• Vt. town reports reveal hurdles old and new
    By Kevin O’Connor
    Staff Writer | March 02,2014
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    Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo

    Vermont town report covers range from Newbury’s re-enactment of the arrival of its 1763 charter to Castleton’s “positive progress for our next generations” picture by the town manager’s 6-year-old daughter.
    The three-member Select Board in Windham, population 419, figured it could survive practically anything after year upon year of recession following the nation’s fiscal free fall in 2008. Then came Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. An unusually sticky mud season last spring. And now, the Affordable (If Not Always Accessible) Care Act.

    “Navigating the new Vermont Health Connect has been almost as challenging as dealing with the aftermath of Irene,” the board writes this month, “but the town clerk stayed with it and got our road crew registered correctly so there was no lapse in their insurance.”

    From northwesternmost Alburgh to southeasternmost Vernon, flip through Vermont town meeting reports this season and you’ll find communities still feeling the economic wake of past crises are facing a new wave of management and money challenges.

    “This upcoming year we are expecting nothing and making (do) until we find ourselves in a better position,” notes the Select Board in Underhill, population 3,016, repeating its annual forecast of the past five years.

    For more than 100 towns with reports on file at the Vermont secretary of state’s office, that means big requisitions (take a $1.4 million plan for a new municipal office in Morristown, population 5,227) are the exception and small requests ($200 for the OxBee Quilt Guild in Corinth, population 1,367) are the rule.

    In part, that’s because dozens of communities flooded by Irene are continuing to pay for cleanup.

    Royalton, population 2,773, still has nearly $300,000 in outstanding emergency loans — a figure that’s one-third its annual general municipal budget.

    Neighboring Sharon, population 1,502, is aiming to finish its last road-repair project this spring.

    “We will mark that occasion with a ribbon-cutting celebration,” its Select Board writes, “and recognition that what it took Irene less than 24 hours to destroy will have taken our town more than two and a half years to restore at a cost of $2.4 million.”

    Strafford, population 1,098, has similar aspirations.

    “I hardly dare to say that the last projects for FEMA will be completed this year,” its town clerk notes. “Final costs will have to be submitted to the state for reimbursement and then the town can file the closeout paperwork. Four years after the destruction, we’re finally done. Maybe?”

    Many communities are complaining about another storm cloud: How to provide employee health insurance under a new federal and state system.

    “Winhall did not avoid the effects of change in the health care industry — we were thrown into the chaos along with countless others,” writes the Select Board in that town, population 769. “This is probably an area that will be on our agenda for awhile to come.”

    Dozens of localities that had purchased coverage through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns learned they’d have to seek new plans through the state’s health exchange.

    “However, due to the inability of Vermont Health Connect to begin billing small business employers, we had to obtain insurance directly with the carrier this year,” note local leaders in Sheffield, population 703.

    Another hurdle straight from the headlines: Robberies. Addison, population 1,371, has suffered a “wave” at the same time its contracted sheriffs announced a “sizable” hourly rate hike.

    “While the robberies were taking place, half of our patrols were assigned to crime and the other half to traffic issues,” the Select Board writes. “As a result, our patrolling revenue was way down, running a deficit most of the year.”

    Middlesex, reporting a similar rash of break-ins, installed Neighborhood Watch signs throughout the town of 1,731 people.

    “The signs represented actual Neighborhood Watch members on each street,” the Select Board writes, “and since the signs’ implementation, the burglaries have stopped.”

    Some communities face singular challenges.

    “The Select Board has worked hard for several years to bring a department store back to Derby,” local leaders write in that town of 4,621. “We are making great strides to bring this project to a reality. Imagine — cheap underwear locally!”

    Barnard, population 947, believed it ended the fiscal year with a “substantial surplus,” only to repay the $705,000 balance of its Irene loan and realize a potential $100,000 shortfall.

    On the flip side: Norton, population 169. Scanning its ballot, you might think the big issue is whether the town should allow all-terrain vehicles on its roads — especially because each street is listed separately: “Article 25: Shall the town of Norton open Henry Road to ATV use? Article 26: Shall the town of Norton open Leo’s Lane to ATV use? Article 27: Shall the town of Norton open Old Dump Road to ATV use? …”

    Then the new Select Board, responsible for a $132,580 annual budget, came upon an unexpected windfall.

    “We three were all surprised to learn that the town was ending the fiscal year with slightly over a quarter of a million dollars cash in the Island Pond bank,” members write.

    Which leads to their next item of business: “Finding where that balance came from.”

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