MANCHESTER -- A crowd of more than 280 voters converged on the Manchester Elementary Middle School gym Saturday to participate in the start of this year's Town Meeting,
Manchester divides its annual town meeting into three parts -- a municipal floor meeting the Saturday before the traditional date of the first Tuesday in March, then a school district floor meeting Monday night, concluding with Australian ballot voting for elected public offices and other questions not decided off the floor of the previous two meetings.
It took voters about five and a half hours to work their way through the 27 items on the town warning at Saturday's municipal floor meeting. A $198,000 appropriation for the Mark Skinner Library/Manchester Community Library was approved after a long debate. Another article that called for placing all voted appropriations $2,500 and above on Australian ballot also passed, but only after it was initially defeated by a division of the house and then passed on a paper ballot by a slender 2 vote margin.
Voters also gave a thumbs up to a $4.5 million budget crafted by the Select Board and town officials, although that too came in for some debate before its approval.
The library vote was expected to prompt debate and it did not disappoint. An amendment was introduced by resident Sylvia Jolivette to lower the amount of public support to $100,000. For those opposed to the amendment, a common thread was heard in their arguments.
Others who spoke in support of the library's request noted it would have been the same regardless of whether or not a new library building was under construction, since the public money goes to finance their operating budget. The new library, estimated to cost about $5.5 million to build, is expected to open later this year, possibly by September.
On the other hand, Ivan Beattie, the chairman of the select board, said while he too supports the library, he believes the amount of money they are requesting was too much.
He told the assembled voters that the town did not have a say in the new building and the additional costs.
"We are being held hostage to decisions that are being made outside of our control," he said.
Jolivette's amendment was voted down by voice vote. Following the amendment's defeat, and some additional discussion, the original article for $198,000 came up for vote and was approved.
Another article, an advisory question concerning the public safety study between Manchester and Dorset, drew some debate. Brad Myerson wanted to amend the budget to remove the $20,000 line item regarding a study intended to explore the possible cost savings and operating efficiencies that could result from closer collaboration between Manchester and Dorset on fire, police and rescue squad services. The amendment did not pass, and the budget was approved as written. However, that was just the beginning of the debate regarding the article. Many who oppose the study feel it is being driven by problems facing Dorset, not Manchester -- and Dorset should pay a larger portion of the costs related to the study.
Myerson said this study will result in more police officers being hired and more demands on the Manchester Police Department.
"Is this something that we really want to get into? Our needs are different from Dorset's. It's a fact,"he said. "When it comes to police protection, each town is different."
Carol Dupont said she is not in favor of spending $20,000 for a study, but if Dorset is having problems, those problems may come to Manchester if something is not done. She said the study could be a cheaper fix than the potential costs due to break-ins. William Basyck, another town resident, noted other studies in the past, such as school consolidation studies in 2007 and 2009, were put aside due to difference between Dorset and Manchester, even though they showed money could be saved. The question of how much money was going to be saved was also brought up multiple times and O'Keefe said a definite number cannot be given now, but the savings could be in the six figure range. The article allowing for a memorandum of understanding between the two towns for the public safety study was eventually approved on a voice vote.
Another extended point of debate came early in the meeting, when an article that would require all future financial requests greater than $2,500 involving "aid to social services," came up for discussion. Beattie said this article has been difficult for him personally, because he has always been steadfastly opposed to altering town meeting, but with the rise in voted appropriations, something needed to change, he said.
In 1948, a similar article was approved, placing all appropriations $500 and above on Australian ballot, but was later repealed, Beattie said, adding "the town meeting is the most perfect form of democracy we have."
Attendance at town meeting has declined, while voted appropriations have increased over 1,200 percent since fiscal year 2002, he said. The article transferring money questions of more than $2,500 to Australian ballot voting was written with this in mind, as a way for more voters to have a say in large appropriations, he said.
Those opposed to the article said the debates and discussion before voting were central to town meeting. Myerson said the tradition of Town Meeting needed to be protected and this article should be defeated. He brought up that there will always be a reason why people will not come to town meeting and Australian ballot will not encourage attendance or voting.
He cited the example of Australian ballot on the school budget, what he called "a disaster -- a meeting that is lightly attended and a budget that is usually passed without much debate.
"The whole idea behind us being here is to speak and listen and hear what our neighbors have to say and vote," he said. "Australian ballot is the death of democracy. It is very easy in the sterility of the voting booth to make up your mind based on a motion or you don't like this organization, rather than having the courage to vote on the floor at Town Meeting."
Others thought this article would be a way to better control spending and the municipal tax rate. Barbara Comer said she believes it is a shame that town officials put together a budget with low expenses to minimize the impact on the taxpayer -- but then come town meeting time, voted appropriations "take their budget and blow it out of the water," she said.
While the article was approved, there has been debate about what this will mean for some organizations, like the library. Rabbi David Novak first brought this up during the debate on the article, asking if the library would be considered a social service organization, saying he did not understand how a library was a social service agency, but that he did not oppose voting by ballot for library appropriations. John O'Keefe, town manager, read from an email from the town's attorney, Rob Wilmington.
"I do not believe that any appropriation to the Mark Skinner Library will be made pursuant to 22 VSA section 142 [the section that allows towns to appropriate money to municipal libraries, O'Keefe said]. . . that subchapter refers to certain types of municipal libraries [either operated by the town or that have a contract with the town]. . . my understanding is that there is no contract between the town and the (Mark) Skinner Library," Wilmington wrote.
O'Keefe continued, saying the appropriations would be made as other social service appropriations are, under the discretion of the voters and as a social service, because the library is not operated by the town or has a contract with the town.
After the meeting, it was still not clear if the library would next year be voted by ballot or voice. Moderator Michael Nawrath said the attorney stated the library would come under statute 24, but he believes the library funding would come under title 22, which deals with library.
"I believe that he libraries petition comes under this statute not the social services that talk about aid to the blind," he said.
When asked if he believed the library's petition would now fall under this change due to the article being approved, he said that is at the discretion of the select board and that there is a difference of opinion. After the meeting, when asked the same question, ÕKeefe said, "the opinion that counts is our attorney's opinion."
Two other articles, which will draw money from the Capital Improvement and Contingency Reserve Fund in amounts of $100,000 for a salt shed [half of the total appropriation of $200,000] and $150,000 for the purchase of the ambulance to lease to the Manchester Rescue Squad, were also considered.
The article dealing with funding the proposed salt shed, badly needed to replace the one currently in use, town officials said, passed with little discussion, with only a few questions about the size of the building and its funding.
The other article, dealing with the ambulance purchase, arose from the rescue squad coming to Manchester and the other towns it serves asking for more funding support, Steve Nichols, a select board member said. This lease agreement will allow the rescue squad to receive an ambulance sooner than they would have had they just asked for funding. The reason the town will own the ambulance, is the result of using the Capital Improvement and Contingency Reserve Fund. That mandated that the ambulance had to be owned by the town, because this fund is for municipal use only.
Ben Weiss, president of the board of trustees for the rescue squad, said the oldest ambulance is from 2004 with over 160,000 miles on it, resulting in high maintenance bills.
"The lease agreement with the town of Manchester I think is a win-win situation for the town. . . and for emergency medical services in the Northshire," he said.
Bill Drunsic moved for a group of articles, all voted appropriations for non-profits, to be voted in a bundle, citing the late hour. This passed and they were approved. He then moved to approve two other articles for the appropriation for two summer street festivals and Fourth of July fireworks, which were also approved.
The Manchester School District will hold its floor meeting at 7 p.m., Monday, March 3.
Polls will be open at the Manchester Town Hall for Australian ballot voting on Tuesday, March 4, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.