March 8, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on Monday slogged through a marathon town meeting during which they added $50,000 to their proposed municipal budget, appropriated $30,000 in seed money for a new teen center, and took local leaders to task for rejecting a petitioned Iraq War resolution that still made it to the floor and passed overwhelmingly.
Monday’s meeting drew more than 200 people who packed Middlebury’s municipal gym for four-and-a-half hours to dispose of an eight-article warning dominated by money items.
Chief among those money items was a proposed 2007-2008 municipal budget of $6,383,774, of which $5,055,275 was to be raised through property taxes.
Selectmen explained that the proposed budget reflected an increase of $296,991 (4.9 percent) in spending. Of that increase, $219,000 was associated with wage and benefit increases, with the cost of health insurance rising $65,000 and workers’ compensation increasing by $23,000.
“Municipal government is a very labor-intensive industry,” explained selectboard Chairman John Tenny. “(Labor) expenses are growing faster than inflation.”
Had voters approved the budget as presented, it would have boosted the municipal tax rate by 5 cents (7 percent) to 74.5 cents per $100 in property value.
But some town meeting participants determined the budget was not adequate to deal with one of Middlebury’s top priorities — establishing a new in-town bridge.
Resident G. Kenneth Perine moved to boost the budget by $50,000 to give selectmen the flexibility to purchase options on land within the proposed in-town bridge right of way. Townspeople have already endorsed the concept of a new bridge that would link Main Street with Court Street across the Otter Creek via Cross Street. A municipal bridge committee has already had some preliminary talks with landowners whose property lies within the bridge path. Those properties include the Steele’s Service Center and Mister Ups Restaurant.
Middlebury is seeking the new bridge as a way of relieving traffic congestion within its downtown. But the town has been unable to enlist support among key state officials — including Agency of Transportation Neale Lunderville and Gov. James Douglas — for expedited funding for what would be a multi-million dollar project. Local leaders are therefore considering having the town undertake the project on its own. They suggested Middlebury could break the project into manageable segments that could be funded through a 50-year bond issue. Middlebury has already requested legislative authority to float a 50-year bond, with hopes that the town could secure state and federal assistance in the years ahead.
Perine said he believed adding $50,000 to the budget would give selectmen the resources to act quickly in beginning negotiations with property owners within the bridge project area.
“To wait 10 to 15 years for the state to become involved … seems a little too long to wait,” Perine said.
“If we lose control of those parcels, it puts a big kink in our plans,” he added.
Selectman Dean George, a member of the Middlebury Bridge Committee, said that while the town has some bridge planning money set aside, it does not have a fund to tap for land options.
He acknowledged the community could consider eminent domain proceedings to get the land it needs, but such a course would be acrimonious and could potentially take many years.
“Eminent domain would be a long-expensive process,” George said.
Some residents were reluctant to approve the $50,000, given a perceived lack of support from the state and given the town’s other traffic hotspots — including Route 7 south.
“I think you’re jumping the gun,” said resident Roger Desautels, who said selectmen should now re-evaluate other locations for an in-town bridge.
Others said they would not support adding $50,000 to the budget because they did not know what that sum would buy in terms of land options.
“To off the top of our heads say, ‘let’s spend another $50,000 without knowing what it is going to get us’ is not a very good idea,” said resident Susan DeWind.
Most voters warmed to the idea, however.
“I think the (bridge) studies have been done,” said resident John Barstow, a member of the town’s planning commission. “It’s important that we assure access to the site.”
The Perine amendment passed by a “standing vote count” of 140-76.
With the $50,000 in bridge money approved, DeWind moved to have a corresponding amount deleted from the police department. She noted the department’s proposed $1,465,477 spending plan represented roughly one-fourth of the total municipal budget.
“It’s a deluxe department,” DeWind said. “It’s time to ask them to find some efficiency.”
The 2007-2008 police budget reflects an increase of 6 percent above the current year. It reflects $80,000 in overtime and restores a traffic enforcement officer’s position that had been cut in 2003. The budget includes $25,720 to restore that traffic enforcement officer’s post mid-way through the fiscal year.
Hanley and selectmen defended restoration of the traffic enforcement position, which will bring staffing back to 13 uniformed officers. The post, according to Hanley, helped reduce the number of serious traffic accidents from around 60 per year to approximately 20 per year during the six years the officer had been on the force.
“Since (2003), we have seen accidents go up and traffic complaints go through the roof,” Hanley said.
As for the overtime budget, Hanley said officers must be paid when they are filling in for colleagues who are on vacation, when they go to court, and when they are in training. With an average of two officers on duty per shift seven days per week, 24 hours per day, officers must also cover for one another when they are sick or on vacation, he said.
“Your officers aren’t sitting around playing cards; they are busy,” Hanley said.
DeWind’s amendment proposal failed by voice vote.
The overall budget request — with the added $50,000 for bridge-related expenses — passed by voice vote. That spending plan of $6,433,774 will require a 5.5-cent boost in the tax rate (to a total of 75 cents per $100 in property value), an 8-percent increase.
Also generating spirited discussion was a proposal to spend $30,000 toward operating expenses for a new Middlebury youth center that is now sharing space with the Russ Sholes Senior Center in Middlebury’s municipal building.
Addison County Teens & Friends board member Emily Joselson explained the $30,000 would help pay the salary of a youth center coordinator who would supervise the facility and oversee programming. The center is open to teens from Middlebury and the surrounding towns that feed the Middlebury school system. Those towns were scheduled to vote on lesser contributions (ranging from $1,500 to $2,000) for the center.
Two anonymous contributors have pledged a combined total of $25,000 to help round out the center budget. Middlebury’s $30,000 contribution is for one year only; selectmen want to review the first-year success of the operation before considering any additional funds.
Joselson said the center is already providing interesting activities and a place to gather for area teens, who are lacking a space to congregate in Middlebury.
“We have to stress there is no resource more valuable than our children and our teens,” said Joselson, who cited successful teen center efforts in 41 other Vermont communities, including Bristol and Vergennes.
Local residents heartily endorsed the $30,000 appropriation, though they urged organizers to make the operation inclusive, responsive to at-risk teens and to devote more of its budget to programming, rather than personnel and food.
“Let’s give it a year and reassess it,” said resident Tom Scanlon, who had weighed in with a letter to the editor on some of his concerns about the center. “I want to see it last … ”
“I think it’s pre-emptive and proactive,” resident Pam LaFiandra said of the proposal. “It’s a wise investment in our future citizens.”
Townspeople dispensed with the bulk of their meeting agenda at 10:30 p.m., though the night was far from over. Approximately 70 residents remained for an impassioned discussion about an Iraq War resolution that selectmen had declined to put on the town meeting warning (see related story).
In other action on Monday, town meeting voters:
• Authorized selectmen to borrow up to $281,000 over five years to replace police cruisers and related equipment; a small plow truck and related equipment; and a sidewalk maintenance tractor and related equipment.
• Increased the property tax exemption for disabled veterans, and/or his or her surviving spouse or dependent, from $20,000 to $40,000 of assessed value.
• Established a reserve fund for money to be expended for planning and construction of the Cross Street Bridge, and other related expenses. Approved.
In Australian ballot voting on Tuesday, Middlebury residents:
• Voted 529 to 216 in favor of a proposal to allow the Friends of Middlebury Hockey (FMH to use up to $700,000 of the town’s bonding capacity to help make $1.5 million in improvements to the Memorial Sports Center. FMH will bear responsibility for the bond payback, not Middlebury taxpayers. The centerpiece of the improvements will be a 5,500-square-foot addition that will provide four locker rooms with bathrooms; public restrooms; mechanical, office and storage spaces; a heated viewing area; concession space; stairs and a lift.
• Voted 675 to 79 to grant the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association (MVAA) another five years of tax-exempt status.
• Voted 652 to 89 in favor of a non-binding resolution asking Vermont’s governor, Legislature and federal lawmakers to support simplification of permitting requirements for “more rapid development of environmentally sound, small-scale hydroelectric projects.” Selectmen decided to put the resolution on the ballot in light of a current proposal by Anders Holm to put a water turbine into the Otter Creek Falls area in Middlebury’s Frog Hollow.
Elected in uncontested local elections were:
• Incumbent Selectmen Janelle Ashley, Don Keeler and Bill Perkins, for additional three-year terms.
• James Wright, Lucy Schumer and Christin Eaton for three-year terms on the ID-4 school board.
• Lorraine Gonzalez Morse and Devin McLaughlin for terms of three years and one year, respectively, on the UD-3 school board.
• Margaret “Peg” Martin for a five-year term on the Ilsley Public Library Board of Trustees.