Our opinion: Tough decisions for Vernon
With the impending closure of Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant the folks in Vernon have some tough decisions ahead of them regarding budgetary matters.
The plant is set to close no later than halfway through fiscal year 2015. That's barely more than a year away, so it doesn't leave much time to plan for the expected shortfall in tax revenues.
Although plant owner Entergy is expected to maintain ownership of the property as it enters a pre-decommissioning process that could last for decades, the company is sure to seek reassessment of the property's value as the plant stops producing power and its workforce is reduced. And that will have big impacts, as the company pays more than $1 million in property taxes annually.
It will be up to the Selectboard to take a realistic look at what the town's revenues and services might look like post-Yankee. Fortunately, town officials already have begun to meet weekly to plan for that inevitability.
"Our goal is to rein spending in, but do it in a way that we're still keeping this town the great town that it is. We don't want to devastate the town in any way," Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said at Monday's Selectboard meeting.
One item that may be on the chopping block is Vernon's curbside trash pickup, which costs the town $135,000 annually. With regulatory changes on the way due to a new state law, town officials already had been discussing alternatives including installation of a transfer station or instituting a pay-as-you-throw system.
With school spending taking up a significant slice of the town's budgetary pie, school officials are also cognizant of how their programs will be affected, and naturally have no interest in reducing the quality of education the students receive. School board member Mike Hebert on Monday proposed a variety of possible options for cost-cutting, including joint-maintenance agreements with the town and a solar-power array.
Town officials also are looking outside Vernon's borders for cost-cutting ideas. That will include meeting with other towns that have lost a nuclear plant. Closer to home, the Selectboard plans a detailed comparison of Vernon's budget with similarly sized towns including Dummerston, Guilford, Londonderry and Putney.
"We have to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our budget, so we have to think about a different way of doing things," O'Donnell said.
And while Selectboard members are offering assurances that services will not be "devastated," they also say some reductions are inevitable. That's why it's more important now than ever before that citizens get involved in these discussions throughout the process, and especially at Town Meeting, to let their preferences be known.
At the same time, however, we hope this won't lead to bitter battles that pit one group's spending preferences and favored programs over another group's. Everyone will have to leave their own self-interests at the door and focus on what's best for the town overall. And they'll need to prioritize each budget item based on what must be done, what should be done, and what is nice to do.
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