Towns Prepare for Meeting Day

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(Host) Vermonters in communities across the state will attend their town’s annual meeting tomorrow. They’ll be electing local officials, wrestling with school and municipal budgets and debating a variety of referenda.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this overview of Town Meeting 2002.

(Zind) Local school boards are nervous this year. Even when budgets have little or no increases over last year, some property tax rates are going up. Steven Jeffrey is executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns:

(Jeffrey) “There’s three reasons why, if a school board adopts a budget that is exactly the same as last year, that they could possibly see a significant increase in their property tax rate.”

(Zind) Jeffrey says one reason some towns are facing tax increases is the loss of private funding and foundation money used to support schools. Secondly, property values in many towns are going up, increasing taxes. Finally, if there’s a drop in the number of students, a school receives less money from the state; local taxpayers have to absorb the loss. Jeffrey says because of these last two factors, over 20% of Vermont’s towns will see double digit increases in this year’s school tax rates:

(Jeffrey) “But if those two factors come together and accelerate so that you lose a lot of kids and your real estate values increase significantly, you will see a large increase in your school taxes. It looks this year that those are accelerating at a faster rate than they have been in the past.”

(Zind) Jeffrey says town officials are also concerned they may see an increase in municipal taxes to make up for a drop in state highway money. Jeffrey says towns are hoping the Legislature will restore cuts in these funds proposed in the governor’s budget.

Voters will also take up a variety of non-binding referenda at town meetings. Nine southwestern Vermont towns will consider asking the state to prevent the sale of Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant and take steps to close it down. The plant’s owners have created a political action committee called Citizens Against the Secretary of State. The group has spent more than $45,000 in its effort to counter the referendum.

The League of Women Voters is behind another referendum item. Fifty towns will weigh in on the question of whether the state should use an instant runoff system if no candidate wins a majority in a statewide election.

Thirty towns will consider recommending that local and state officials follow the environmental and social justice guidelines laid out by the Earth Charter. A similar number will discuss mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and seeds and moratorium on the use of these products.

Finally, an estimated tow dozen towns will consider a ballot item to “prohibit an employee or agent of a school district from encouraging, promoting or sanctioning homosexual conduct.” The referendum is spearheaded by Derby Republican Representative Nancy Sheltra.

For citizens who want to bring up issues not on the town meeting warning, there’s always that catch-all item on the agenda at the end of every town meeting: “Other business.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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