DOMENIC POLI, Brattleboro Reformer
BELLOWS FALLS -- Frustrations continue for residents unhappy with the municipal government’s handling of a possible merger between the village and Rockingham, as it seems an article that would table the issue for three years may not appear on the Town Warrant.
The idea of a merger, which would merge the village and town and dissolve the Bellows Falls Village Corporation, has sparked hot debate in the area and many citizens feel biased elected officials were ramming the plan through the system of checks and balances. Concerned residents started a petition to add to the Town Warrant an article that would prohibit further legislative discussion of a merger until 2017.
The potential warrant article was brought up during the public-comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting of the Rockingham Selectboard, which is set to meet at 5:15 p.m. today to sign the annual Town Meeting warning.
Though the petition garnered more than the required 174 signatures (5 percent of registered voters), Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee said the board will vote today on whether to include it in the Town Warrant. He read a letter from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office that stated the Selectboard is not obligated to put the article on the warrant because it was started by a non-binding petition and would concern a Selectboard that has not yet been elected.
Numerous people are upset with the Selectboard, which they feel is trying to prevent the article from getting on the warrant.
Town resident Joel Love told Selectboard members the public’s support of the article is exhibited in the petition’s signatures, which he said were collected during -- and not at all hampered by -- 10 days of nasty driving conditions.
"Why would you not let the people vote on it?" he asked Tuesday evening. "Why are you not being transparent and not letting people vote on it?"
Village resident Judy Lidie said the 242 registered voters who signed the petition ought to have some influence on the Selectboard. Fellow resident Clark Barber expressed his discontent with the board, saying he is not sure what its members are trying to cover up -- a comment that drew laughter from MacPhee and Selectboard member Ann DiBernardo. MacPhee referred to Barber’s comment as ludicrous.
The possibility of a merger was defeated, at least temporarily, at a joint meeting of the Selectboard and the Bellows Falls Village Board of Trustees on Tuesday, Dec. 10. A motion before the trustees to send the merger plan to a public vote failed, 1-3, and the Selectboard opted to table the issue. Charlie Hunter was the only trustee to vote in the affirmative. Earlier in the meeting, village residents Jim "Jiggs" McAuliffe and Paul Obuchowski had delivered a public presentation on the merger plan they had drafted.
Under a merger, the Rockingham Selectboard would assume the duties of the Bellows Falls trustees and the Bellows Falls Village Corporation would cease to exist. The three long-established fire districts of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River and Rockingham would remain but fire taxes would be paid by only those residents living in their respective fire district. The Bellows Falls Police Department’s area of responsibility would not change. No tax dollars would be used to fund the Bellows Falls water and wastewater services, as they are operated under separate enterprise funds and are funded through user fees.
At another joint board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 7, the village trustees voted 3-2 not to form a committee to explore the possibility of a merger. Andrew Smith, Stefan Golec and Colin James voted for the motion to delay formation and Charlie Hunter and Village President Roger Riccio opposed it.
"It’s a black day in the village of Bellows Falls," said village resident and Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee following the trustees’ vote, to groans from several people in attendance.
MacPhee told the Reformer on Wednesday he finds it ironic that the same group of residents that want to let the people vote on the article that will defer merger talk is the same that did not want the idea of a merger to go to a public vote.