Ballot questions taking center stage for towns

BENNINGTON — A handful of Bennington County towns have closely watched contests for local office, but the primary focus this town meeting season has been on some big-ticket ballot articles that will go before voters on March 7.

Leading the way in terms of attention-getting has been the proposed merger of seven school districts, involving nine towns, in the Manchester-Dorset area.

The process that led up to this proposal involved multiple well-attended meetings of a 17-member study group with representatives from the nine towns over the course of a year. The school district merger is proposed under the Act 46 format and won approval in December from the State Board of Education. The detailed plan now is headed to the voters in each town.

Opponents of the merger have focused on the perceived loss of local control if a single regional board replaces boards for the current seven districts. During a recent panel discussion in Manchester, it was argued that voters would lose the easy contact with and attention from board members they now enjoy with smaller districts, and decisions would not be based on a single town's needs, but on what is better for the regional district.

Supporters point to the advantages of a larger kindergarten through 8th grade system in which resources can be more efficiently allocated and a wider range of programs can be offered. The proposed district would have about 1,700 students.

In addition, the provisions in Act 46 that allow state education officials to impose mergers on districts that fail to consolidate will be hanging over the Northshire if the proposed merger is rejected on Tuesday. That also would mean loss of the tax break incentives included in the act for districts that forge an approved merger plan.

The contests to fill up to 13 seats on a regional board for what would become the Taconic and Green Regional School District has conversely attracted only the minimum number of candidates and produced no races. If the merger is approved, the board would officially take over the new district July 1, 2018, although it would begin meeting this July 1.

Strangely, a $3.2 million bonding request in Bennington to create a new public works facility in a former factory building has generated less comment than a $207,459 to support the Bennington Rescue Squad.

The latter request was placed on the ballot by the squad through a petition drive, following discussions in the fall with the Select Board concerning annual budget deficits the squad is running and thus far covering through the use of reserve funds. While board members indicated they would support some funding for the squad, the figures mentioned were well below the $200,000 the organization believes is required from Bennington to avoid budget deficits.

After more than the required 435 voter signatures were obtained to place the request on the ballot, there was talk of possibly withdrawing the question if the Select Board were to place a lower amount in the town budget as a line item. The figure mentioned was approximately $33,000.

That is similar to what the Shaftsbury Select Board had earlier done, placing a $7,000 in the budget after receiving a request from the squad for $42,685.

However, the rescue squad ultimately decided to stick with the original request in Bennington, for which it had already secured a ballot spot. If approved by voters, the funding would mark the first time the town has supported the local nonprofit emergency response organization.

Squad officials noted during the discussions that Bennington is one of only a few Vermont communities that doesn't directly fund an ambulance service. The local organization is the second largest EMS services provider in the state by call volume.

The $3.2 million bond request in Bennington comes with the explanation that could be causing voters to view it as noncontroversial, as officials report most comments have been favorable. The town had recently been considering spending more than $5 million on a sorely needed new DPW facility before the former Plasan factory at 78 Bowen Road became available. The total cost of the purchase and renovation is significantly lower than to build a new facility.

In Pownal, a referendum on a proposed new town offices building, costing no more than $911,100, has generated both vocal support and criticism. The Select Board and the town office committee say they are looking some guidance from voters on whether to continue planning for a new building, but no bond amount is requested at this time.

A recent letter to the editor highlights some of the comments among residents, who have been having similar debates over this issue over the past two-plus decades. The letter questions whether less expensive options have been fully explored — especially conversion of the American Legion building into an office building, which has been discussed. The letter also cites other pressing needs for the town, such as a proposed town administrator and building inspector.

However, Frank Lamb, chairman of the town office committee, asks voters to consider the cramped and in some ways unhealthy current town offices on Center Street, which recently needed about $50,000 in repairs and upgrades, and the fact an original design for the proposed new center has been trimmed down to reduce costs.

Details of the project design are included in a brochure prepared for voters and to be mailed or made available at the town meeting floor session Monday. The project revisions call for eliminating some of the space on each of the building's floors.

Discussion of the Legion post building a few years ago included possible joint-use scenarios with the town assuming ownership of the building, which is a former restaurant with later additions and renovation work.

Lamb countered that the office committee toured the Legion building and noted a number of potentially costly changes or upgrades that would be needed. He added that when the Select Board afterward asked for a formal proposal in writing from the Legion post, but none was submitted. "The Select Board moved on; we moved on," he said.

Lamb also said he doesn't know where any new offices or employees would be housed in the current building. If constructed, a new office building would be near the current one on Center Street, on the town-owned former Bartels Lodge property.

Similarly, the town of Shaftsbury has a proposal on the ballot to spend up to $1.1 million on a new town garage. This is another project proposed a number of years ago that has yet to reach the construction stage.

A prior new garage plan was rejected twice by voters in 2013.

The current proposal calls for bonding for a new facility off North Road, using a down payment of $337,000 taken from reserve funds. Those funds have been added to on an annual basis toward the project, and the same amount will now be included in annual budgets to cover the bond payment — therefore, not requiring a tax increase.

Jim Therrien writes for the Bennington Banner and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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