In a matter of weeks, most towns in Vermont will ask townspeople to consider how public departments should be best funded — and governed.
Town Meeting Day is a tradition, an annual rite as true and predictable as sap flowing in spring. Without question, town meeting differentiates our state from most others and makes us the envy of many governments eager for more grassroots participation and input. It is democracy in its purest form: eligible citizens convene in face-to-face assemblies, debate issues appearing on the town warning, and vote on them as citizen legislators.
It also is an annual tradition among neighbors — a day to catch up and share. It is the original social media for Vermonters.
Town officials will tell you that it is a tremendous amount of work to prepare for town meeting (this year on March 3 in most communities; a few convene Saturday). Budget talks start in early fall in what is always a challenging process, especially when faced with tight economic times; town committees meet to prepare annual reports; final tallies must be taken in accordance with deadlines set by the secretary of state.
As is the case with most elections, turnout for town meeting often is less than 15% of the eligible voters in any given town. (There are always a few notable exceptions.) Critics say the day often is decided in advance or overrun with special interests determined to railroad through their pet projects or causes.
That is precisely why participation in town meeting is crucial. This is an opportunity to have your voice heard; by debating and voting, changes in towns can be made.
To be an effective participant, however, you have to be informed. That is why each town is required to produce an annual town report to be presented to voters. Reading the town report reminds you of the community where you live and who your neighbors are.
If you haven’t been following it closely, you may discover your town is embroiled in an interesting controversy, and your town report could give you the inkling you need to start asking questions so you can know what’s happening when you get to town meeting. It is your most vital tool for the day.
Here are a few things every voting member of town meeting should take the time to find in the annual town report:
— First, read the town manager’s or select board’s report. It will not only tell you what has been accomplished in the last year, it outlines the goals and vision for the coming year. With that in mind, it’s easier to ascertain why specific personnel or line items are being funded the way they are. (Be mindful, each budget article in the warning usually gives the bottom line; you have to hunt to see how much has been appropriated by town officials.)
— Look at the budget summaries to see how line items vary year to year. Be mindful of any double-digit increases, especially in capital or equipment accounts. Always look for increases in salaries — find out how much health insurance costs went up over last year. (One piece of math you should know before you delve too deep into the town report: To calculate the percentage increase — or decrease — in a budget, take this year’s number and subtract last year’s budget number; take the remainder and divide it by last year’s budget number. Multiply the answer by 100 to get the percentage change.)
— Find out whether the town has any surplus and how it is held.
— Know how much debt the town has, and whether any obligations will be paid off in the next year (or whether more are coming).
— What is the school portion of the tax rate? The largest budget question for most towns is the local school budget. This is usually given in a report near the end of the annual report. It is important to inspect the report just as you would the town budget.
— Glance at the town audit and read any footnotes indicating proposed changes in the checks and balances the town has in place. Ask whether there was “a management letter” from the auditor, which is a more private scolding of town officials. If it is not included, ask to see it.
What matters most to voters and taxpayers is how the changes in budget are going to drive the tax rate. This information usually is not available in the annual report. Before you leave your town meeting, know what the current tax rate is and approximately how much it will go up or down according to the budget that was just approved. The town manager or a member of the select board should have that information after the final vote.
As for getting more people to town meeting, that depends on how much the townspeople come to eventually trust their elected officials, and how transparent governing can become. The more people who are involved in town affairs throughout the year, whether it is attending meetings or hearings, the fewer surprises on the meeting floor.
Good luck, and have fun being part of democracy in action.