pownal town offices

Pownal Town Offices

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POWNAL — The Select Board has authorized a slate of referendum questions for the March 2 ballot, which, if approved, could significantly alter the way town business is carried out.

The board on Tuesday approved ballot questions asking if voters want to make the town clerk, treasurer and delinquent tax collector positions appointed rather than elected posts.

Another question asks whether the town lister positions should be eliminated and a single assessor hired to do that job.

And the voters will be asked to weigh in on whether businesses in town will be able to cultivate and/or sell cannabis products when full legalization begins in 2022.

Added to those ballot questions is expected to be one placed through a citizen petition that asks voters to reinstate the elected town auditor positions that were eliminated in a close vote during the March 2020 town election.

Supporters said Wednesday that they’ve submitted the required number of voter signatures to the clerk’s office to secure a spot on the March ballot.

TOWN OFFICE

The board also proposes a different funding formula for the new town office project that uses undesignated surplus funds in the budget to keep the expected bond amount to the same level that was approved in October 2019.

Because of delays and estimated cost increases in the now-$865,000 project, which was expected to go to a groundbreaking by spring 2020, the board learned in December that another $90,000 would be needed.

They initially proposed another bond vote in March — adding $90,000 to the $600,000 figure voters approved in 2019.

However, Select Board liaison Rebecca Dragon and Executive Assistant Linda Sciarappa outlined a proposal at the meeting Tuesday, under which $90,000 in undesignated surplus funds in town accounts would be used to make up the increased project cost, and that the bond would be recertified at the same figure, $600,000.

The board approved the idea of using undesignated funds, which Dragon said was suggested by Sciarappa. The ballot question wording, Dragon said, was worked out through consultation with the town’s bonding attorney.

The project financing change will require that voters recertify the original $600,000 bond amount and also authorize a transfer of $90,000 into a town office building fund from undesignated surplus funds.

The office building fund already has $175,000 in it, having been added to over the more than 20 years the town has sought to replace its cramped current office building on Center Street.

If the proposal is approved in March, the original $600,000 bond amount, $175,000 from the town office fund, plus an added $90,000 from surplus, would provide enough to meet the higher $865,000 project cost, officials said.

Dragon added that should voters reject the ballot article, the original bond authorization would end and “we are back at square one again.”

The office proposal calls for moving a nearby 19th century schoolhouse building on North Pownal Road to the former Bartels Lodge site adjacent the current offices, which the town owns.

Modular building sections would be added to the former school to create an office and meeting facility.

APPOINTED POSTS

Dragon said Wednesday that changing the town clerk position from an elected post to an appointed one that pays a salary was recommended to her in discussions with the New England Municipal Resource Center, which has worked with the town on accounting and auditing issues.

A NEMRC representative was expected to give a presentation to the board on town audits and related topics on Thursday evening.

Dragon said she passed the recommendation on the clerk’s position to board members Robert Jarvis and Michael Gardner, who developed the idea of asking voters to approve shifting all town office positions from elected to paid town jobs.

“They asked me to research ballot language for appointment of positions,” Dragon said in an email. “I researched the ballot articles, and sent them to the board, but it was really Bob and Mike who spearheaded that outcome.”

She said the proposal was developed over the week prior to the meeting Tuesday.

Dragon added that neither Clerk Julie Weber nor Treasurer and Delinquent Tax Collector Ellen Strohmaier raised significant objections to the idea of becoming paid town employees.

Contacted via email, Strohmaier declined to comment. Weber could not be reached.

DISCUSSION OF PAY

In discussing the ballot articles, board members indicated they would hire the same office-holders for their current jobs and pay a salary commensurate with what they now receive in average annual compensation.

The clerk is paid a stipend and keeps a portion of the fees for licenses, recording of deed documents and other services.

Strohmaier is paid a set annual amount as the elected treasurer, and in the delinquent tax collector’s job, she is paid from the penalty fees assessed for overdue taxes.

Jarvis said Tuesday it should be possible to look at the amounts the officials now receive on average in determining a fair annual salary for the positions.

The listers currently are elected, part-time employees who do not have to be professionally qualified in the field. They are paid an hourly rate.

The ballot proposal, if approved, would eliminate the elected lister posts, to be replaced by a hired assessor who is professionally qualified for the role.

PAST TURMOIL

Periodic complaints about a lack of cooperation and/or coordination among the independent elected officials in the office have been raised for years in town.

Those issues came to a head during the brief tenure of former Town Administrator Michael Walker, who was fired by the board in late 2019 and hasn’t been replaced.

Some residents and board members said Walker failed to cooperate with or tried to give orders to the elected officials. His supporters contended the fact all were independently elected and not under either the town’s first administrator or the Select Board helped create in a “hornet’s nest” in the cramped town offices.

If the ballot referendums are passed, the board would then hire and could fire the clerk, the treasurer, listers and the delinquent tax collector.

Board member Harry “Jamie” Percey said Tuesday that the changes would help get all of the officials “on the same page together.”

Creating appointed positions “addresses a lot of the concerns that continually pop up” in Pownal government, Gardner said.

Dragon said she suggested to the board a cannabis referendum, to allow the town to debate the issue and offer a potential boost for local businesses.

Six types of licenses are expected to become available under the state legislation to take effect next year: cultivator, wholesaler, product manufacturer, testing laboratory, retailer, and integrated licensee.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three NENI newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield (Mass.) Republican and the former North Adams Transcript.


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