BELLOWS FALLS -- A plan to initiate public discussion of a merger was tabled Thursday evening, as the village's trustees wanted more information before throwing their support behind it.
Bellows Falls residents Jim McAuliffe and Paul Obuchowski addressed their proposed plan of a merger of Rockingham and Bellows Falls and defended their position on the matter at a joint board meeting of the Rockingham Selectboard and Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees. The two went over the changes that would be made under a merger and hoped the boards would vote to send the issue to the citizenry via public hearings, but some trustees did not want to be hasty.
"Paul (Obuchowski) and I have been working over the past four months with a small group of people," McAuliffe said, adding the other three were Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee, Bellows Falls Village President Roger Riccio and Saxtons River Trustee Chairwoman Louise Luring. "The five of us have met numerous times and our goal was to put this outline of a plan together for your consideration tonight."
Obuchowski explained that, under a merger, the budgets of the Bellows Falls and Rockingham and fire districts would be voted on by special article at the annual Rockingham Town Meeting and only residents living with the individual districts would be eligible to vote on it. The proposed budget for the Saxtons River Fire District would be provided by the Saxtons River trustees for inclusion by the Rockingham Selectboard at Town Meeting. Again, only residents living within the district could vote on the article.
Obuchowski said special Bellows Falls Fire/Police District, Rockingham Fire District and Saxtons River Fire District colored voting cards would be provided when signing in at the Town Meeting's voter checklist. Residents' tax bills would reflect what they are allowed to vote and pay for.
McAuliffe explained the boundaries of the Bellows Falls Village Corporation, which would cease to exist along with the board of trustees, would constitute the Bellows Falls Fire/Police District. The area of responsibility for the Bellows Falls Police Department would remain as it is defined in the town plan but its budget would be voted on only by residents living within it. A special colored voting card would be provided when signing in at Town Meeting.
Local business owner and Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance President Pat Fowler said expressed concern the village would lose its identity and McAuliffe and MacPhee assured her Bellows Falls would remain intact -- it's just the Bellows Falls Village Corporation that would dissolve. Fowler said BFDDA has invested a lot of money and time spreading the name of Bellows Falls as a marketing tool over the past 15 years and asked why Saxtons River is not included in the proposed merger.
"They're not attached at the hip like the village of Bellows Falls," MacPhee replied.
Bellows Falls Trustee Charlie Hunter said he is in favor of investigating the possibility of a merger but would not vote to send the issue to the public-hearings stage without more financial information, figures of saving and estimates.
"That doesn't feel very responsible," he said. "What we were given is a skeleton of the mechanical changes that would occur."
Fellows Trustee Stefan Golec agreed and said he wanted to "take a breather" before voting on it.
Under a merger, the Bellows Falls water and wastewater districts would remain as enterprise funds and stand-alone entities governed by the Rockingham Selectboard. All Bellows Falls Village Corporation property related to water and wastewater would be transferred to the respective Bellows Falls district and all related water- and wastewater-related debt would be assumed by that district.
Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo said she supports the merger because there is a great need for a change in structure.
"We have probably the most inefficient government in the entire state of Vermont," she said. "I've been on this board for 11 years and it is just the most inefficient thing. When you get elected to the board for the time, you sit there at your first meeting, or the first month, and you go, ‘My God, my does it have to be like this? This is crazy.' That's why I am supporting this."
Trustee Colin James said Thursday he wasn't sure how he felt about the issue and wanted more time to study it.
"No disrespect toward the two gentlemen (McAuliffe and Obuchowski), but I just don't like a document just thrown in front of me. Again, I want to study this a little more," he said before DiBernardo mentioned that's what public hearings are for.
With the second item on the joint board meeting's agenda, the Rockingham Selectboard voted to adopt a marijuana dispensary ordinance, which bans the development of any such establishments. Joshua Hearne was the only member to vote against the ordinance, saying he believes the dispensaries would have been highly regulated and beneficial to some medical patients.
According to Rockingham Health Officer/Zoning Administrator Ellen Howard, the Vermont Legislature passed a law allowing for the creation of four medical marijuana dispensaries and giving communities the option of prohibiting them. The adopted ordinance establishes a civil penalty of $200 and criminal penalty of between $100 and $500 for each violation. Howard said Rockingham joined Stowe, Enosburg Falls, Ludlow and Rutland as the five communities (of Vermont's roughly 250) to ban marijuana dispensaries.
Bellows Falls Police Chief Ron Lake said he wanted a village ordinance to ban the dispensaries and mirror the state statute, but said the town ordinance is sufficient to cover Bellows Falls.
With marijuana dispensaries, the drug could be obtained with a doctor's prescription to combat anything from glaucoma to symptoms of cancer. Lake said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a physician by trade, once said he would never support medicinal marijuana because there are pharmaceuticals that can have the same affect on illness. He said he stands behind Dean on the issue.
In other business:
-- Municipal Manager Chip Stearns was given authority by both boards to, following review by an attorney, sign any and all documents pertaining to the propane tank facility proposed by Green Mountain Railroad.
In other news:
-- Elayne Clift was named the newest trustee Rockingham Free Public Library at a meeting earlier this week.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.