eye,” he said.

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