BELLOWS FALLS — A majority of Bellows Falls voters who turned out Tuesday — all 25 of them — were emphatic in their rejection of Australian balloting to decide all future village budgets.
On a 16-6 tally, voters rejected a permanent switch to Australian balloting — using secret paper ballots — decide the budget and related financial issues. Ironically, voters will decide the $1.6 million village budget next Tuesday using Australian balloting, a result of special COVID-19 protocols approved by the state earlier in the year.
Village Clerk Kathleen Neathawk said there are 2,010 registered voters in Bellows Falls village, but the meeting had low turnout, even for an annual Bellows Falls village floor meeting. People attributed it to either lingering pandemic concerns or the lack of information about the timing of the annual meeting, and the procedural changes that village officials had adopted this year.
Usually, the village floor meeting is held the third Monday in May, and voting occurs the next day.
Former Rockingham Select Board member Dennis Harty spoke against making the switch to Australian balloting permanent, saying it would take away any control residents have over the budget and the ability to change it.
Once it is decided by Australian ballot, he said, the budget is “the trustees’ budget.”
Others said adopting Australian ballot permanently would destroy what little democracy still existed in the village.
Wendy Levy, who said she had recently moved to Bellows Falls, was another voice against the permanent change. Levy warned that giving up that right would be difficult to get back.
There were two voices in favor of the change: current village President Deborah Wright and former village President Nancy McAuliffe.
Wright and Village Trustee James “Jiggs” McAuliffe were the only village officials who voted for the change.
Village Moderator Paul Obuchowski had first called for a voice vote on the issue after about an hour’s worth of discussion, and he declared it had been defeated.
But then he asked for a standing vote, with village residents displaying their voting cards, and the margin of defeat was without a doubt.
Wright and Nancy McAuliffe said they wanted as many residents voting on the budget as possible, even if it meant going to Australian ballot.
But village Auditor Pat Fowler pointed out that there weren’t many people voting last year during all-day Australian balloting — only about 75.
Village Trustee Wade Masure, who is running for reelection, said he was “torn” on the issue, noting there was low voter turnout whichever way the village chose to make its decision.
“There are only 18 here tonight,” he said.
Neathawk said after the meeting that there were actually 25 village residents at the meeting, including the five-member trustee board, herself and Obuchowski.
A couple of residents who attended the meeting via Zoom, said they only learned about the meeting at the last minute, and they urged town officials to do a better job about getting the word out — either through signs, banners or advertisements.
Trustee Jeff Dunbar said when he was a kid, “the hall was full” of interested residents. Nowadays, he said, there is no excuse for people not to be informed.
“Apathy is what’s going on in our community,” said Dunbar, who is running for reelection.
Village resident Raymond Massucco said he believed a daytime meeting on a Saturday could solve some of the attendance problems.
Voters did have some questions about the $1.6 million budget and the proposed $268,000 purchase of a waste sludge dryer for the village’s sewage treatment plant.
Village Manager Scott Pickup said the dryer, which turns the liquid waste into dry pelletized fertilizer, can be spread on area farm fields rather than be trucked, at great expense, to the state’s only landfill in Northern Vermont.
He said the innovative program had brought a lot of attention to the Bellows Falls facility, which already is operating the dryer during a pilot program.