Vernon preserves pay-as-you-throw trash collection

At Annual Town Meeting, voters cut funding for elder services and fireworks in a ‘frugal’ budget with minimal increases

VERNON — Voters decided to continue the town's curbside trash collection program (pay-as-you-throw), approved a $1.9 million municipal budget with little discussion, and passed the majority of the items as presented at Annual Town Meeting.

Town Clerk Tim Arsenault estimated 200 people attended the approximately three-hour meeting on March 2.

Twenty-seven articles were decided by voice vote from the floor on Monday night. Ballot items - such as electing Selectboard and School Board members, as well as the school budget - came before voters at the polls on Tuesday.

Voters passed the general fund budget on a voice vote with little discussion.

Interim Town Administrator Tom Guerino praised the Selectboard's handling of town finances.

“This town has very well shepherded their funds,” he said after the meeting.

The Selectboard's use of separate funds for specific projects has ensured that the town's budget is in good shape even with the loss of Vermont Yankee from the tax rolls, he added.

Guerino provided an overview of the $1,894,285 general fund budget and the Selectboard's priorities, describing it as “frugal.”

The Fire Department and facilities departments are level funded. Several other factors contributed to its 1.83-percent increase.

• Health insurance increased 5.25 percent.

• The town clerk's departmental budget increased slightly due to three elections that will be held in FY21.

• The Vernon Free Library budget increased by 1 percent. The town van's budget decreased slightly.

In his presentation, Guerino noted some of the changes that happened for the Selectboard in recent months: Administrator Michelle Pong resigned effective Jan. 31, and Josh Unruh, who had chaired the board, resigned his seat in February.

With those changes also comes opportunity, said Guerino, who stepped into the interim role approximately three weeks ago. He works the equivalent of two days a week and is filling in until the board can hire a new town administrator.

The two resignations came after a citizen raised concerns about how town funds were used for travel and conference fees, according to a report in the Brattleboro Reformer.

Guerino said that prior to Town Meeting, the Selectboard started reviewing internal and external policies. Its members have also pledged to listen better to town staff and have dug into the town's finances. The board has pledged to outline a new set of priorities now that the elections have passed.

“Our job is to meet the challenges,” he said. “And balance municipal needs with citizens' ability to pay.”

Talking trash

Voters decided to continue the town's PAYT program, despite the program's financial woes.

The program covers curbside trash pickup by the town's contracted hauler, Triple T, through the sale of trash bags. The program does not include recycling with the Windham Solid Waste Management District or the town's participation in the WSWMD's composing program Project COW. Both programs are paid for through taxes.

According to board member Christopher Parker, “This program is in trouble; there's not a lot of use of it.”

As Parker and other board members understood state law, PAYT programs couldn't be subsidized using tax money.

WSWMD Executive Director Bob Spencer, a Vernon resident, said later that the town could use tax money for the program.

He added that starting July 1, under Act 148, Vermont's universal recycling statute, all households will be required to compost food waste, either at home or through a program such as Brattleboro's curbside pickup or Project COW.

Spencer said the rule, however, comes without any enforcement.

“It's typical Vermont legislation - an unfunded mandate,” he said.

Resident Heather Frost urged everyone not using the PAYT program to do so. As a community, everyone could save money if it were used universally, she said.

“You're not paying for a bag, you're paying for a service,” she added.

Deb Berryere agreed, saying that for many of the town's elders, driving to the transfer station on Old Ferry Road in Brattleboro is a hinderance.

Resident Jeff Kocsis supported ending the program. He said he didn't like paying twice for garbage removal. According to Kocsis, he pays into the town program and rents a dumpster.

“It's a problem that needs to go away,” he said.

Andrew Gantt also urged a “nay” vote, saying he had contracted with a private hauler and it “cost a fraction” of what he would pay if he bought town bags and participated in the PAYT program.

Other residents complained that the trash bags broke too easily.

Town Treasurer Cindy Turnley pointed out how a lack of upfront investment has hampered the PAYT program from its inception. It needed an initial influx of $6,000, she said.

The program has a deficit of just over $5,000, she said.

According to Turnley, when Vernon launched its curbside recycling program, it purchased many of the upfront inventory, such as green bins, with money from the town's Solid Waste Fund.

The PAYT program, however, received no similar investment, she said, so the program has been playing catch-up ever since.

Voters also authorized $108,000 for the Solid Waste Fund to deal with municipal trash, fund the curbside recycling program, and pay the town's share of the compost program. The annual town assessment to the WSWMD of $14,518 was also approved.

Special funds

Voters also considered appropriations for a series of town funds that earmark monies for specific uses, such as upgrading town roads and parking lots.

Acting Board Chair Sandra Harris, said one reason for having these funds is that the money would come from taxes - once.

If a service is funded through a line item in the general fund, then that use needs to be approved annually, she said. At the end of that fiscal year, if the money isn't used, it effectively disappears.

Squirreling money away in a special fund allows it to earn interest for the town, Harris added.

This year, voters approved establishing a new fund for emergency repairs to cover urgent or unplanned expenses that cost more than $500 but less than $10,000.

Anything above $10,000 would kick over to the capital budget, board members said.

One example of an emergency repair would be a broken well pump, said board members.

Voters also authorized $10,000 for the new emergency fund.

The board asked for, and received, voter approval of tweaking the purpose of the professional services fund - which provides for legal and consulting services - to include “industrial scale development,” such as reuse of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant site.

Voters authorized raising $15,000 to add to the Vernon Farmland Protection Fund, which helps protect open land by purchasing its development rights.

The library's budget request of $87,453 was approved, as was $1,100 for the Vernon Historians.

Language dictating how scholarships were awarded through the James Cusick Scholarships was changed to reflect that the scholarship is no longer being funded. The board wanted to stretch the remaining money so it will last longer.

At the urging of the Selectboard, voters passed over (did not vote on) an article to eliminate the office of Lister and authorize the board to contract with, or hire, an assessor.

'No' to elder services, fireworks; 'yes' to visiting nurses

Throughout the night, when the audience voted on a money question, a small chorus of “nay” rang out from the back right corner of the room.

For these audience members, they clearly felt the town was spending too much money.

For example, voters questioned the road foreman about the value of spending $100,000 to upgrade two seldom-used roads and $40,000 to upgrade culverts.

One resident reminded her fellow Vernonites that everyone could point to roads or services that they didn't use in town - and yet, as a community, everyone pays into the town because everybody uses something.

Two funding requests - the only articles defeated on March 2 - were nonetheless voted down.

The first was a request from the Elderly Assistance Fund for $5,000. The fund helps seniors in town with a variety of needs. In recent years, it has paid for snowplowing services, which came to approximately $5,000 or a little more each year.

The fund currently has approximately $50,000.

Kocsis urged voters to defeat the article because the Elderly Assistance Fund had a balance that exceeded the funding request. Voters defeated the request in a standing vote, 73–65.

Also defeated: a request for $2,000 to fund a public fireworks display.

Hannah Gantt, chair of the town picnic and fireworks committee, asked to amend the request to $5,000, the minimum needed by the fireworks company to host a show. Private donations did not come through, she said.

At this point, she said, it looks like the fireworks show will be cancelled this summer.

Berryere spoke in favor of funding the fireworks display because it drew people from surrounding towns to Vernon. A member of the fire department said the evening also acted as a fundraiser for the department.

Voters defeated the amendment and then defeated the article.

The atmosphere in the room felt tense when Terry Hyland, a staff member with Visiting Nurses of Vermont and New Hampshire, stood to speak to the organization's request for $3,250.

The organization delivers in-home medical and hospice care to area residents. According to Hyland, last year the organization served 33 patients in town and made 561 home visits. It also provided approximately $22,000 in charity services in Vernon, he said.

Andrew Gantt said, since the audience had already voted down money for seniors and picnic for the kids, they should also defeat the Visiting Nurses' request.

Kocsis quickly stood to remind the audience that he had urged to defeat the Elderly Assistance Fund article because the account already held more money than the committee would spend in a year.

Former Rep. Patty O'Donnell said that without visiting nurses, many people in Vernon would not receive quality medical care.

“We are better than this,” she said. “This is literally pennies for our houses.”

Voters approved the visiting nurses' request.

Ballot items

None of the races were contested at the polls Tuesday, when 647 of the town's 1,817 registered voters cast ballots. Eighty-four people returned absentee ballots.

Incumbents Jean Carr and Christopher Parker were re-elected to the Selectboard. Town Clerk Tim Arsenault was reelected, as was Town Treasurer Cindy Turnley.

On the school side, incumbent Chad Mulverhill was re-elected to the School Board. The $6,353,800 school budget passed, 289–199, with 159 people leaving the question blank.

The fiscal year 2021 school budget represents per-pupil spending of $17,178 and an increase in per-pupil spending of 5.8 percent compared to the current fiscal year.

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