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By Rachel Goff
At Town Meeting on Tuesday, March 4, Warren residents worked through 12 articles, approving via voice vote a budget of $3,277,268 (before revenue), which represents a 15.46 decrease over last year.
Following a lively school district meeting at which residents voiced their concern of a state education funding system to which the town contributes but receives little in return, Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland reported that an estimated 53 percent of property taxes collected in 2014 will go to the state Education Fund.
Sixty-six percent of those taxes, however, come from non-residential properties—second-home owners and businesses—who contribute to the town's taxes and yet do not get to vote, Ackland explained.
"I think it's important to note the burden [that's] taking away from people who live here," resident Dave Sellers said, and others agreed, expressing the need to keep Warren attractive to those seeking vacation houses in order to keep costs low for those who live there full time.
In an effort to save two well-traveled routes, last year's budget included "almost a million dollars in specific road repairs," including fixing the slides in West Hill Road and Sugarbush Access Road, he explained.
The slides were fixed using a technique called "soil nailing," which involves driving metal tubes underneath the road in a grid formation to create a board on which the road then sits. The process, though relatively new, "is going to be working pretty well," Warren public works director Barry Simpson said, reporting that the roads are now "rock solid [and] no cracks have appeared in either one."
Without those specific road repairs, this year's net highway department budget is down 26.2 percent, with the majority of money attributed to "drainage and gravel," Ackland said, "so we can endure mud season a little bit."
The road crew has specific projects planned for Hank Road, Prickly Mountain Road and Upper Pines Road, to name a few, as well as continued work on Sugarbush Access Road, and Warren currently has seven grant applications out to the state in hopes of reducing its expenditures, Ackland reported.
Outside of the highway department, the town's expenditures stay more or less the same, as "all the town employees ... have tried really hard to maintain as flat a budget as possible," select board member Anson Montgomery said, while noting that the purchase of a new $5,000 fire hose "overshadowed" the fire department's efforts to cut costs in other areas.
After approving the budget and authorizing the select board to set a tax rate, which the town estimates at $0.4297 versus last year's $0.4436, residents approved several other articles, including the allocation of $10,000 to the Warren Conservation Fund and the allocation of Green Mountain National Forest money (which runs around $16,000 each year) to Warren Elementary School.
Residents also approved an amendment to an article requesting $1,000 for the Warren After School Program (WASP) that increased the town's contribution to $3,000. WASP provides low-cost child care to students every day from 3 to 5:30 p.m., including homework help and activities such as sewing, lacrosse and circus.
Regarding an advisory article calling on the state Legislature to create a public bank in Vermont, "We need to do a lot more investigation," resident Dotty Kyle said, explaining that "the more I've heard from bankers and business people, the more I've heard very good reasons why we oughtta keep the system the way it is."
Other residents, however, pointed out that the article was only an advisory one, and that the bank could help keep money in Vermont to build infrastructure, businesses and houses. The article passed via a show of hands.
Following a discussion during the school district meeting regarding an article to vote on the school budget via Australian ballot, which was ultimately rejected via paper ballot vote, an amendment was proposed to an article asking to start next year's Town Meeting at 7 p.m., rather than 8 a.m.
The amendment came after comments from pro-Australian ballot residents, who argued against voting at Town Meeting because not everyone can attend the meeting due to work or other daytime commitments. Holding Town Meeting at night could help increase attendance, some said, but many agreed that it would be impossible to get everything done in time.
In a chorus of aye and only a few nays, residents rejected the amendment and approved the original article to start next year's meeting at 8 a.m. and immediately adjourn until after completion of the school district meeting. Select board chair Andy Cunningham suggested that those who feel strongly about changing the time or day of Town Meeting form a committee to do some research and come to the board in the fall with a possible solution.
Only local officials are elected via Australian ballot in Warren, and last Tuesday all those who ran for re-election ran unopposed. Select board member Anson Montgomery was re-elected for a three-year term and Bob Ackland was re-elected for a two-year term. School director Laurie Greenberg was re-elected for a three-year term and Robert Rosen was re-elected for a two-year term. Of 1,289 registered voters in Warren, 249 cast Australian ballots.
By Rachel Goff
At the Warren Town School District meeting on Tuesday, March 4, residents approved a school budget of $2,358,155, representing a 2.6 percent increase over last year.
At $13,105, Warren Elementary School has the lowest proposed per pupil spending of any school in The Valley for next year, as well as some of the highest test scores. “We have the best school board in the state,” several residents said, speaking of the Warren School Board’s ability to keep costs low while not compromising education quality. Unfortunately, the board can only control so much.
Residents and local officials spent a large part of the school district meeting last Tuesday discussing the state’s education funding system, which is driving up spending at the local level. “I can’t figure it out,” Warren Select Board member Bob Ackland said of the funding system that this year results in a projected 7.5 percent increase in the homestead tax rate.
“We’re talking to people who have the highest degrees in finance and economics trying to figure [it] out,” Warren School Board member Rob Rosen said, and even they can’t explain the funding system, which, under Act 60/68, was designed to achieve equal educational spending across districts, regardless of property tax revenue.
To reform the education funding system, the state is looking at a number of solutions, including consolidation. But “I’m here to save our school,” resident Jim Parker said last Tuesday, standing up and giving a speech imploring others to “march on Montpelier” and speak out against Act 60/68.
Certainly, Act 60/68 is “more unfortunate for Warren than it is for a number of other communities” with less property tax income, who receive money from the state rather than give it, Valley representative to the state Legislature Adam Greshin said.
Still, “we’d be cutting off our nose to spite our face if we voted this budget down,” select board member Anson Montgomery said. “If we want to send a message to Montpelier, we say we support success … we support this budget,” he said, while at the same time acknowledging the system’s flaws.
As discussion wound down, a motion was made to move the school budget to a paper ballot rather than voice vote. Once all the ballots were counted, the budget passed 108 to 29 votes.
The following article asked that next year, the school budget be voted on by Australian ballot rather than voice vote, but it was rejected—again via paper ballot (48 yes to 111 no).
While pro-Australian ballot residents made their case for those who cannot attend Town Meeting and, therefore, cannot vote, residents who rejected the article spoke of the value of Town Meeting dialogue. Australian ballot “dilutes the quality of participation,” representative to the Harwood School Board Dan Raddock said.
“We just had an excellent discussion with the school board participating that we would not have had” with Australian ballot, Warren public works director Barry Simpson echoed.