Chris Campany sounded a municipal alarm.
"Every day I see our towns holding on by a thread or breaking, and I fear those doing the work of towns are on the verge of breaking as well," the executive director of the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) wrote in a recent opinion piece published by VTDigger.
Campany noted that towns have limited capacity to meet the increasing demands of basic town management, including dealing with storm damage, managing major infrastructure planning and investment, hiring and retaining personnel, coping with personal attacks, and combatting the intentional obstruction of public proceedings.
In addition, towns are tasked with meeting statewide policy goals like housing, transportation, climate adaptation, and flood protection that are "beyond their political or operational capacity," Campany wrote.
Campany is calling for an "honest conversation" about which statewide policies are within a town's ability to act upon and which are the responsibility of the state.
"It seems like everybody's doing everything they can do," Campany said in an interview with The Commons. "And there are a lot of needs that are going to go unmet, in part because of the way that we've structured how we govern ourselves."
WRC is one of 11 regional planning organizations in Vermont that provide technical assistance to municipalities in areas like land use, transportation, housing, and economic development. Campany has been with the regional planning commission for 14 years.
"When I first got here, towns were focused on developing town budgets - which largely addressed roads - and maintaining a very small town staff," he said.
"But the world has become a lot more complex," Campany continued. "If you look back at most of our towns' history, probably the last time most of them dealt with a major infrastructure project was at the turn of the last century with rural electrification, [addressing] whether or not to have streetlights."
Now, Campany said, towns struggle to develop and manage water and wastewater projects "the scale and the complexity of which they've never had to manage before" - essential municipal services needed to support building the housing that the state so desperately needs.
'The Hunger Games approach'
Many town projects can be realized only with funding from state or federal grants. Identifying, applying for, and managing these grants falls on selectboards and, for those towns that have it, staff.
"I refer to this as The Hunger Games approach to municipal project funding," said Campany. "Those towns that have the capacity to develop the applications and administer the grants are the ones that can proceed. The others struggle."
The state's recent flooding has highlighted the extent to which some issues need to be handled on a regional level.
"Instead of hoping that towns get together to do flood resilience projects within a river corridor, let's just have the state do it," Campany said, noting that towns should also be "at the table" for these planning projects.
"We're in a new geologic era, and we're experiencing storms with a frequency and intensity that most humans have never seen," he said.
Campany believes that Vermont must "quit doing flood mitigation on a town-by-town basis."
"If you're a downstream town, you're every bit as dependent on what happens upstream as you are on what happens in your own town," he said.
"Flood mitigation is a huge thing for a volunteer planning commission to take on when they're just trying to develop basic land use plans," Campany said. "And now suddenly they're expected to understand the hydrologic behavior and coefficients of runoff related to land use cover."
And then, he said, "there's the political will and capacity to even have those conversations - much less adopt bylaws to regulate them."
Selectboards stretched thin
Selectboard members from across Vermont are voicing their support for Campany's ideas.
"Chris simply hit the nail on the head with every issue facing us," said Rick Cowan, a Selectboard member from Rockingham.
"I think this idea of towns working together instead of being in these little silos, is an idea whose time has come," he added.
One step in that direction: Rockingham shares a zoning administrator with Weathersfield, a town 20 minutes north in Windsor County.
"With all the expertise required by local government now, hiring people with those skills is super expensive," Cowan said. "And yet there's not quite enough work in one small town. So sharing employees is an elegant solution."
Aileen Chute, chair of the Putney Selectboard, said that much of the work of the board falls outside of members' expertise.
"So many things come across the table that it's probably good that we're generalists," Chute said. "But things like the town plan, or putting car chargers in Putney, or updating the zoning laws, or putting in a sidewalk, or any of that stuff is beyond our ken."
With a small yearly stipend of about $1,500, Chute joked that she makes 15 cents per hour.
"The work is always in the back of my mind, all the time," she said.
Complexities are huge
"I joined the Selectboard hoping that we could take on some of the bigger issues facing the town, like the need for housing," said Ann Golob, a selectboard member from Newfane. "But the complexities we're dealing with are huge."
Noting that selectboards are doing much more than deliberation at official meetings, Golob said she can "easily put in 10 to 20 hours a week" on board matters.
"When the state says we need to do x, y, or z, or we need to be looking at issues of flood plains, or thinking about zoning, I wholeheartedly agree. But who the heck do you think is going to do it?" she said.
"I definitely know that we need help. It's really hard. And it's only getting more complex and with fewer people available to do it," Golob said.
Both Golob and Campany pointed to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments in Franklin County, Massachusetts, as a model for how to regionalize some town functions.
The mission of the voluntary membership organization, developed in 1997 as the state eliminated the county government structure, is to "leverage resources that promote collaboration and efficiency" among its 26 member municipalities.
Noting the streamlined process of the organization, Campany said that member towns can participate in bulk purchasing of fuel oil, road salt, insurance, or animal control, for example. Membership assessments pay for the administration of projects on behalf of 26 member towns.
Shared learning would help selectboards
Zon Eastes, a selectboard member in Guilford, agrees that working regionally on some issues makes sense.
"Towns were set up to deal with snow and mud 150 years ago," he said. "We were all isolated, and everybody had to band together in a town to make things work. They didn't need regional solutions to those issues."
Eastes sees the need for shared learning among selectboard members across town lines.
"We're all wasting so much time learning how to handle certain kinds of issues," he said. He advocates for legislation that would enable this sharing of information without triggering the state's open meeting law.
A self-proclaimed "public administration geek," Campany said that laying the responsibility for land use, housing, economic development planning, and infrastructure planning at the "feet of these tiny geographies that are our towns" is inefficient.
In many states, county governments aggregate tax dollars for public investment in critical infrastructure that serves inter-municipal purposes.
"We just don't have that structure in Vermont," he said. "I'm not saying that's good or bad; it is what it is."
Sponsors of Senate Bill 159, introduced in January, agree that it's time to take a look at how to strengthen local governance. The bill proposes "to create a study committee to examine how best to strengthen county-level government to enhance and optimize public safety, tax collection, and resource allocation."
State Sen. Rebecca White, D-Windsor, is a sponsor of the bill and sits on the Senate Committee on Government Operations, which is taking testimony on the bill. She echoes the theme that Vermont's structure of local government results in inefficiencies.
Noting that many towns struggled to deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on post-flood recovery efforts, White said that towns are often asked to do the work that a regional body, like a county, might do in another state.
How to meet 21st century challenges
Much of the testimony on S.159 has been favorable.
"We do see the value in the state evaluating whether we have the right governance structures in place to meet 21st-century challenges," said Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in written testimony on S.159. But he cautioned that the bill "too narrowly calls for evaluation of county government."
"Local government serves an important purpose - of placing some of the most consequential public policy decisions and everyday impacts of government spending and decision making as close to the voter as possible," Brady said.
The study should, instead, recommend ways to encourage and stimulate regional collaboration, he said.
Tim Arsenault, Vernon town clerk and co-chair of the Vermont Municipal Clerks and Treasurers' Association's Legislative Committee, said that S.159 is "a needed step toward providing additional government efficiency."
Noting that Vernon's population has "nearly tripled since 1970," Arsenault said that any study should address the "basic questions" of the minimum amount of law enforcement that should be provided to towns, how towns share services for hard-to-fill functions like listers, and how any change will affect the sense of community that so many small towns struggle to preserve.
"In light of the changes to a post-COVID-19 Vermont, it's high time this kind of study is done," Arsenault said.
This News item by Ellen Pratt was written for The Commons.