Referring to tax appeals after the existing wind power project was built in the late 1990s, Sage says the town lost a lot of revenue and, worse, had to pay a portion of the power company’s statewide education tax. “They have a sign saying they’re worth $11 million,” Sage says. “We appraised them at $7 million, and they beat us to death with their lawyers until they got it down to $5 million, less than half of what it’s worth. We want something concrete on paper so they can’t come back and say we’re charging them too much.”
SEARSBURG- The Deerfield Valley’s smallest town will hold its annual Town Meeting on Monday evening, March 3, at 7 pm, in the Searsburg town office.
This year’s warning has 25 articles – including several citizen-petitioned articles that may be hotly debated on the floor.
Article 11 asks voters if they’ll make the switch from an appointed road commissioner to an elected road commissioner. A petition for the article was circulated by Gary Sage. He says several residents would like to see the position become more independent from the selectboard. “An elected commissioner will have more power to say ‘no, I’m not going to do this,’ or ‘I’m going to do this,’ and will have more input on his budget,” Sage says. “And that’s a big thing.” In Searsburg, the highway department budget is the lion’s share of the town’s annual expenses.
Selectboard chair Stanley Florence notes that the road commissioner had been an elected position in the past, and says he doesn’t foresee any benefit from a switch back to an elected commissioner. “Our road commissioner (Pete Janovsky) does a good job,” Florence says. “He’s a working commissioner who even does his own mechanical work.”
If article 11 is approved on the floor, article 12 asks voters to set a date to elect the road commissioner by Australian ballot within 60 days of Town Meeting.
Article 13, asking voters to increase the selectboard membership from three to five, was also petitioned by Sage. “It’s my feeling, and the feeling of a number of other people, that we need five people on the board,” he says. “More people means more opinions, and more input.”
The increase in total membership would also increase the quorum requirement from two to three.
Florence says there’s no need for a five-member board, and the town may not be able to afford the added expense. “We’ve been trying to get a raise from $800 a year,” he says. “But we spread the work out. We have a lot of dull meetings.”
If voters approve the five-member board, article 14 would set a date for an Australian ballot to elect two additional selectboard members. One member would be elected for a two-year term, and another for a one-year term. After the end of the first year, the one-year position would become a two-year position.
The last article petitioned by Sage, article 15, asks voters to give the selectboard limited authority to negotiate contracts. Under the limited authority, any contract would have to be ratified by voters. Sage says the board is required to obtain voters’ permission, under Vermont statutes, to negotiate with the developers of the Deerfield Wind Project. He says it’s vital to give the board the authority to negotiate, even if the town’s unofficial, or official, stance is in opposition to the wind power project. Referring to tax appeals after the existing wind power project was built in the late 1990s, Sage says the town lost a lot of revenue and, worse, had to pay a portion of the power company’s statewide education tax. “They have a sign saying they’re worth $11 million,” Sage says. “We appraised them at $7 million, and they beat us to death with their lawyers until they got it down to $5 million, less than half of what it’s worth. We want something concrete on paper so they can’t come back and say we’re charging them too much.”
Florence says the board agrees with the principle, but he doesn’t believe they need special authority to negotiate. “Our attorney says the selectboard has the full authority to negotiate these things,” Florence says. “I’ve tried to be open about the negotiations, maybe more open than I should be.”
Another article related to the wind turbine project, article 16, was petitioned by Gerry DeGray. The article asks Town Meeting voters to “determine whether the voters approve of, or are opposed to, the proposed Deerfield Wind Project.” Last summer, the town voted in a nonbinding straw vote to oppose the project.
The Town Meeting vote would offer voters the capacity to weigh in on the project in a more official capacity, and may give the selectboard some direction in their negotiations over the project.
Article 4, the summer road budget, and article 5, the winter road budget, comprise the town’s municipal budget.
This year the total budget is pegged at $251,250. Subtracting anticipated revenues of $30,500, taxpayers will be asked to raise $220,750.
The figure is a scant $3,000 higher than last year’s budget, and Florence says rising fuel costs are responsible for most of the increase. This year’s budget also includes $10,000 to match a state grant for a “bridge repair” on Sleepy Hollow Road. “It’s really a culvert,” Florence notes. “We’re not sure if that will happen this year, but we’re putting bids out.”
In conjunction with the repair, Florence said, the town may review the closure of a section of Sleepy Hollow Road from the intersection with Route 8 to the bottom of the hill. The projected tax municipal tax rate is approximately 85 cents.
Article 8 asks voters if they’ll pay their taxes in two installments, one on August 1, and another on November 1.
On the school side, Searsburg’s $288,842 school budget reflects a 16% increase over the current budget of 248,978. Subtracting outside revenue, taxpayers will be asked to fund $144,373 of the budget. The amount to be raised in taxes reflects an increase of 21%. Searsburg’s per-pupil cost has risen by almost $1,000, from $7,736 this year, to $8,719 in the proposed budget.
Under the proposed budget, Searsburg residential taxpayers would see a tax rate of $1.39, an increase of 24 cents.
Nonresidential school tax rates are projected at $2.05. Part of the increase is thanks to a drop in the town’s common level of appraisal, or CLA, from 75.77% to 66.23%. The CLA is a state calculation indicating the difference between grand list values and “equalized” values. It is used to equalize the town’s school tax rates.
With the town tax rate estimated at 85 cents, the total residential rate would be $2.25, and the nonresidential rate would be $2.90.
By Mike Eldred
14 February 2008
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