VERNON -- For Vernon seniors who don't drive, the town bus is a vital connector: It offers a ride to grocery stores and doctor appointments or a chance to see a concert or enjoy a hot lunch.
Likewise, the town's Senior Activities Fund supports social functions such as an annual senior picnic, Thanksgiving meal and other get-togethers.
But as Vernon looks to slash expenses due to the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, funding for the town's senior services was cut significantly for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Now, officials and advocates are taking steps to ensure that those services are not curtailed. For the town bus, that means instituting new ride fares as of next month; for the activities fund, it means fundraisers including a Friday event at Vernon Union Church, where seniors will offer take-home dinners and desserts for sale from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.
"We have a very active group of seniors, and we have to have money in the activities fund to pay for these things," said Betty Chamberlin, a Vernon resident who is organizing some of those fund-raisers.
"We have a very good thing going, and we don't want to lose it," Chamberlin added.
The town's fiscal year 2015 budget includes reductions in many line items, and the Vernon Seniors were no exception: The activities fund was cut from $3,545 in the current year to $2,000 for fiscal year 2015 -- a 44 percent decrease.
Likewise, the town's gasoline allocation for the town bus was sliced from $3,000 to $1,500, and the driver's salary was cut from $15,957 to $10,000.
Eleanor "Cookie" Allen, who is president of the Vernon Senior Citizens and is concerned about the impact of funding cuts, recently asked the Vernon Selectboard for permission to roll over any of this year's surplus senior funding into the next fiscal year. The board obliged, voting on Monday to carry over any such cash both for the bus and for senior activities.
"Every year, at the end of our budget year, departments usually have some money left over," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said.
"The seniors got a pretty big cut at town meeting -- in our recommended budget, they had a decent-sized cut," O'Donnell said. Carrying over any leftover funding from this year will help, she added, "so they have that little bit of extra money to start with -- to keep them going until the money that they're raising with their fundraisers is enough to keep the (seniors') budget going on its own."
Fundraisers are going to be critical in keeping Vernon's senior activities going. The first such event is scheduled from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday in the parking lot of Vernon Union Church off Route 142, where Chamberlin is hoping residents will stop on their way home to purchase ready-made dinners and desserts that have been donated by seniors and other town residents.
Dinner selections will include spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese and other meals. "We're also going to have a lot of pies and cookies and brownies" along with homemade donuts, Chamberlin said.
"We're giving it a try -- we're trying to catch the dinner crowd," she said.
All proceeds will benefit the Senior Activities Fund. The same is true for a 50/50 raffle tickets that will be sold in connection with the town picnic, and for future fundraisers that have not yet been scheduled.
Allen said the Vernon Seniors have introduced potluck elements into this year's Thanksgiving dinner and senior picnic in an attempt to save money. Those kinds of events are important, she believes, both for nutrition and socializing.
"Those are two things that keep the seniors going," Allen said.
Town officials also are making big changes to keep the town bus going.
The vehicle, which Allen drives, is a town bus; it is available to any Vernon resident. But the vehicle is heavily used by seniors, as Allen makes frequent trips to area shopping and banking spots; medical appointments; community meals, picnics and restaurants; and performances.
Starting July 1, there will be a fee for many bus trips.
"Instead of just getting on the bus and going for a ride somewhere, you're going to have to get bus passes," O'Donnell said. "People who are using the bus are going to have to start paying for the bus so that it's not always coming out of tax dollars. We're trying to make as many of our programs as we can self-sufficient."
In-town activities such as senior pot lucks will continue to be free, Allen said. But for out-of-town destinations, Allen is planning a punch-card system, with each card having space for five punches at the bottom. One punch, which costs $2, will buy 40 miles. Two punches will cover 41-100 miles, while three punches are required to travel more than 100 miles. Punch cards should be available for purchase starting sometime next week, Allen said. They will be sold through both the town clerk and town treasurer.
Allen said bus-pass prices may change after the initial trial period: If the passes are not generating enough funding to keep the bus on the road, "then the price of the pass will go up," she said.
Chamberlin is among those who hope the Vernon bus will continue. It serves, she says, as an important service for those who have limited mobility.
"It enhances their standard of living," she said. "Because of the town bus, our seniors can live independently and still live in Vernon."
O'Donnell praised Allen's efforts to find alternate funding sources for the town's senior services.
"It has been remarkable watching how you have stepped up to the plate and have done what's needed to be done in these very difficult times," she told Allen at a recent meeting. "That's the way this town's going to be successful -- if we all work together instead of fighting each other."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.