Voters OK budget at Town Meeting
by Anita Rafael
Mar 16, 2014 | 2513 views | 0 0 comments | 78 78 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WARDSBORO -- The 229th annual Town Meeting, held March 4, drew a larger number of attendees than it has in recent years, with about 80 voters in attendance.

Voters approved the town report, the town budget, and the amount to be raised by taxes for fiscal year 2015 with little discussion. The amount to be raised by taxes for the coming year is $809,618, of which $93,309 is for special allocations to various groups.

Before moderator Dr. Robert Backus began reading the warning of the meeting and the nine articles to be voted upon, Sen. Peter Galbraith made a few comments, cutting right to the issue on everyone’s mind: tax increases. “It should be no surprise that we have the usual problems up in Montpelier,” he said. “We are aware of the need to balance the budget without raising taxes.”

Galbraith said the state is wrestling with the issue of raising property taxes to fund education, and he made his position clear: “We cannot continue to fund education from property tax increases. I am co-sponsoring legislation, a bill that has some chance of passing, and that will change the source of funding for schools.”

Galbraith said that what makes school funding complicated is that schools are paid for by a statewide tax, while individual school budgets are set locally. “It’s a problem we have to address,” he said.

Galbraith also acknowledged that the state’s health care reforms are extremely complex issues. “You can have a health care system that is simple or you can have a health care system that is fair,” he said. “It is very hard to have a health care system that is both simple and fair.” 

Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro resident and member of the town’s school board, gave his annual update about his position on various state policies and pending legislation. On education, he said he fears that the state will implement a “top-down model” for managing school expenditures and facilities, meaning that the state would determine what each town’s needs are for education, resulting in a plan which may call for consolidation of schools and services. He favors a “bottom-up model,” in which each town would bring its needs to the state first, before education funding decisions are made. “Education costs are a big problem,” he said. “If I had a solution, I’d deliver it. There are no easy answers.”

He said he supports legislation calling for the labeling of GMO foods, and he reassured the people of Wardsboro that if and when the state designates the “official state vegetable” that he personally will make sure that it will not be kale. Wardsboro residents hope the state will chose the heirloom Gilfeather turnip for the honor, a unique variety that originated in the town in the early 20th century.

Voters unanimously approved Article 2, the approval of the 68-page town report. The voters were informed, however, that the booklet would no longer be mailed directly to them due to the high cost of postage. Next year’s town report will be delivered in bulk to the Town Office where voters may pick up a copy in advance of Town Meeting. Town clerk Jackie Bedard said, “There is a possibility that we can make the information available online next year. Just a possibility.”

Article 3 asked Wardsboro voters to “transfer ownership of the fire station known as parcel ID# 030089 to the fire department with assurance that the department continue to use the property in the best interest of the town.” Voters unanimously approved the transfer, with the unanimous support of the selectboard.

Voting on Article 4, to elect town officials, began about one hour into the meeting. Jackie Bedard was re-elected as town clerk, town treasurer, and collector of delinquent taxes, each for a term of one year. She ran unopposed. During the course of the meeting, Bedard was commended for the work she has done in the past 12 months in collecting back taxes.

There was voting by paper ballot for two of the three vacant seats on the selectboard. Current chair Peter Sebastian was reelected for a three-year term. He has served since 1999 and ran unopposed. Mike Fitzpatrick was elected for a one-year term by paper ballot. Jamie Knapp was elected for one year, also by paper ballot. Amy Kleppner and Jim Thomas are leaving the selectboard this year, having completed their terms.

Jennifer Densmore continues in her position as lister, running unopposed for a three-year term. Janice Hull, who is currently serving as one of the town’s three listers and as a cemetery commissioner, will serve as town auditor for three years, taking a position that had previously been held by Georgina Tompkins. The town has three people serving as auditors. Patricia Hayes is the new trustee of public funds, replacing Fred Smith. Densmore, Hull, and Hayes ran unopposed.

First constable Duane Tompkins was unanimously reelected for a term of one year. Current second constable Carlene Davis, who serves as the primary animal control officer, was reelected to her position by paper ballot.

Fred Smith, who was not in attendance, was reelected for two positions that he currently holds as grand juror and town agent. James Hescock resumes his position on the five-person board of cemetery commissioners for five years, and Eugene Bills also keeps his seat on that same board for one year. Sheri Lewis, currently one of the five trustees of the Wardsboro Public Library, was reelected for a term of five years. Smith, Hescock, Bills, and Lewis ran unopposed.

Voting for town officials took one hour, after which several people left town hall. Vacancies remain in several town offices including the zoning board of adjustment, the planning commission, the Windham Regional Commission, and the Citizens Advisory Commission.

The moderator read Article 5, the vote to approve the town budget as proposed by the selectboard. Before the vote was called, Sebastian said that the increase from $861,800 last year to $890,800 this year reflects general inflationary trends. Sebastian cited a single large expenditure that was reduced for the town’s road department. Previously, the board budgeted $60,000 for gravel for road repairs, and this year, the board’s proposed budget calls for only $40,000. Sebastian explained that three residential properties that were flooded in Tropical Storm Irene were acquired by the town through buyouts, and those sites will yield gravel that can be used on roads. He also said the town is seeking grant funding to pay for the gravel extraction project in the coming year. Less than two minutes of discussion followed about the town’s finances, and the proposed budget, as summarized on page 11 of the town report, was approved by unanimous vote in the amount of $890,820.

In what turned out to be the only episode of warm debate during the entire meeting, Janice Hull made a formal motion to strike from the list of allocations in Article 6 the amount of $3,000 that had been requested by the Friends of the Wardsboro Library. FoWL is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation that owns and maintains a 19th century farmhouse and barn, which is used as the town library; unlike in most communities, the town does not own the library facility. In order to defray utility costs for the library building, the group asked for assistance from the taxpayers. Hull said, “When the Friends was founded in 1999 to buy the building, I was there then, and at that time the Friends said they would never ask the town for money to support the library. So why are they asking for money now? If they cannot support themselves, they should cut back on their expenses, just like I have to do at home.”

Carol Fay, a member of the FoWL board of directors and the group’s treasurer, explained that it is possible that when the nonprofit group first met, none of the members at that time could have imagined that the costs to keep the library open, especially the utilities, would become so high. “Things have changed since then, and our fuel costs have gone way up just since last year.” she said.”But the amount we are requesting this year is the same as last year. We are asking for $3.92 per household. It goes toward heat.”

Fay read several figures for recent invoices for heating oil and propane, totaling several thousand dollars more than the requested allocation, saying that without help from everyone to support the library, the doors could close. It is currently open 20 hours a week.

Hull responded, “I am not against having a library. I am not against having it heated, but they said they would never ask for money and now they are. I don’t believe for a second that the library would close without this money. That’s a lot of baloney and I don’t want to hear that.” Addressing Fay directly, Hull said, “Just work out how to run the library with the money you have.”

Philip Dibble asked for clarification about how the public library trustees and FoWL are different, because the trustees asked the town for a $26,000 allocation.

He asked why FoWL also requested $3,000 more. Library trustee Jeremy Schrauf explained that the trustees are required to do extensive fundraising to meet library costs, just as FoWL does. The board of trustees covers the costs of additional payroll beyond the $26,000 it asks from the town for library staff salaries. The board fundraises about $20,000 through bake sales, donations, and grants to cover library operations, books, supplies, and equipment, while the members fundraise, in a similar manner to cover the costs of the actual property and site, which includes utilities, insurance, repairs, all the maintenance, and any improvements. Schrauf pointed out that FoWL recently completed a $200,000 expansion project at the facility, all from their own fundraising, donations and a capital campaign, without any additional monies from tax revenues.

Nancy Perkins, also a library trustee, explained that the larger facility was needed to accommodate the huge increase to over 6,000 patrons a year who use library services, and several hundred more who benefit from library-sponsored programs.

Lee Miller, a voter and FoWL volunteer, spoke in support of the funding, saying “The state of Vermont gives no direct funding to support public libraries. So our library definitely should be supported by us.” The motion to amend Article 6 to deny FoWL a $3,000 allocation was voted down. The majority of the voters approved Article 6 for all 17 allocations totaling $93,300.

Article 7, the request to approve the amount to be raised by taxes, engendered no discussion on the issue and no questions. By a unanimous verbal vote, the article was approved. The town will raise a total of $809,618 from its 900 residents for the following: $2,817 for the Gilfeather bridge replacement bond, $15,672 for the garage bond, $93,309 for allocations to various groups, and $697,850 for general town operations and highway accounts.

According to the town report, the selectboard set the municipal tax rate at 45.84 cents last year. The new rate has not yet been set but the board said it will be a minimal increase.

After the meeting, Sebastian said, “I am pleased with the increased attendance and with the overwhelming support that the town’s programs are getting from the voters.”
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