Tuesday January 29, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The Select Board rejected a plea Monday from the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless to be placed on the ballot for town funding after the group came up short on the number of signatures required.

However, the board did vote to approve the coalition to be on the ballot for $7,500 on a unanimous vote.

Kendy Skidmore, the group's executive director, asked the board to consider placing the coalition on the ballot for a $25,000 grant, despite the lack of sufficient signatures, which the board rejected on a 2-3 vote.

The issue, and the vote, sparked a spirited debate.

According to Skidmore, 100 percent of the town funding, which voters have approved for at least four years in a row, is spent on services in Bennington. "All of our programs are based here, with the exception of 1 in Manchester, and 90 percent of the people we serve are based here," she said.

Board members Christopher Oldham and Greg Van Houten voted in favor of placing the coalition on the ballot for the full $25,000, while Vice Chairwoman Sharyn Brush and Jim Carroll and Jason Morrissey were against it.

"I think it's going to set a bad precedent," Brush said. "It would be just a no-brainer to put it on the ballot, but we've got another agency that's not going to be on the ballot. I can't support this, but it's up to the board."

Skidmore said the group submitted more than the required amount of signatures -- 5 percent of registered voters -- to appear on the ballot. But after reviewing the signatures, Bennington Town Clerk Timothy Corcoran found the petition to be 33 signatures short.

The petition was submitted on the statutory deadline of Jan. 25, and Skidmore said she "had hoped that we could get a count throughout the day so we would know if we came up short" with enough time to seek additional signatures.

"That count was not available this year. Other years it has been," Skidmore said. "I found out at 5:30."

The board altered the policy on agency funding last fall. Local groups that previously received a positive vote in the past and were asking for level funding that is less than $7,500 could apply to be placed on ballot by board if they supplied sufficient information. Those seeking more than $7,500 had to petition to be included on the ballot.

Morrissey strongly advocated for sticking with the new policy, thereby rejecting a ballot article seeking $25,000.

Carroll agreed. "This is an impossible position. I don't think anyone wants to deny you. However, I have to agree with Jason," he said.

Oldham, a current board member and past employee of the coalition, argued passionately to allow the group to seek the full amount. "It's not that black and white. It shouldn't be that black and white," he said of the board's funding policy.

Neal P. Goswami may be reached at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com. Follow him on Twitter @NealGoswami