Vernon Town Meeting wraps on third night

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VERNON -- And on the fourth day, they rested.

Vernon residents and officials wrapped up an epic, three-night Town Meeting late Wednesday with votes that included a major pension-plan change, preservation of a popular scholarship fund and the purchase of two new fire vehicles.

The latter move was funded in part by using $37,675 that had been saved for future police-cruiser purchases -- a decision that came one night after voters decided to shut the town's police department as of July 1.

All of which means that, if funding for Vernon's police department is restored in the coming months via petition and a special meeting, voters also will have to find additional cash for eventual cruiser replacements.

"If there is a special town meeting, we're going to have to deal with the cruisers at that time," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said.

With the pending closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant causing budget cuts and financial concerns, hundreds poured into Vernon Elementary's cafeteria for this year's edition of Town Meeting.

They were busy: Over the course of roughly 10 hours on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights, voters considered 27 articles -- not to mention three articles decided via Australian Ballot elections held over the course of 12 hours on Tuesday.

Though the town budget was approved Tuesday, there remained plenty of business on Wednesday. That included transferring $100,000 from the town's emergency Capital Reserve Fund to cover the unfunded liability portion of town employees' retirement fund.

That translated to a shift in how Vernon's pension fund is administered: The town is switching from a defined-benefit plan to "457" plan that relies on individual contributions supplemented by a town contribution deemed appropriate, annually, by the voters.

The idea is to insulate taxpayers from having to prop up the pension fund with big subsidies when investments perform poorly.

Under the 457 structure, "we do choose or not choose to match (employees' contributions)," Selectboard member Janet Rasmussen said. "The taxpayers will vote on that every year."

The $100,000, Rasmussen said, is needed to cover the costs of terminating the current pension plan.

The article attracted some opposition. Resident Susan Cobb argued that, by giving town employees access to their retirement funds now, the Selectboard was creating a "Christmas club."

If the Selectboard oversaw "prudent investments" to fund the pension plan, Cobb argued, there should be no significant risk of major losses. The town report says the fund contained more than $768,000 at the end of last fiscal year.

"There is no reason to pay people out this money," Cobb said.

Rasmussen acknowledged that "it absolutely is true that somebody could take that money and go on a cruise if they choose to do so." But she also said tax penalties make that unlikely, and "every employee will be counseled as to the best use of the money that has been appropriated to them."

O'Donnell said the Selectboard simply is "doing this to protect the taxpayer" given the town's financial uncertainties.

The pension change eventually was approved.

Voters were not as receptive to a proposal to eliminate the town's James Cusick Scholarship Fund, which helps Vernon students with their higher-education costs. A maximum of $40,000 is distributed annually.

Selectboard member Sandy Harris moved to approve the article, but even she admitted that the board did not necessarily support it. Officials have said they are re-examining all of the town's spending given the pending Yankee closure.

Several parents spoke against the article, including Faith Jobin, who said she has a son in ninth grade.

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"I was looking forward to using this, so I hope you don't vote this (scholarship) down," Jobin said.

The measure was defeated, and voters subsequently allocated additional funding to the Cusick scholarship.

They also supported allocating a total of $10,010 to five organizations -- Brattleboro Area Hospice, The Current, Green Mountain RSVP, Southeastern Vermont Community Action Inc. and Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Residents approved other allocations including $20,000 for the town's Elderly Assistance Fund; $100,000 for the Town Road Upgrading Fund and $98,000 for the Town Parking Lots Maintenance Fund.

However, voters rejected a proposed $6,600 expenditure to support Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies.

Two investments in Vernon Fire Department also were approved. The larger is $298,000 for replacement of the department's Engine 1, with $200,344 coming from the capital fund and the remainder from taxes.

The engine is about 30 years old, officials said, and replacing it now means the town saves an estimated 30 percent as opposed to making the purchase later.

"I definitely think it's time to replace it," fire Chief Todd Capen said.

A majority of voters agreed, but there was a longer discussion about spending $59,000 to buy a new rescue truck.

Some questioned the need for a medical vehicle, given the town's contract with Rescue Inc. But fire department personnel said that, while they cannot transport patients as Rescue Inc. does, they often arrive much more quickly and can stabilize a patient.

Selectboard member Jeff Dunklee said the current rescue truck is "20 years old and is not reliable due to electrical problems."

The new truck was to be funded entirely by tax revenues. But voters amended that plan: Now, $15,425 will come from taxes, while $43,575 will be pulled from the town's capital plan.

That includes $37,675 that had been allocated over the course of three years to pay for eventual replacement of two of the town's police cruisers.

That allocation was set up by the earlier police-defunding vote. A recap of major actions on the first two installments of Vernon Town Meeting:

-- On Monday, voters approved a financial change paving the way for Vernon to switch to a "pay as you throw" trash-collection system.

Curbside garbage collection now is funded through a $135,000 budget line item. Starting July 1, residents will pay for trash collection via stickers to be affixed to each bag.

-- Also on Monday, meeting attendees rejected a school board request to discontinue use of Australian Balloting to approve Vernon Elementary's budget. Board members had wanted to return budget voting to the floor at Town Meeting.

-- The next day, voters rejected the school board's proposed $4.4 million budget by a 265-257 tally. A date has not yet been set for a revote.

-- Tuesday night, voters rejected a petitioned request to restore funding for the town auditors' office. Selectboard members drastically cut auditors' salaries in favor of an outside audit for which $20,000 has been allocated.

-- Also on Tuesday, residents voted 118-112 to amend the Selectboard's budget to delete $262,095 in funding for Vernon Police Department. The Selectboard was directed to use the remaining $40,000 to sign a law-enforcement contract either with Windham County Sheriff's Department or Vermont State Police.

-- Voters on Tuesday also approved the town's fiscal year 2015 budget at $1.85 million. A petition drive to reconsider the budget at a special Town Meeting is under way; if it is successful, the Selectboard must call such a meeting within 60 days of Tuesday's vote.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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