Today's headlines scream about climate change, terrorist threats and virulent viruses. But flip through most any Vermont town meeting report this municipal voting season and you'll find local leaders united in their complaints about what they consider a less publicized but more persistent challenge: "More complex statutory and regulatory requirements," says the Select Board in Calais, population 1,607.
"The Town of Westminster has had a very busy year," its own Select Board writes, "with discussions about trash, a quarry, real estate, hiring an architect for the Town Hall renovations and, of course, budgets. The state of Vermont added a substantial amount of complications this past year to our small town, which also added to our workload."
From northernmost Alburgh to southernmost Vernon, municipal officials who run Vermont's 246 cities and towns can cite a laundry list of examples, according to a review of nearly 150 annual reports on file at the Secretary of State's office.
Many start with Vermont's new universal recycling law, Act 148 or, as the Select Board in Benson, population 1,056, calls it, "the bane of existence of any small town." It requires people to pay for waste removal based on volume or weight in hopes of encouraging more recycling.
"Because of Act 148," write local leaders in Athens, population 442, "we had to implement a 'pay as you throw' system for trash pickup. The town purchased trash bags, which are sold both at the town office and D&R General Store for $3 each. Also, it has become necessary to join a solid waste management district. A state employee commented that the town was 'rogue' for not having joined in the past."
In the present, it's now costing Athens a $3,000 membership fee and $7-per-ton surcharge to join 13 other communities in the Southern Windsor/Windham Counties Solid Waste Management District.
Many towns also want to trash the recently adopted education governance Act 46.
"Simply put, Act 46 is legislation that passed in the spring of 2015 that turns supervisory unions (many boards and many budgets) into supervisory districts (like a Burlington, for example) where all schools are unified in a pre-kindergarten through grade 12 structure governed by one board and one budget," write officials of the Washington West Supervisory Union, which serves the towns of Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waterbury, Waitsfield and Warren.
"Act 46 is law and by 2019 all supervisory unions will be merged in some way, either voluntarily or by the authority of the State Board of Education," Washington West officials continue. Act 46 allows supervisory unions to design mergers now (the accelerated merger process) and take advantage of tax incentives (the carrot) that won't be available should we decide to take the 'wait and see' approach (the stick). We can do it for ourselves now or let the state do it to us later."
Local school districts also are juggling the state's new Act 166, which, starting this July 1, requires universal access to 10 hours a week of publicly funded pre-kindergarten for children ages 3 to 5.
"Much of the funding for our pre-kindergarten program had been made available through federal grants," writes Donald Van Nostrand, superintendent of the Orleans Central Supervisory Union that serves Albany, Barton, Brownington, Glover, Irasburg, Orleans and Westmore. "This new legislation will unfortunately force a large shift of funds to local budgets."
That's not the only local complaint about changes in state support.
"One of the most time-consuming items that has been added to the list of responsibilities for town government is the new requirement that certain state funds that were automatically sent to towns in the past must now be applied for via a grant application process," writes the Select Board in Townshend, population 1,232. "All of this 'paperwork' is actually done via the Internet with multiple restrictions, passwords and user names necessary just to log into the site."
Many towns also are expressing concerns about new clean water rules under Act 64.
"This act establishes water quality requirements that will influence how towns will address storm water runoff and will determine how we manage our roads in the future," the Leicester Select Board writes. "Some components of the act have yet to be developed. We do know that, starting next year, there will be a $400 application fee and a $2,000 permit fee to be paid to the state annually."
"Act 64 is just getting started," the Westminster Select Board concludes, "and will be impacting our budget for years to come."