Bonds, Internet and Climate Crisis: Town Meeting Day Decisions in Vermont | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Bonds, Internet and Climate Crisis: Town Meeting Day Decisions in Vermont

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For decades, Highgate did Town Meeting Day the traditional way. Volunteers cooked and served a hearty lunch of spaghetti or chicken and biscuits to break up the hours-long debate about frost heaves, school staffing and snowplowing.

But this year, lunch won't be on the table March 3. The town of 3,650 is shifting to secret balloting for its elementary school budget instead of in-person voice voting.

Backers feel the change will give more people the opportunity to participate, said Town Clerk Wendi Dusablon. The switch means the meeting will likely end before noon, when lunch would traditionally be served. But fear not, there will be baked goods: Volunteer town firefighters plan to serve pastries and doughnuts.

Over the years, Highgate has weighed proposals to put all business on secret ballots, which would essentially kill the traditional Town Meeting Day gathering. But voters have rejected that — so far. "That leads me to believe it's still important," Dusablon said.

While the way voters make decisions varies around Vermont, local democracy depends on the first Tuesday in March. This year, volunteers are bracing for a bigger turnout than usual because the presidential primary will coincide with Town Meeting Day and features Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on the Democratic ballot.

Here's a sampling of what municipal voters can expect.

Eternal Bond?

Like a parent boasting about an A student, South Burlington has long taken pride in supporting public school funding and rarely voted down budget or bond proposals. But with the largest school construction bond ever proposed in Vermont looming — $209.6 million for a new combined middle and high school building — that could change.

"Vote No" signs have sprouted up around the city, and a political action committee called Citizens for an Affordable South Burlington has launched an organized campaign to defeat the bond. The debt would be like "a ball and chain around every house and residence in this city," said Annie Leupp, a retiree who has climbed over snowdrifts to distribute "Vote No" flyers. "I know that a lot of the older people are talking about moving out because they can't afford it, and they are worried."

Supporters, though, say the current 1960s-era facilities are outdated and should be demolished to make way for a modern new school complex that would include a 90,000-square-foot athletic building and 200-meter indoor track. The current buildings need expensive renovations and, even if they got them, would not meet the needs of students, said Kay Van Woert, a retiree advocating for the bond. "We might as well have the benefit of a healthy learning environment with good light and good ventilation," she said.

Debate over the tax hit has been fierce — with critics saying the district projections do not fully represent the impact on homeowners, especially those who qualify for state school tax breaks based on income.

If the bond passes, the district estimates that a household with a combined annual income of $70,000 — the median in South Burlington — would add an average of about $438 annually to the school tax bill for 32 years. A household earning more than $136,500 annually and with a $350,000 home would pay an average of $1,501 per year over 32 years. And that's before any regular school budget increases.

Path to the Finish

At least a half dozen towns, including Danville, Greensboro, Morrisville, Stowe, Highgate and Sheldon, will consider a resolution urging the state to finish construction of the 93-mile Lamoille Valley Rail Trail by 2025.

Now one-third complete, the four-season recreation pathway meanders through northern Vermont and would stretch from the Connecticut River almost to Lake Champlain when finished. The former rail bed already draws thousands of people who cycle, walk or ski their way through woods, meadows, and the 18 towns and villages along the section of path that's currently open. "We even have a sled dog race that's hosted every year on the trail,'' said Ken Brown, the trail project manager.

Progress has been slow. The state came up with a funding scenario for the project around 2006. But permitting delays and a lack of funding bogged it down. Now the tab for completion is estimated at $14.5 million, with Vermont's share at 20 percent, or $2.83 million. The feds would pick up the remainder.

Gov. Phil Scott proposed this year to fund the project in the state budget, and supporters hope the Town Meeting resolutions will nudge the legislature to get on board. "It could be a big tourist draw," Brown predicted.

A Vote on ... Voting

Burlington took a pass, but Vergennes will weigh in on noncitizen voting on March 3. Article II on the ballot asks whether the city council should amend the town charter to allow legal residents who aren't citizens to vote on local issues.

If you ask Mayor Jeff Fritz, the answer is yes.

"There are so many hyper-local issues that affect everyone, regardless of their citizenship," he said. For instance, noncitizens pay property taxes but have no say in setting them, the mayor continued. "It's an issue of fairness."

While there are many migrant workers on dairy farms near Vergennes, they tend to live outside the city and their situation did not spur the proposal, according to the mayor.

Instead, the little city of 2,500 people arrived at the issue as part of a general review of possible charter changes. The council followed the news about other Vermont communities weighing the matter and wanted to take the local pulse, according to Fritz. Montpelier passed noncitizen voting last year, becoming the first community in the state to do so. The Vermont House approved the charter change, but it stalled in the Senate.

The Burlington City Council considered a similar measure but voted last month against putting the question on the March ballot. Meanwhile, Winooski's charter committee is mulling an "all resident voting" proposal that could be headed for the city council, and possibly the ballot, in the fall.

"If it's a way that we can say in Vergennes that you are welcome here, and you will have a voice," Fritz said, "I'm happy to say that."

Green for Green

One of the wealthiest towns in Vermont is aiming to lead the way on addressing the climate crisis.

At last year's Town Meeting Day, Norwich voters passed a resolution to gradually phase out fossil fuels in town buildings and operations. This year, residents will vote on one of the first big projects toward that goal: a $2 million renovation of Tracy Hall, the municipal office building, that would install geothermal heat as well as upgraded ventilation and lighting. The project would also cover improvements at the town Department of Public Works garage. All told, the changes would reduce the town's fossil fuel use by about 15 percent.

There's more: Voters will also consider establishing a climate emergency fund with a $40,000 payment that could be used for green-themed repairs and purchases such as hybrid police vehicles. And a third item asks to allocate $30,670 for a regional energy coordinator who would serve Norwich and six other towns seeking to collaborate on energy and infrastructure projects.

Supporters hope Norwich could be a model for other communities, said town manager Herbert Durfee III. Still, the $2 million town office renovation proposal could test the town's resolve. "It will be interesting to see if the voters are willing to cross that threshold," Durfee said.

Gettin' Wired?

Evan Carlson loves rural living in the Northeast Kingdom — but not the slow and unreliable $125-a-month satellite internet service at his Sutton home.

"If there's a cloud in the sky or any storm passing through, the quality of the service declines really quickly," said Carlson, a consultant who grew up in the region and moved back four years ago after stints in Denver and New York City.

Slow and patchy internet access is a persistent problem in rural Vermont and is often cited as a barrier to economic growth. Carlson wants a fix. He's leading an effort to form a communications district that would bring high-speed internet to the region.

Twenty-seven towns will vote on whether to join Northeast Kingdom Community Broadband, whose goal is to provide 100-megabyte service to every E-911 address in the member towns. How the new entity would pay for fiber and other infrastructure is still to be determined, Carlson said, but it could be a combination of federal and state grants as well as bonds.

Also TBD: whether the new entity would partner with a private firm. Each member town would have a seat on a board that would make decisions, Carlson said. Towns set to vote include Sutton, Lyndonville, Burke, St. Johnsbury, Hardwick and Craftsbury. Carlson believes a "yes" vote could finally lead to better internet.

"It might not be tomorrow. It might be 10 years from now. But I think that we're going to make progress," he said.

From Scribe to Selectboard?

After 18 months of covering municipal meetings for the Valley Reporter, Katie Martin decided she wanted to be on the other side of things.

The 23-year-old Waterbury local has retired her byline and launched a campaign for a one-year term on her hometown selectboard. If elected to the five-member board, she promises "to put in the hours and do the work."

The Harwood Union High School grad became interested in local government after covering selectboard and school board meetings on an almost nightly basis in Moretown, Warren and Waitsfield. (Waterbury was not part of her beat.) "It made me really good at taking notes and just talking with people," Martin said.

She left the paper last November to take a job as a behavioral interventionist at Waitsfield Elementary School, and in January, she decided to run for selectboard. "I'm kind of a newcomer, and the underdog," said Martin, who is challenging incumbent Nathaniel Fish and candidate Ken Belliveau, who currently chairs the Waterbury Planning Commission.

Through reporting, Martin says, she delved into the nitty-gritty details of taxes and state environmental permitting, and she figured out "who to ask" for expertise on a range of topics. She said she also has the tough skin a public official might need. "I think I can handle the criticism," said Martin, who learned as a journalist that "you can't always write what people like; you have to write what's really going on."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Bonds, Internet and Climate Crisis | What Vermonters will decide this Town Meeting Day"