WESTMINSTER -- Citizens at Town Meeting opted to raise and appropriate money for the equivalent of a full-time sheriff's deputy assigned to the town as part of a shared services contract with Putney and the Windham County Sheriff's Department.
Lengthy discussion ensued when Article 5 came up at Saturday's floor vote in the Bellows Falls Union High auditorium before residents Ben Mitchell and Kathy Mazziott voiced their disapproval of the article and Mitchell offered an amendment.
Selectboard member Craig Allen had endorsed the article, saying there has been a rash of break-ins recently and businesses are suffering.
Mazziott said she feels safe in town because of the people she shares the community with and does not feel more secure by seeing police cruisers around town. Mitchell said he is sympathetic to businesses but they already benefit from taxpayers and he is opposed to bringing in more law enforcers to "harass" people who are speeding on town roads. As a result, he proposed an amendment that would limit the sheriff's deputy to 10 hours a week of traffic stops, so they can dedicate most of their time to investigating crimes.
Before the vote, resident David Clark said he thinks the town is lucky to have such exceptional police coverage. Tammy Kissell said she owns a business and was once broken into twice in two weeks. She said she received no immediate help from the state police and had to close her shop for two hours before any troopers arrived. She encouraged everyone to vote in the affirmative.
Keith Clark, a Westminster resident and the sheriff of Windham County, indirectly addressed Mitchell by saying he considers traffic tickets a way of keeping highways safe - not harassment. He said many crimes include motor vehicles and to limit the officer to 10 hours a week would be detrimental to the community.
The amendment was seconded on the floor but got rejected by voters. When a vote was called on the main article, voters overwhelmingly adopted it.
With one of the first articles of the day, voters barely opted to reduce the penalty for delinquent taxes from 8 percent to 3 percent if all taxes, penalty and interest are paid within 30 days of the second installment's due date.
A resident asked if there were any plans to eliminate the town manager form of government, because the 8 percent tax penalty helps fund the manager's position. Members of the Selectboard told him there are no plans at this time to eliminate the town manager form of government. Members also said the reduction would lead to an estimated $3,500 decrease in tax revenue.
When put to a floor vote, the audience was so closely divided that Moderator Fletcher D. Proctor asked citizens to stand in support and opposition of the article while members of the Board of Civil Authority hand-counted the decision.
With the next article on the town warrant, residents voted to allow the town to provide the public with notice when the financial audit is available, instead of publishing it in the annual town report as required by state law. Last week, Town Manager Matt Daskal told the Reformer the financial audit is an important document but not necessarily one that everyone reads. The town will now be allowed to provide notice of availability in the Reformer, the Westminster Gazette, the town's website (www.westminstervt.org) and posting the audit in the office of the town clerk while making copies available at the Westminster Town Hall, Westminster West Library and the Butterfield Library.
The town can also mail or distribute a copy of the audit to any voter, resident or taxpayer upon request. The word "taxpayer" was amended following the proposal by a member of the audience.
The thought behind this article is that the town will save money on printing and distribution.
Voters adopted an amended budget article that approved total general fund expenditures of $1,814,795 for the period beginning July 1, 2013, through June 30, 2014, of which $1,615,625 shall be raised by taxes and $383,670 by non-tax revenues.
They also approved of $130,000 for the Town Highway Equipment Fund, $15,000 for the Bridge Rehabilitation Reserve Fund and $2,500 for the Westminster Recreation Club.
Voters then breezed through the town fire district articles without much deliberation before heading to the town school district articles.
Attendees voted to raise and appropriate $5,132,811 for the maintenance of town schools from July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014. The most noteworthy item in the school budget is the 133.28 percent increase in the cost to educate special education students in grades 7 and 8.
Residents then discussed whether they should grant authority to the school board to incur interest-free debt not to exceed $45,982 through the Green Mountain Power Evergreen Fund to finance an electrical efficiency project over a period not to exceed five years. Voters opted to table the issue until a future date.
Selectboard member Craig Allen also took a minute to thank exiting Chairman Paul Harlow for his year of service and handed him a plaque the board paid for. He said he and Harlow did not agree on every issue, but the respect was always there. Harlow spoke briefly to the audience, who gave him a standing ovation, and thanked the residents for allowing him to serve them.
Before the meeting started, State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Windham-4, State Rep. David L. Deen, D-Windham-4, and State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke to their constituents about what they have accomplished in Montpelier.
White said about 24,000 Vermonters driving with a suspended license did not get a license suspension due to criminal charges, but from not paying fines. She said the state Legislature passed a bill allowing people to go to a diversion board to figure out how to pay off any fines as soon as possible and get a valid license. White said this has had a huge impact on individual's lives.
She also said certain charges can now be expounged after 10 years, citing a grandmother who was unable to chaperone a children's school field trip due being convicted of a marijuana charge in the 1960s.
During the meeting, it was acknowledged that Daskal will leave his post as of April 1 because he has accepted a job in Manchester. It is not official yet, however, as the Selectboard has not accepted his submitted letter of resignation.
Voters will vote for all town, fire district and school district officers via Australian ballot between 8 a.m. And 7 p.m. on Tuesday at the Westminster Institute, East Parish.