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Partial funding for youth center will be put to voters

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December 21, 2006

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents at their annual town meeting will be asked to contribute $30,000 toward a new youth center, a number that would be sweetened by $25,000 in private contributions and perhaps other smaller donations from six neighboring towns.

Middlebury selectmen voted 6-0 on Tuesday to place the youth center referendum on the town meeting warning after hearing another pitch from youth center boosters and receiving confirmation that two anonymous donors had offered a combined total of $25,000 to help launch the center this year. The donors extended the offer in hopes that Middlebury voters would match the $25,000 at their town meeting, according to resident Emily Joselson, a leader of the Addison County Teens & Friends (ACT) group that is spearheading the teen center effort.

“They have made an incredibly generous offer,” Joselson said. “(The donors) want to demonstrate to this board and to the boards of the other six towns how strong and deep the community support is for a teen center and a staff position, and to ensure that a teen center and its coordinator start out in the all-important first year with a very strong and stable base and some room for contingencies.

“Their hope is that by stepping forward in this offer of partnership, that Middlebury will meet them half way … and allocate the second $25,000 this year,” she added.

ACT has put together a $50,000 budget to carry the teen center through its first year in shared space with the Russ Sholes Senior Center, which is located in the Middlebury municipal building. The bulk of that budget would be earmarked for a full-time center coordinator.

Boosters had been counting on Middlebury to fund $40,000 of the budget, with the remaining $10,000 coming in smaller increments from other towns within the UD-3 school system — Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge. ACT representatives have already lobbied officials in those six towns for contributions. Boosters may have to petition to get their requests on the Town Meeting Day ballots in some or all of those six communities.

Youth center supporters are anxious to get the new facility up and running so that it can build a track record to ensure future financial support. Organizers have vowed to apply for grants to help make the operation sustainable.

ACT officials had hoped selectmen would include the $25,000 youth center appropriation as a line item in the proposed 2007-2008 general fund budget. But some selectmen said a separate article on the town meeting warning would encourage more discussion about the youth center than if the request were buried in the budget.

While voters can debate any line item within the budget at town meeting, some selectmen said the teen center request should be debated on its own merits.

“I think it’s important to vote on the issue on Monday night,” said Selectman Janelle Ashley. “The budget shouldn’t be held hostage over one issue.”

Board members were split on whether the vote should be on the town meeting floor or by Australian ballot; they chose the former.

Selectmen and ACT members must still come to an agreement on how the youth center will be managed and to whom the center coordinator will be accountable.

Joselson said ACT is putting together a steering committee to govern the operation. She added, however, that having the teen center coordinator’s position affiliated with the town would save ACT money on health insurance and other ancillary costs.

“The advice we’ve been given by nonprofits and other teen centers is that, at least initially, it’s a huge boon to be under the auspices of the town,” Joselson said.

But some selectmen are not eager to see the town absorb another employee.

Selectman Bill Perkins said each new staff position carries additional demands on town government to provide health insurance, office space, performance evaluations and other responsibilities. Perkins stressed he wants to see ACT and the center coordinator remain autonomous from Middlebury town government.

“I guess I don’t support the idea of this becoming a department of the town,” Perkins said.

“I think your group should understand that this board will always be leery about establishing a new town position,” added selectboard Chairman John Tenny, alluding to the new, escalating salary and benefits costs that come with adding new staff.

Still, selectmen agreed it was important to support the teen center now and resolve details about the new coordinator later. The board felt so strongly that it agreed to ask Middlebury voters for $30,000. That’s $5,000 more than ACT had expected.

“I think their budget is lean and conservative; I think they’ll need the extra $5,000,” said Perkins, who proposed the higher number.

LEGISLATIVE OUTLOOK

In other action on Tuesday, Middlebury selectmen discussed 2007 legislative priorities with local lawmakers.

Middlebury Democrat House Reps. Steve Maier and Betty Nuovo and Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, cited property tax reform; clean/renewable energy initiatives; and implementing already passed health care laws, as among the top issues the 2007 Legislature would likely tackle.

Lawmakers said that while Act 68 may be tweaked, they don’t anticipate the state’s education funding law to get a major overhaul.

“I don’t think the (Act 68) repeal and revolt will go anywhere,” Ayer said, referring to a multi-town lobbying effort being planned for the upcoming session. “It’s just theatrics, really.”

Maier noted that Act 68 has benefited most communities in Addison County, including Middlebury.

“I don’t see us moving dramatically away from the principles of the Brigham decision and what we have now,” Maier said.

Nuovo agreed. She also emphasized her desire for the state to implement more sweeping health care reforms during the next two years.

Selectmen, meanwhile, encouraged legislators to lobby on behalf of a new in-town bridge for Middlebury. Such a bridge would link Main Street with Court Street across the Otter Creek, via Cross Street.

Legislators promised to advocate for the bridge, but warned that current Vermont Agency of Transportation priorities seem geared toward fixing existing roads and bridges, rather than building new ones.

“I definitely think there is some merit to pursuing a federal earmark (for a Middlebury in-town bridge),” Ayer said. “I don’t see how it’s going to happen without that.”

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