WHITINGHAM — “There's plenty more food, please take more,” called a Whitingham Ladies Benevolent Society member as Town Meeting attendees chatted with neighbors and ate a meal of homemade lasagna, salad, and pies in the Twin Valley Middle High School cafeteria.
Annual Town Meeting began with a presentation by Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax. It ended with applause for Selectboard Office Administrator Gib Zaboray, who worked to bring in $1 million in grant funding to repair the town's two aging sewer plants.
Voters wanted to discuss S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, with Roberts. The audience members who spoke all raised concerns that, if passed, S.5 would increase their heating costs while decreasing their choices for heating their homes.
S.5 is designed to combat climate change by outlining a path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions created by heating buildings. The act would also create a new clean heat standard aimed at transitioning Vermonters from using fossil fuels like heating oil, kerosene, and propane by making these heating fuels more expensive.
Roberts told the audience that he was still undecided on how he will vote. Yet, he added, as someone with a background in architecture and construction, he had multiple questions about the bill's implications for rural communities like those he serves.
As communities that have experienced weeklong power outages and being marooned during 2011's Tropical Storm Irene, said Roberts, “We need backups to the backups because when push comes to shove, Whitingham, Halifax, and Wilmington can be left on an island.”
Most financial articles pass
Of the 37 articles voted from the floor, attendees approved 35.
Voters approved $740,771 to cover general fund expenditures and operating expenses for the upcoming fiscal year. The articles authorizing funding for town services such as the Highway Department, Fire Department, Library, Cemeteries, and Parks Committee also passed. Several smaller amounts requested by community organizations that serve residents, such as the Women's Freedom Center or Deerfield Valley Rescue, were also approved.
Voters defeated an article establishing a reserve fund called the Cell Town Fund to hold money from the lease buyout for a cell tower in town. Instead, voters decided to direct those funds toward the Town Highway Garage Renovation fund. An article to appropriate $1,203 for Health Care Rehabilitation Services, Inc., died for lack of a motion.
Voting for municipal officials, the school board, and the school budget took place by Australian ballot.
'An act of desperation'
According to a press release included in the Annual Town Report, Whitingham's two sewer plants have outlived their life expectancy by two decades. The state temporarily closed the plant located in the Village of Jacksonville in 2018 due to failing equipment.
Before the pandemic, voters approved spending $3.9 million to repair and upgrade the plants. After the pandemic, however, the single bid submitted to the town totaled $4.7 million. So, the municipality pared down the project to only replacing the plants' processing equipment. Unfortunately, this left the buildings and sewer lines “in a decrepit state.”
In what the press release termed “an act of desperation,” Zboray, the Selectboard office administrator, applied for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' Congressional Directed Spending (more popularly known as “earmarks,” or money that members of Congress direct back to their districts).
Sanders secured $1 million in funding to enable the town to repair the buildings, sewer lines, and purchase backup power generators.