Voters talk taxes, economic development
by Jack Deming
Mar 07, 2013 | 2601 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Phil Taylor makes a point during Wilmington’s Town Meeting.
Phil Taylor makes a point during Wilmington’s Town Meeting.
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WILMINGTON- As voters filed in and out of the back of Twin Valley High School’s gym to vote, approximately 70 voters sat on folding chairs and bleachers to hear and voice arguments for and against articles in the town warning. Along with closing out the town’s Garage Capital Account, and exempting Deerfield Valley Rescue and Social Lodge #38 from taxation, the town was able to pass the dates for payment of taxes (August 16, 2013, and February 28, 2014) without objections. Other issues, however, would take a good argument and the occasional amendment before getting the all-approving “Aye.”

Before articles could be debated, Rep. Ann Manwaring addressed voters, highlighting her goals for changing education funding statewide. “My commitment was to change the conversation,” said Manwaring.

“The framework already there was not ready to change. While shining a bright light on things that don’t make sense, Rep. John Moran and I found that every nickel spent in the general fund is reviewed, but there is never a review of the money spent in the education fund. We changed the rules three to four years ago to get that in.

“It’s not only how we raise it, it’s about what it buys, the work it’s intended to do, and what it does for our kids,” continued Manwaring. “It’s not OK in this state that 35% of kids are not seeing the benefits, and we need a Legislature with three committees working on this.”

Manwaring listed those committees as Ways and Means, Appropriations, and Education.

Manwaring also addressed a possible change in Vermont’s gasoline tax, saying that she supports a change from per-gallon charges to “an appropriate amount based on the dollars spent and not the gallons.”

Wilmington resident Ralph Staib told Manwaring that the Legislature needed to stop creating new taxes, and raising property taxes to pay for spending. “You (the Legislature) spend money and it doesn’t matter where it goes,” said Staib. “You have to stop spending because we’ve all have had to stop spending.”

Article 4, asking voters if they would vote to raise and appropriate the $1,774,199 needed for the town’s general fund, was the first to bring about discussion. Deerfield Valley Community Partnership coordinator Cindy Hayford asked that the article be amended, and an increase of $7,354 be included to keep the town nurse position full-time. Wilmington is one of two towns in Vermont with a full time town nurse.

Town Manager Scott Murphy was asked to explain why funding for the position was being cut and said it was a tax matter. “Certainly the town nurse is a gem,” said Murphy. “One of my jobs is to reduce taxes, and the Visiting Nurses Association covers Wilmington, so the position was becoming a redundant expense.” Murphy also said the town planned to cut the town nurse’s role in half this year and cancel it altogether next year.

Town resident Elizabeth Cole spoke passionately about the necessity of a town nurse in the lives of seniors in town, and the personal touch that Jennifer Fitzgerald (the current town nurse) provides. “Jennifer does not just cut toenails,” said Cole. “She is there for the town and visits a lot of people. She accomplishes a lot for stubborn old southern Vermonters.”

Peter Park, MD, pointed out that while prioritizing is a necessity, and the VNA covers a good deal of medical care, there are still gaps in coverage. “We’re trying to close the gaps,” said Dr. Park, “and Jennifer is incredibly valuable in filling those gaps.”

With no objections, the amendment passed to applause from supporters and the general fund budget was raised to $1,781,553. Only one other question was raised over the number, by resident Fred Houston, about the amount set aside for grant match funds, and whether the increase from $10,000 to $100,000 in fiscal year 2013 had been necessary. Selectboard member Meg Streeter reported that so far $64,500 had been used, and Murphy said that by the end of the fiscal year, the matching grants should meet the $100,000 goal. The town road budget also passed without objection.

Residents voted to appropriate $100,000 for the Fire Department Equipment Reserve Fund, after selectboard member Susan Haughwout explained the town’s need in refurbishing or replacing a rescue truck which is aging, and attends to every call. Haughwout said the vehicle was in “serious condition” and the lowest cost for a new truck could reach $250,000.

Residents also approved raising and appropriating $10,000 for the Memorial Hall capital fund. Haughwout explained the funds were part of an ongoing series of contributions the town has provided. “We all know Memorial Hall needs work,” said Haughwout. “There will be more work done based on grants that are going into the fund right now.” Haughwout also said the fund contains $108,686, and the $10,000 serves as a “modest amount” to help grow the account.

Another issue that passed caused an expected debate: whether the town should raise and appropriate $5,628 in support of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS). SeVEDS began in 2007 with the goal of developing economic strategies to reverse economic decline in Windham County, and to create a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS).

SeVEDS is seeking funds for a $50,000 challenge grant from Brattleboro that requires SeVEDS to find matching funds in other Windham region municipalities.

SeVEDS chairwoman Lisa Sullivan spoke in favor of the article and explained that economic trends in southern Vermont paint a dire picture, compared to other regions of the state, and SeVEDS provides a helping hand. “We’re not seeing any better income trends in southern Vermont over the last 10 years. The goal is for the economic development administration to approve and open up more federal funding for infrastructure programs for towns like Wilmington.”

Sullivan said that SeVEDS has already been instrumental in getting EDA grants for Wilmington.

Business owner Cliff Duncan stood against the article, and asked his fellow voters to “sit this one out” because Wilmington is historically generous, without necessarily seeing a wealth of results. “We’ve already put enough eggs in the economic basket,” said Duncan. “(We should) wait to see success and see if they’re worthy of our support.”

Nikki Steel echoed Duncan, saying there needs to be visual results from money already invested before more can be doled out. “I need a visual of how this is different then the bi-town committee and the 1% option tax funds,” said Steele. “I’m not sure if things are dovetailing, or getting redundant. There are so many requests (for funds), are we duplicating efforts?”

The article found plenty of support however. Selectboard chair Tom Consolino supports SeVEDS efforts and thinks the town should too. “If we can get one person in this town a better paying job, or one more young family to stay in this town, then this money would be well worth the effort.”

Merrill Mundell was not sure if he supported the measure, because he had no way of knowing the outcome. Mundell asked if the selectboard would agree to quantify year to year so that the town could truly understand the results rather than just hear statements about how it’s a big benefit. Consolino agreed that the result is still a mystery, but worth trying, based upon the goals stated in the SeVEDS plan, and the very real numbers of economic decline.

Residents also voted to create an economic and community development reserve, to fund economic and community development. Voters also decided to use all 1% option tax proceeds to fund the reserve.

A perennially vocal advocate of the measure, executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce Adam Grinold, asked fellow voters to support the fund. Grinold referred to the 16% population decline, as well as the rooms, meals, and alcohol tax revenue decline Wilmington experienced between the years 2000 and 2010. “This makes economic development a priority,” said Grinold. “We just need to give leaders the power to unlock the tools and get to work.”

Duncan agreed, telling fellow voters the town needed to “step outside of the ski industry comfort zone.” Duncan also said the town should not close any opportunity to put money from other sources into the fund, and make sure the money is used for a collective definition of economic development, and not to reduce tax rates.

Consolino explained the money will be used initially for four projects: a revolving loan fund; completing lighting in the West Main Street parking lot; developing an unbroken recreational trail system between Wilmington and Dover; and providing funding for summer and fall events. He also pointed out that this is preliminary spending, based on a $100,000 revenue projection that has already been surpassed. Consolino also said the board would like to set a $50,000 limit for grant requests from the revolving loans, and any amount above that would require a special vote from residents.

Voters also approved creating a Pettee Memorial Library Capital Reserve Fund, with the goal of funding capital repairs, such as replacing the building’s roof. Voters raised and appropriated $12,000 for the fund, $4,000 more than the original article called for, after amendment.

Wilmington also voted to repay the town of Dover $20,000 for the cost of financial aid given during Tropical Storm Irene.

In town elections, a new face has been added to the selectboard for the next three years, as Jake White defeated Rebecca Morris to claim the seat being vacated by outgoing selectboard chair Consolino. White collected 368 votes, while Morris collected 119. Selectboard member James Burke won re-election to his two-year seat, defeating challenger Miller Longbotham in a closer race, 257 votes to 220.

Consolino, who received a standing ovation for his years of service on the selectboard and as its chair, was elected to the town budget committee with 282 votes, along with Fred Houston who garnered 303. John Gannon received 214, unable to secure one of the two seats.

Voters passed both articles on the Australian ballot for the Wilmington school district. Article 2 asked for a oters yes or no approval of the budget for the joint school district. The budget passed by a vote of 75 to 51.

Article 3 asked voters if the actions taken at the meeting of the Wilmington school district held on January 17 should be re-adopted, ratified, and confirmed. The budget vote of January 17 did not comply with legal notice, even though it had been passed. Two-hundred-forty-four residents voted yes, 162 no. This reflected the original vote, which resulted in a 75 to 51 vote in January.

Phil Taylor, chair of the Wilmington Town School District, gave residents a brief talk on the goals of the school board. “Explaining to voters how a school system works takes time,” said Taylor. “It’s often hard for people to understand lines in budgets if they don’t understand the system.”

Taylor said that even more important than budgets is a transparent understanding of what’s going on inside the classroom. Referring to the pre-K through 12th grade voting, he said “We’re changing the way we deliver education, and we’re outlining pre-K through 12 curriculum, because the idea is to have a clear understanding of the pre-K -12 education process and how we can transform it. All schools are undergoing a dramatic shift in an age when we’ve gone from a manufacturing society to one based on information.

“It used to be about core knowledge, and now there’s so much knowledge out there, you have to pick and choose what they (students) learn, and how to train them to use that knowledge, and how we train our minds to be critical thinkers.”
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