ROCKINGHAM — Most of those attending public hearings on Saturday spoke out against a proposed merger of the Town and the Village of Bellows Falls, which would cause a property tax increase of .37 cents for Rockingham citizens, while the village would be taxed less.
Select Board member Josh Hearne gave the example that the average Rockingham home costs $180,000, so they would have to pick up another $600 or .37 per $100,000. According to Town Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns, the main reason for the difference in the taxes is because Rockingham has a $5.5 million budget, while The Village's is $2 million. The two are then combined, divided by a single grand list, which yields a tax rate.
The merger has been a topic of discussion for about 45 years, but this is the first time one has been proposed to this extent.
"Everyone here is probably familiar with the definition of insanity – that is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result," said Andrew Smith, a resident of Bellows Falls who attended the Village merger hearing. "I think that's where we are with this reoccurring push that a handful of people made to create a merger."
Two hearings were held on Saturday, April 30 – one at 11 a.m. for the village and then another for the town of Rockingham at 2 p.m. Both boards could take suggestions from citizens and then meet as a merger committee to make those changes, but Stearns and Select Board Chairman Lamont Barnett expressed their disinterest with the idea of starting over and pushing back the vote to a later date, perhaps in November. However, Vice Chairman Joshua Hearne and Select Board member Stefan Golec said they felt there was "no rush" to vote on it next month and would not mind making changes.
A reoccurring suggestion from meeting attendees was to make a waste water commission. Some Bellows Falls locals said they would like to see a water commission charter that will accommodate potential threats for the village water source.
Another topic of interest was the creation of special districts, which was put in writing by the Merger Committee, which is made up of all the Select Board members and Trustees. As written now, the town of Rockingham would be split into special districts depending on the level of fire and police service. Bellows Falls would retain both full-time fire and police service, unlike the rest of the town. Some individuals, including the town manager, disagreed on the matter.
"I think the Legislature should strike that, because creating special districts can only be done, as far as my knowledge is, for tax increment finance districts, which is statutorily allowed, but for the community to be able to make special districts would invoke, if you will, a lot of division," said Stearns.
Two other merger hearings are scheduled to take place on May 14, and then a vote on the merger is scheduled for May 17. The document is written as, "At midnight on June 30, 2016, the Bellows Falls Village Corporation shall merge into the Town of Rockingham, and the Bellows Falls Village Corporation shall, except as hereinafter provided, cease to exist as a political entity or body corporate, and its charter shall be abolished. This plan will constitute the charter of the Town of Rockingham."
In addition, the document notes that upon the merger all lands, buildings, easements, funds, uncollected taxes, monies and other property of the Bellows Falls Village Corporation would become property of the Town of Rockingham.
For the merger to pass, there would need to be affirmative votes from both Rockingham and Village voters. If the merger passes, it would then go to the Vermont Legislature and legislators could modify it to their liking.
Other questions that floated around were regarding the police and fire departments, specifically why the tax rate is fixed between the town of Rockingham and the Village when it is unknown how many extra officers or cruisers will be needed. Stearns clarified that the projections were based on the current staffing levels. He said that he and Police Chief Ron Lake went up to Springfield where they met with Chief Doug Johnston.
"We all compared our notes and agreed that until we actually have a demand we're not trying to build up to meet one that doesn't exist," said Stearns.
He added that nine to 12 months of services will determine if the town needs increase capacity or not, and at that point voters would have input via the annual budget vote.
Another concern at the meeting was a TransCanada issue that has not been resolved. It was clarified that the TransCanada land would be treated no different than a residential property tax in Bellows Falls. According to Barnett, there will be no loss of money, over $320,000 would be transferred from TransCanada and would be dispersed among the other taxpayers and the only taxpayers that would see an increase would be the out district town taxpayers.
There were somewhere between 18 and 30 people in attendance at the Village hearing and perhaps close to 50 at the Rockingham hearing. Overall, several comments were thrown out in disagreement with the merger.
"This whole merger should go down in flames," said resident Jim Mitchell.
Joel Love of Saxtons River critiqued the process in which it was presented to citizens and felt it was not thoroughly examined by the Trustees or Select Board members. All the Select Board members admitted that the majority of their interactions with people from the town have been negative toward the merger, while Barnett said it has been "50/50" for people of the village.
Barnett added that he will put the merger on the agenda for the Tuesday, May 3, Select Board meeting. Another hearing will take place on May 14 at 11 a.m. for the Village of Bellows Falls and at 2 p.m. for the town of Rockingham. A Vote is expected to follow on May 17.
Maddi Shaw can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext 275