Shaftsbury to vote on $2.1M budget

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SHAFTSBURY — Voters will consider a $2.1 million budget and joining a proposed communications union district during town meeting this year, and will also consider an article that could change how the town votes on its budget in the future.

Voters will be asked whether to vote on budget articles by Australian ballot at future meetings, said Select Board Chairman Tim Scoggins.

If the article passes, the town would no longer approve the budget during the floor meeting, but would vote on the budget as a whole during the annual election.

Ken Harrington, vice chairman of the board, requested that the town vote on its budget by Australian ballot, Scoggins said, as he was concerned that participation at town meeting has dwindled over the years, and something as important as the town's budget ends up being approved by the smaller number of people that tend to attend the floor meeting.

The board is also "divided on the issue, so we did not take an advocacy position on it," Scoggins said. 

He said he agreed with Harrington. "The larger participation that we get at the Australian ballot is a good reason to do it," he said.

If voters approve the change, it would be in place at town meeting in 2021.

COMMUNICATIONS DISTRICT

Shaftsbury is one of 12 towns considering whether to join the Southern Vermont Communications Union District at town meeting this year."I would say the number one thing people need not be fearful about with the CUD is that the CUD cannot raise taxes," said Scoggins, who is unofficial chairman of the task force that is working on forming the CUD.

State law in fact prohibits tax money going to communications infrastructure, which would include a CUD, he said. The article requires a simple majority to take effect.

A town's only real responsibility to the CUD is to appoint a representative and an alternate to the governing body, Scoggins said.

The SoVT CUD started last November, with a meeting in Manchester called by state Rep. Kathleen James, of the Bennington-4 House district, to gauge interest in doing something about the area's lacking broadband infrastructure, Scoggins said.

The SoVT CUD would allow participating towns to collaborate on planning, constructing and operating a broadband network that would reach underserved areas.

The CUD effort would also seek a grant under Act 79 for a feasibility study and a three-year business plan and would contract with an internet service provider (ISP) to build out fiber optic cable to under-served areas, providing "world class" internet speeds, according to a post by board Chairman Tim Scoggins on the Shaftsbury website.

The SoVT CUD will fund this effort through grants, loans and subscriber fees from the people who buy internet service, Scoggins said.

"Lack of broadband Internet service is a major restraint on the growth of our economy and on our effort to attract people and business to our region," Scoggins said in the post, asking voters to vote "yes" to the ballot article.

Arlington, Bennington, Dorset, Landgrove, Manchester, Pownal, Peru, Rupert, Sandgate, Shaftsbury, Sunderland and Woodford are also considering whether to join the CUD at town meeting this year, Scoggins said.

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"That is everyone in Bennington County less Readsboro, Searsburg, and Stamford, who are part of the [Deerfield] Valley/Windham efforts," he said in the email.

Act 79, signed by Gov. Phil Scott on June 20, funded the new Broadband Innovation Grant program, which awards up to $60,000 to various kinds of entities, including communications union districts, to conduct feasibility studies on broadband deployment and develop business plans. Winners of the program's first round of funding included a Central Vermont district established last year and the Windham Regional Commission, which will consider the possibility of creating a district for its more than two dozen member towns.

Federal regulators have defined minimum standards for broadband as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. About 80 percent of Bennington County premises receive internet service that meets or exceeds those standards, according to state data from last year.

Districts require at least two founding member towns. Municipalities that do not hold town meeting votes on the item may later join through a select board vote.

FUNDING ARTICLES

Voters will also consider 26 funding articles, the largest of which include $18,000 for the Bennington Free Library and $24,000 for the John G. McCullough Free Library.

Other potential recipients of town funding through community appropriations include Shires Media Partnership (WBTN), Arlington Rescue Squad, the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, Habitat for Humanity, the Shaftsbury Historical Society and Project Against Violent Encounters.

Residents will also vote on town positions, all of which are sought by incumbents this year. All those incumbents are running unopposed.

CEMETERY FUND

Voters will also consider creating a Cemetery Capital Improvement Reserve Fund, and authorizing the town to transfer money currently held in a Cemetery Reserve Fund to the new fund.

"That is really a technicality," Scoggins said. The town has a cemetery reserve fund that was apparently created through a defective process when it was originally instituted, and so the town has not been able to access the funds, he said.

"We got court approval to move the funds into a newly-created fund that is properly constituted," Scoggins said.

He said he believes there is about $30,000 in the account. The funding is for cemetery maintenance.

The town has "lots" of money for such purposes, "but this is just some that was unusable," he said.

These unusable funds have been sitting in the bank for "quite some time," he said.

Shaftsbury's floor meeting is set for Monday, March 2 at 6:30 p.m. at Shaftsbury Elementary School, 150 Buck Hill Road.

Town meeting ballot voting will be held Tuesday, March 3 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the firehouse at 166 Buck Hill Road.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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