Whitingham Grapples with Deficit, School Spending

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(Host) Voters in The southern Vermont community of Whitingham went to town meeting Tuesday facing a municipal budget deficit and a double digit increase in their school tax rate.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Sound of people reciting the Pledge of Allegiance)

(Zind) “Beleaguered” might be a good word to describe the mood in the Whitingham School gym at Tuesday’s town meeting. Beleaguered and, at times, confused.

(Speaker at meeting) “Maybe I’m an idiot. If I am, tell me so and I’ll sit down.”

(Zind) Whitingham voters spend a good part of the meeting sorting out the extent and impact of the town’s newly discovered deficit. Taxpayers also learned that the town’s reserve fund is empty. The town is still trying to find out how the deficit came about. While there wasn’t any finger pointing at Tuesday’s meeting, voters were clearly frustrated:

(Speaker at meeting) “This is a lot of money out of our coffers! We’re in deep trouble!”

(Zind) The selectmen presented a pared-down municipal budget. Voters went a long with deep cuts in the town highway department budget. They made deeper cuts in other areas. But townspeople dug in their heels when Whitingham Volunteer Fire Chief Stan Janovsky told them what the cuts would mean to his department:

(Janovsky) “I wouldn’t be able to buy any other turnout gear to help keep my other members safe and keep you safe. I’d have a hard time sending anybody into a house with that old ratty turnout gear.”

(Zind) Voters decided to ignore the select board’s recommendation and restore funds to the fire department. Whitingham also faced a proposed school budget that would increase the property tax rate 14%, even though the actual dollar increase was modest. The school budget went down by a single vote. Whitingham is a “sending” town under Act 60. Selectman Norm Stevens says the deficit is nothing compared to Act 60’s impact on the town:

(Stevens) “We sent $1.2 million out last year to support schools and have programs that we can’t afford here in Whitingham. It’s not right. It’s not right.”

(Zind) Stevens says the irony of Whitingham being a gold town and running a deficit isn’t lost on voters.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Whitingham.

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