Town Meeting 2016: After Vermont Yankee, Vernon looks for savings at Town Meeting
VERNON >> Residents are looking at ways to cut the budget given the tax implications behind the closure of the nuclear plant Vermont Yankee.
"You are making decisions that are going to affect the children of this town. And in there, you could here the kids playing basketball," said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, referring to the gymnasium inside the elementary school at annual Town Meeting on Feb. 29.
When discussion turned to slashing parts of the library expenditure, local officials began warning residents about the seriousness of the situation.
"We have to use our heads. We can't have everything that we want," said Selectboard member Josh Unruh. "It's just not feasible."
Figuring out how to assess a closed nuclear plant is "very difficult," said Tax Stabilization Committee Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell. She could not divulge all the details behind a five-year deal with plant owner Entergy but said the company would be providing a payment in lieu of taxes in the amount of $750,000 next year. More money would come in later years but attorneys advised the committee against revealing more information.
"We had an issue with the state on Entergy's school tax because traditionally Entergy would always pay their school tax through the generation tax so they were never part of our grand list. Then all of sudden they weren't generating so the state charged us $2 million for their school tax, which changed our negotiation and what we were negotiating for. It changed the dynamics of the entire negotiations," O'Donnell said, calling Entergy "great neighbors. They're going to be really sadly lost."
Last year, the company paid $1,016,759. That was 43 percent of Vernon's tax rate, O'Donnell said. Next year's contribution will only cover 32 percent of the tax rate. Entergy's payments will be going down every year.
The idea of cutting the library down to about $106,000 from the proposed $121,650 worried some residents. But ultimately voters made the tough decision.
"Let me tell you what my life has been like since they've announced Vermont Yankee's closing," said O'Donnell, former state representative and Selectboard member. "Want to know how many phone calls I got from people? Want to talk about frightening? You know what's frightening? When people get their tax bills and they've got three or four little kids and they say, 'How am I going to pay this? Is my house going to end up for tax sale? I am going to be able to allow my kids to do any programs?' This isn't us against them. This is our community. This is how we figure out, how we move onto the future and stay a community and enjoy each other's company and have a little bit of everything. It's better than nothing at all."
As recommended by Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark, the town voted by paper ballot to move from 24/7 policing to 140 hours a week. About $14,312 in savings was achieved by this amendment to the budget article. Instead of $240,032, the town will be paying $225,720 for the sheriff's office services.
Overall, the budget was approved at $2,091,262. Residents are seeing an increase of about $20,500. But more funding decisions will be made on Wednesday night when voters meet again at the elementary school at 6:30 p.m. On the agenda are articles such as the capital plan, the town's road upgrading fund, the professional services fund and more.
Clark called the amount of calls involving driving under the influence and negligent operation in Vernon a matter of concern. And elderly residents urged others to support more hours rather than less as police were often the first to show up during any service call.
With a town administrator line item of $50,000 in both the next and last fiscal year, voters questioned where the funding went since no one has been filling the position. Town Attorney Larry Slason said the Selectboard "retains discretion" over line items once a budget is approved. Part of the funding could be moved to the next fiscal year but some of it went towards advertising the position and the cost of Vermont League of Towns and City's assistance, according to Selectboard member Emily Vergobbe who sits on the search committee.
A town administrator search committee received applications for the job from the VLTC last week. Recommendations are expected to be presented to the Selectboard on March 7.
Selectboard Chairwoman Chris Howe said town employee salaries increased by 2 percent to account for the cost of living. Bringing assistants' hours down to 29 was done in the offices of the town clerk and treasurer. Line items related to buildings and grounds saw an increase of $7,902 while highway garage went up $23,561.
The Recreation Department expects its costs to be in the $353,649 range in the next fiscal year with about $185,000 of revenue coming in at an expense of $168,659 to the town.
School Board member Matt Coombs explained the $4,376,585 school budget, being voted on Tuesday via Australian ballot, included a reduction in staff salary. An art teacher's retirement lead to cutting the position from 90 to 60 percent. Salaries for paraprofessionals came down $18,000; one of those positions was eliminated while two assistant positions are moving to the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union budget. The supervisory union assessment increased while special education expenses decreased.
Altogether, the school budget was $40,749 higher than the one presented last year. The school had more equalized pupils, which is a figure the state comes up with. While per-pupil spending was down, the budget featured a 4 percent increase from last year's.
"This is a pretty favorable number," Coombs said about the budget after mentioning there had been an 8.3 percent increase associated with a change in Vermont Yankee's property assessment.
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.