READSBORO – Moderator Jim LeQuier opened Town Meeting Monday evening with a caveat to the audience that the school budget had already been decided and was not open for discussion. But the school tax was apparently not off limits and would become more than a peripheral part of a revenue debate involving the windmill project.
Resident Larry Hopkins read from a November 2017 selectboard report: “’Town officials met with Deerfield Wind Project officials and reviewed anticipated payment schedule for the project,’” adding an additional quote from the selectboard minutes of November 29, 2017, “’The Selectboard indicated that the use of the revenues will be decided by the voters through town meeting.’” Hopkins then asked, ”Why isn’t the issue on the (Town Meeting warning)?”
Selectboard Chair Helyn Strom-Henriksen said that leaving the issue off the warning was “an oversight on everybody’s part.” Board member David Marchegiani outlined plans for the future payments that he hopes will eventually lessen the pain of the increased school tax.
But resident Al Scaia said, referring to the proposed use of Deerfield Wind payments to improve town-owned buildings, “These buildings need attention but can’t be voted on until next year?” Scaia said he was told that this year’s Deerfield Wind payment is going to the fund balance. Another resident noted the town buildings have serious problems.
Carl Marchegiani asked, “Why can’t we do something now?”
Bruce Busa added saying, “I think it’s a good idea to get the money first before we spend it.”
When Article 9 was brought forward regarding raising and appropriating $5,000 or any other sum for the town-owned building reserve fund, Deerfield Wind revenue again came into focus. Referring to the dire conditions of some of these buildings, Scaia said, “We’re looking for leadership (from the selectboard). Five thousand dollars is an insult.”
Larry Hopkins added his opinion, “Re-allocate windmill revenues.”
Board member Jim Franzinelli said, “We want to get estimates of what these buildings need, then put an appropriate amount forward next year.”
But the issue would not be put to rest until several amendments later when a raise and appropriate amount of $85,000 was approved for the reserve fund.
Rep. Laura Sibilia addressed the gathering regarding several issues pending in the Legislature, including proposed income tax changes, education finance, net neutrality, and others. Of particular importance to Sibilia is gun safety legislation. Sibilia said, “There are a lot of conversations about this around the state with some people telling me ‘you have to do this’ and others saying ‘you’d better not.’” Sibilia announced that she and Rep. John Gannon are sponsoring a school safety community forum at Twin Valley Middle High School on Sunday, March 18, from 4 to 6 pm. More information on the forum and other legislative matters is available on Sibilia’s website: www.laurasibiliavt.com.
The discussion turned to personnel and recent turnover. Since the resignation of Rebecca Stone, the previous town administrator, town clerk Amber Holland has taken on some of the responsibilities, although Strom-Henriksen said that Holland could only devote one day a week to the job of administrator.
Roland Eilers asked, “Do we need this person? Couldn’t the secretary (to the selectboard) do it?” Strom-Henrikson replied, “Come in to a selectboard meeting and discuss it.”
Another resident commented that it seemed more work was done before the town had an administrator. Strom-Henriksen repeated her invitation to attend a meeting and address the concerns.
Article 10, “Shall the town vote to repeal the current zoning bylaw in its entirety?” was brought forward. Although the matter could only be decided by Australian ballot, strong opinions still dominated the zoning landscape as they have for years, according to planning commissioner Sue Bailey.
A two-page handout written two years ago by Stone and Strom-Henriksen outlined the intent of zoning overall and specific reasons for and against adopting zoning regulations. Larry Hopkins has led the push to repeal zoning for some time, based on his opinion that decisions have not been consistent, have not followed proper procedure or have not been made at all, among other observations.
Although resident John Whitman did not support repeal, he said, “There are problems that need to be addressed.”
Among those problems was a failure to post planning commission minutes in a timely fashion, preventing possible appeals if decisions are not made public.
Strom-Henriksen took issue with criticisms of zoning administration. “Since the previous zoning administrator resigned two years ago, I’ve been the interim and everything has been organized and many past issues have been resolved,” she said.
Larry Hopkins maintained his position that the job isn’t being done properly. Ted Hopkins insisted that definitions and enforcement needed to be addressed. Franzinelli countered, noting, “We’ve made progress especially since Helyn took over as interim zoning administrator.” Strom-Henriksen added, “We respond to applicants based on information that may not be uniform.”
Rhonda Eilers Smith said, “Don’t get rid of zoning, because the people who do it right will have no recourse from anyone building anything anywhere.”
Bailey defended the work of the planning commission and zoning administrator noting, “We do the best we can.” She went on, “It’s OK to sit out here and complain but no one wants to step up and serve.”
Regarding the area’s police protection, Strom-Henriksen reported on a recent conversation with the Bennington Sheriff’s Department. She said the department has received calls from residents and the protocol is that all emergency and non-emergency calls must go through the state police who will contact the sheriff as needed.
Finally, Forrest Hicks informed the gathering about the improvements and maintenance of the town’s cemeteries with many positive comments returning to the commission.
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