BELLOWS FALLS -- The two governing boards of the municipality will independently decide next week whether to send the controversial plan of a merger between the village and Rockingham to the citizenry via public hearings and a vote.
The Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees and the Rockingham Selectboard are scheduled to meet jointly in the Rockingham Town Hall Lower Theatre on Tuesday for a presentation from people who support the idea of a merger. The joint meeting is slated to start following the trustees' meeting, which is set for 6 p.m.
Bellows Falls residents Jim McAuliffe and Paul Obuchowski addressed their proposed plan to both boards on Thursday, Oct. 3, and defended their position on the matter, going over the changes that would be made under a merger.
McAuliffe reiterated to the Reformer Friday that the merger would allow for better management and would restructure the way fire protection services are paid for throughout the town. Under the current system, taxpayers in the villages of Bellows Falls and Saxtons River pay their own fire departments, while the Rockingham Fire Department is funded by all town taxpayers. The merger would mean the budgets of the Bellows Falls and Rockingham 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.
"Residents of Bellows Falls want the level of police and fire protection they have now ... and to try to change that under the guise of a merger, I think, was a mistake," McAuliffe said, adding that it was tried in previous merger attempts by others. "But by the same token, the people of Rockingham did not want to take on police coverage and I think that was respected. ... What's different this time is nobody is trying to change police and fire protection -- only the billing of services would change."
But the merger plan is not without its opposition. Deborah Wright, a former village trustee, is adamantly against the idea and has submitted multiple letters expressing her opinion to the Reformer.
"The numbers are bogus, not authenticated. There are no true saving to the village of Bellows Falls, along with a total loss of every asset we possess, including our individuality, loss of all autonomy, loss of choice and control," she wrote. "What we retain is all the same taxes; separating our department into ‘districts' while doing nothing to reduce costs only breaks our taxes up into user fees."
She also said Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2014, has already been selected as a date for a meeting to vote on the plan.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, 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 also said the merger would cause little financial impact. He said he believes the Rockingham tax bill would go up a couple of pennies while the tax bills of Saxtons River and Bellows Falls would drop by a penny. The merger would also eliminate the Bellows Falls Village Corporation and its board of trustees would dissolve. Though, village residents could still serve on the Rockingham Selectboard.
Louise Luring, the chairwoman of the Saxtons River Village Board of Trustees, told the Reformer she was part of the research committee that consisted of McAuliffe, Obuchowski, Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee and Bellows Falls Village President Roger Riccio. She said she supports the idea, though she feels it has been mislabeled.
"They're calling it a merger, but it's more an efficiency move," she said, adding that no part of the village's distinct identity will be lost.
At the Oct. 3 meeting, Bellows Falls Trustee Charlie Hunter said he was 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."
Fellow Trustee Stefan Golec agreed and said he wanted to "take a breather" before voting on it.
Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo said at the meeting she supports the merger because there is dire 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, why 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.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.