At Town Meeting on Monday, voters unanimously voted to raise and appropriate $823,847 for the municipal budget, and approved $60,000 for the grant matching reserve fund. On Tuesday voters approved the school budget of $1,377,952 by a vote of 77-66, and elected former selectboard member Franzinelli to the selectboard with 49 write-in votes. Former selectboard member Ray Eilers received 45 votes for the position.
Schoolboard chair Mary King gave a presentation on the school budget, which, in contrast to last year’s presentation, was not met with many questions from the audience. King told townspeople that a grant that had been in place to help fund the school nurse was no longer available and that this explained the increase in health service costs. She also said that the per-pupil cost is higher due to the state-mandated loss of phantom students. However, she said that the CLA had also gone up, which mitigated the increase in per-pupil costs on taxes. She said that Readsboro’s tax rate was $1.094, which was favorable compared to Halifax and Stamford, the towns Readsboro was working with to form an Act 46 school district merger. “Our rate is the lowest of the three schools,” she said.
During discussion of the municipal budget, Larry Hopkins asked about the increase in salary for the town’s administrative assistant, Rebecca Stone. He noted that her original contract guaranteed her 20 hours of work, and stipulated she could work more if the selectboard determined it was necessary. ”The new contract guarantees her 27 and a half hours, and you even put in retirement,” said Larry Hopkins.
While selectboard member Teddy Hopkins said he agreed with Larry Hopkins but had been outvoted, selectboard member David Marchegiani said that Stone had been performing more work helping to clear up zoning files than was originally anticipated, and that he and selectboard chair Helyn Strom-Henriksen thought the quality of her work was excellent and worth the cost. Strom-Henriksen agreed.
“ I think that when you have an exceptional person in a position you do what you can to keep that person. Working closely with her on the riverbank project, there was not one blip, not one problem. Her work is exceptional,” she said.
The selectboard explained that they had tried to level fund or cut funding for most departments in an attempt to keep taxes low. As an example, Marchegiani cited the highway department’s road materials budget, which he said was originally requested to be $100,000 but had been cut back by $10,000. Marchegiani said the selectboard anticipated that when the Avangrid windmill project money came in, the town would be able to set aside more money than currently in anticipation of needed repairs to the town’s trucks and heavy equipment. The town budget passed unanimously.
The article asking for $60,000 for the grant matching fund also passed though the vote was not unanimous. Strom-Henriksen said the town had been denied a grant for sidewalk work on Main, Tunnel, and School streets, because the town did not have designated matching funds. Kim Thayer speculated that the work could be done less expensively by town employees, and that the total costs, even with the grant money factored in, were too high. “This sidewalk deal is way too much money,” said Thayer. “Why can’t our town crew fix the sidewalk?” Strom-Henriksen pointed out that the sidewalks had to be handicapped accessible. The voters approved the measure, but town moderator Bill LeQuier counted three nays.
Sue Bailey asked whether there was any plan to work on Phelps Lane, which she said needed repair. Teddy Hopkins said the highway department head had asked for $10,000 to pave a portion of the road, but that the selectboard doubted the wisdom of that move. “We believe putting on more blacktop would just be a Band-Aid in that location,” Hopkins said. He said the board had arranged to get core samples taken from below the portion of the road needing repairs, and that once the nature of the problem was understood, that grants, possibly from VTrans, could be applied for.
Bailey, who is president of the nonprofit Readsboro Hometown Redevelopment Inc., also spoke about the group’s exemption from property taxes on the Bullock Building, which houses a performance center and an art gallery, for a period of five years. Larry Hopkins said he remembered the group saying that the Bullock Building would not cost the town any money if it became the property of the organization. Thayer said the group should consider selling a portion of the 15 acres near the trail head to the Catamount Trail that it owns before asking the town for money. He also said that it appeared to him that the Bullock Building project appeared to be “like a used car loan, where the value of the property was underwater or drowning.” Bailey disagreed with that assessment, and said that much restoration work had already been done on the Bullock Building, which she said was of vital importance to Readsboro. “I think it’s the last and best hope of this town,” she said. She and Marchegiani estimated the amount of taxes per year was $2,100. Marchegiani said that this was not a large sum. “And the fact is,” he said, “if they hadn’t taken on the building, we would be sitting here talking tonight about how to come up with the money to demolish the building, or what else to do with it.” Al Scaia, president of the Historical Society, also voiced his support of the work done and of the exemption request. The article to grant tax exemption on the building passed unanimously.
Rep. Laura Sibilia and Sen. Brian Campion stopped by to talk with townspeople and take their questions. Tiger Waterman said she had received many robocalls from people trying to obtain money, and that the numbers were unlisted. Campion said Sibilia had written the bill that addressed that very issue, which would require that people receiving calls could accurately identify from what number they were coming. The need for cell phone and internet service in Readsboro was discussed and Thayer said that he wondered whether a repeater could be set up that would expand the coverage that he gets at his home, which is at a high elevation. Sibilia urged Thayer and other people who had suggestions to consider joining forces with Readsboro resident Omar Smith, who was working on connectivity and cell phone issues. “Working together as a team is very important” she said. Sibilia and King also noted that there was at times a lack of understanding in Montpelier about the needs of rural residents, and how vital phone and internet services were to the lives and economy of people in such areas, but that this was beginning to change.
Bailey was elected to the three-year school board position with 111 votes. Bailey was appointed to fill a vacancy on the schoolboard last year. Larry Hopkins received 11 votes as a write-in. Amber Holland was reelected treasurer and town clerk, Mary Angus was reelected trustee of the public library, Teddy Hopkins was reelected grand juror, LeQuier was reelected as town moderator, and Forrest Hicks was reelected to the cemetery commission.
In other business, voters approved $15,000 for the cemetery restoration and iron gate projects after hearing from Hicks about the proposed work, and applauding the cemetery commission for their efforts. They also approved funding of $700 for the senior meal program provided by Terrie and David Dumaine.