BENNINGTON -- Of the 12 articles that go before local voters today, the $3.3 million water bond ballot item was the most discussed topic at Monday's well-attended Bennington Town Meeting.
Voters will decide whether ratepayers in the town's water system will be on the hook for a project that involves building a pump station at the lower end of Southern Vermont College's campus. The station will move water up a hill, supplying the college with town water and filling a 750,000-gallon water tank that will address pressure issues at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center along with the Crescent Boulevard and Jefferson Heights neighborhoods.
Town resident Abby Shapiro urged voters to vote "no" on the water bond.
"Voting no sends a message to the select board that something needs to change," Shapiro said. "A functioning water system is a community responsibility. I was shocked to discover why all voters in Bennington get to vote why some of us should pay more."
She added, "No one's asked the water users what they can afford."
Dennis Whiteford of Bennington asked the select board what the impact would be of voting no to this bond.
Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the town is under a state mandate to address pressure problems in the system by 2018. "It's likely the project will cost more in three years," he said.
Additionally, costs will go up without the agreement the town has in place with SVC for the proposed water bond.
"Without a partner, we will not receive the low interest rates" that SVC was able to secure, he said.
If the bond vote fails, SVC must still address the problems with its system, ane will move forward. Bennington "will simply be on our own" and project costs and interest rates will be higher, Hurd said. He noted that by sharing costs with the college, the town gets a priority listing on a low-interest state revolving loan fund.
Select board member Jim Carroll said SVC has given to the town an easement for the pump station in perpetuity that might otherwise cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"In the future, SVC may decide to charge the town for that piece of property," he said.
Whiteford also a questioned the select board on the likelihood of there being a separate water board in the future.
Hurd said the select board, acting as the water board, has been faced with depreciation of the system that's been underfunded.
"The select board decided to set aside monies to address that depreciation issue. It's taken us four years to get there and yes, the (water) rates have increased dramatically," Hurd said.
Also on the ballot today is the election of two select board members from six candidates.
Chris Oldham of Bennington, a former select board member, asked each board member to state "What should we expect from you this year and how to you plan to move us forward?"
Board member Sharyn Brush said her focus will be on the merger of the two Bennington fire departments.
"I think it's just something we should do," she said.
Board member John McFadden said he would continue to push for recruitment efforts "industrially and professionally."
Carroll said he would target economic development in town as well as "addressing constituent's needs on a daily basis -- something I do every day."
Justin Corcoran said he also would work to bring businesses into Bennington.
Board member Greg Van Houten said there's a need to focus on what's positive in town and the school system.
This town meeting was the last for Board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk Jr., who is not seeking reelection.
Hurd noted that Krawczyk has served the town for 12 years.
"I want to express my sincere thanks to Joe for his support and leadership," Hurd said.
After getting a standing ovation from the crowd and the board, Krawczyk responded: "It really has been a privilege and an honor to serve."
He said although he has plans to travel and to spend time with his first grandson, whom his daughter is now expecting, he will be in town for the most part and plans to attend many school and select board meetings. He also urged residents to continue to support the Vermont Veterans' Home, on whose board he also serves.
"Bennington is a great place, it really is," Krawczyk said.
The meeting kicked off with a special recognition. The Mount Anthony Union High School 2014 state champion wrestling team was congratulated on winning their 26th straight state title. Coach Scott Legacy introduced each member of the team and coaching staff individually and noted the team was getting ready to compete in the New England Wrestling Championships this weekend.
"We hope to make Bennington proud again," Legacy said.
Krawczyk added that in two weeks a parade is planned in Bennington to honor the team's achievements "so that all members of the surrounding schools and towns can congratulate you."
Notably, the town's annual report, approval of which is on the ballot today, was dedicated to the memory of Norm Greenberg, a prominent local businessman and community member who died in September.
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