VERNON -- With the town bracing for a big financial hit due to the pending closure of Vermont Yankee, voters will have a number of weighty issues to consider at Town Meeting next month.
Examples include articles related to a new "pay-as-you-throw" trash program; pension changes for town employees; elimination of a longtime scholarship program for Vernon students; and two big investments in the town fire department.
There also is an article, supported by a petition signed by more than 100 voters, that would reverse the Selectboard's controversial decision to slash funding for the town auditors.
Officials are expecting a larger-than-usual turnout at Town Meeting, with Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell noting an overflow crowd at a budget forum last week.
"That tells me that people are very, very concerned about the future," O'Donnell said.
There has been talk of looming cuts in the town budget since Yankee owner Entergy announced in August that the aging nuclear plant would cease operations by the end of 2014.
That's halfway through the next fiscal year. And, even though Vernon officials and Entergy have worked out a one-year, town-friendly tax deal, Selectboard members say spending cuts must happen.
To start that process, the town's proposed fiscal year 2015 budget is $2.1 million -- a roughly $400,000 reduction from the current year.
Among the suggested cuts is a 57 percent reduction in the auditors' budget. Auditors' salaries are reduced from $35,417 to $2,700, with the town allocating $20,000 for an outside audit instead.
Selectboard members have said they are moving Vernon toward a money-saving practice already common among other towns.
But some have balked at the move, and petitioners were successful in crafting a Town Meeting article that restores auditors' salaries to $35,000 and eliminates funding for an outside audit.
Carol Hammond, who serves as both a town auditor and lister, said she believes "the timing is not right" for dramatically downsizing the auditors' responsibility.
"Especially at this time, when the town is going through a lot of upheaval, I just think -- even if they choose to do it at a later date -- that this is not a good time for this," Hammond said.
She believes Vernon's auditors perform valuable duties in the service of "maintaining checks and balances and accountability" in town spending.
The Selectboard's budget cuts, she said, "allows us less than an hour a week."
O'Donnell said approval of the auditor article would result in an increase in the town's fiscal 2015 spending plan.
"That's why it's before the budget article, because the budget would have to be adjusted," she said.
Other articles on Vernon's Town Meeting warning include:
-- Authorizing use of the town's Solid Waste Fund to finance the new pay-as-you-throw trash program.
Vernon's current trash collection method -- curbside pickup, for which residents are not directly billed -- will be discontinued in favor of a system in which residents pay according to the amount of garbage they generate.
State law mandates that switch by 2015. But town officials, in making the change a year early, were able to slice $135,000 out of the next fiscal year's budget.
Details of the pay-as-you-throw plan have not yet been finalized.
After Town Meeting, "we will tie things down a little bit more," O'Donnell said. "We've got plenty of time from March to July to work on it. We know what we're going to do. The process has already started."
The article proposes using the Solid Waste Fund as an annual repository for pay-as-you-throw. That "gives a little bit more stability to the budget," O'Donnell said.
-- Voters also will be asked to authorize transferring $200,000 from the Emergency Capital Reserve Fund to cover the unfunded liability portion of town employees' retirement fund.
Selectboard members said that money is essentially "termination costs" for the town's current, defined-benefit pension plan. The Selectboard has voted to switch to a "457" plan that relies on individual contributions, saying that insulates the town from big pension-plan subsidies to make up for poor market performance.
"We're closing the defined-benefit pension plan. We're terminating it," Selectboard member Janet Rasmussen said. "And it will turn into a 457, which is the municipal equivalent of a 401k."
-- The fate of the town's James Cusick Scholarship Fund is the subject of another meeting article.
The fund supports higher-education scholarships for Vernon residents, with a maximum of $40,000 dispersed annually among eligible applicants. Voters will be asked whether the fund should be discontinued.
"It's great for Vernon kids. It's that little bit of extra money when they're going to school," O'Donnell said of the scholarship. "But, then again, times are really changing here in Vernon. So the article is to ask people whether they want to keep the scholarship going. Because I think we need to be asking that question about everything we're doing right now."
-- Voters also will have a say on several significant, proposed investments including $100,000 for the Town Road Upgrading Fund; $98,000 for the Town Parking Lots Maintenance Fund; and $197,481 for capital-plan purchases.
There are two proposed fire department investments -- $59,000 for a rescue truck and $298,000 for replacement of Engine No. 1. For the engine, $97,656 is to be raised by taxes and $200,344 is expected to come from the capital fund.
Vernon's Town Meeting is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. March 3 at Vernon Elementary School. The meeting reconvenes, if needed, at 7:30 p.m. March 4 following the completion of Australian Ballot voting, which happens at the town office.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.