The dam vote

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(HOST) Commentator Tim McQuiston spent the Fourth of July in Saxton’s River, where he found a controversy as hot as a chicken barbeque.

(MCQUISTON) The village of Saxtons River has a famous Fourth of July celebration. They even close Main Street for half-a-day. (Try that anywhere on Route 7.) A festive parade includes all the usual symbols of Independence Day, from flag-waving kids on floats to fire engines. And lest you forget where you are, it always comes with a little Blue State politics. The day finishes up with a picnic, music and, of course, the rockets red glare of fireworks.

Typical of Vermont, this has always been, in my experience any- way, a pretty casual and friendly day – always steamy hot with non-existent cell phone service.

But there was a noticeable edge in the air this year that even the humidity couldn’t dampen. There was about to be a re-vote on whether the Town of Rockingham would buy the hydroelectric facility at Bellows Falls and create a municipal power authority.

The Town of Rockingham, and its principal villages of Saxtons River and Bellows Falls, were about to re-vote whether to get into the electricity business. Rockingham had voted last November, with 60 percent in support, to buy the facility and set up the authority. A Canadian company would pay the 72-million-dollar pricetag, run it, profit by it and, in return, pay a predetermined property tax. The town would no longer have to fight over property taxes and would gain some measure of energy independence, albeit many years from now.

But after the initial vote and Public Service Board approval, towns- people were told they’d have to take another vote. On July 12th, they went back to the polls and completely reversed themselves. Almost 60 percent of voters rejected it this time, with a heavier turnout.

What happened?

As you could tell during the parade, there was animosity between the Pro- and Anti-dam people. Neighbors wore buttons of differing persuasions. The proponents had a float in the parade. The op- ponents had a roadside encampment. As the procession inched along, the two sides called to each other in forced jocularity. Each side clearly felt that they were the righteous ones.

This certainly would be a big undertaking by a small town. And it calls into question whether government should be in the business of business at all. But other towns have electric companies. The largest is Burlington’s, and they’ve done quite well with it.

I asked locals where the opposition had come from? It seems to me, from those conversations, that while local property taxes might go up slightly, there weren’t any big economic issues. How- ever, the townsfolk felt the government had lobbied too hard for the deal and was seen as being too cozy with an ingratiating, foreign power company.

In other words, the deal had too much government support. And just what do we make of that?

Oh, and by the way, the Bellows Falls hydroelectric facility will probably end up in the hands of a different Canadian power company.

This is Timothy McQuiston.

Timothy McQuiston is editor of Vermont Business Magazine.

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