VERNON -- With the town's budget hanging in the balance, Vernon officials are beginning tax talks this week with owners of the soon-to-be-shuttered Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.
The first such session is scheduled for today. As a starting point, town officials say they will ask that Entergys current tax-stabilization agreement -- which sets the plant's value at $300 million -- be continued for one more year.
But even if the Louisiana-based company agrees to that extension, Vernon officials say they will continue to plan for significant cuts in next fiscal year's budget and beyond.
"No matter what happens with our negotiations with Entergy, we still know what the future is," Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell said. "And we're going to continue the budget process looking toward the future and depreciating tax revenue."
Citing economic issues, Entergy announced in August that Vermont Yankee would cease producing power by the end of 2014.
The company will retain ownership of the property during a likely lengthy decommissioning process. Entergy has said the plant will be placed in SAFSTOR, a federally approved program that allows radioactivity to "cool down" while decommissioning trust funds are built up.
But with no power being produced, the value of the plant for taxation purposes is expected to drop significantly after next year's shutdown. And that's a problem in Vernon, where Yankee pays about half the town's taxes.
So, while Vernon officials eye big spending reductions, they also want to negotiate with Entergy to come up with a taxation plan that doesn't put a deep, immediate dent in the town's grand list.
"We would like to look at continuing the contract that we have with them now for one year, and then go into an assessment of what SAFSTOR is and the value of SAFSTOR and maybe do a depreciating (plant) value over a five- to 10-year period," O'Donnell said.
"They're coming with a proposal and a plan for one year, and we're going to discuss that, and then we're going to go from there," she added.
An Entergy spokesman did not comment on the talks other than to confirm that company representatives are meeting with town officials in Vernon this week.
The Selectboard has warned a 2 p.m. meeting with Entergy today at the town office. Given the nature of the talks, officials say, the public won't be privy to any details at this point.
"It will be in executive session, because a contractual matter is always an executive session until there's an agreement made," O'Donnell said. "And then it becomes public. And that's for the protection of the town and the people we're negotiating with."
With Yankee's future up in the air for the past several years, the town had signed two one-year extensions of a tax-stabilization agreement with Entergy. That deal kept the plant's value at $300 million.
"Now that the plant's closing, it's a different world we're living in," O'Donnell said. "So we're looking to sign another year's agreement to kind of give us some time, because none of us know what SAFSTOR means as far as a (tax) valuation for a SAFSTOR plant. It's going to take some time, research and professional help for us to figure that out."
But the Selectboard also is deep into planning for a fiscal 2015 budget that will take effect July 1, 2014. The proposed budget must be finished soon and will be presented for voter approval at Town Meeting in March.
O'Donnell met with Entergy administrators after the shutdown announcement, and she stressed that Vernon officials need some tax answers "as soon as we can."
In the meantime, the Selectboard is evaluating every town department's spending and is aiming to slash hundreds of thousands of dollars from a budget that now stands at $2.5 million.
Selectboard members also have been comparing Vernon's budget with the spending plans of other, similarly sized towns.
"Everybody has always said that Vernon spends too much money. And one thing this process has taught us is, we are top-heavy," O'Donnell said. "And there are changes that need to be made. There are changes that need to be made to prepare for a decrease in tax revenue."
The nature of those changes is not yet clear. Town Meeting voters will have the final say, though officials intend to lay out their recommendations for the fiscal 2015 budget much sooner than that.
When the proposed budget is ready, "we will set a date to have a public meeting," O'Donnell said. "We will bring the taxpayers in. We'll explain to them what's going on with the budget, give them food for thought so they can go home and think about some of the things that we're putting on the table."