Chester Select Board talks budgets, sets date for referendum

By Shawn Cunningham
©2014 The Chester Telegraph

The Chester Select Board set 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 17 for a special town meeting and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 18 for the vote on the question of whether the sales and service of automobiles and other vehicles and the sale of fuel should be added to the list of conditional uses in the town’s residential commercial district.

During its Wednesday, Oct. 15 meeting, the Select Board unanimously approved the warning scheduling town meeting characterized as  “informational”, and an election.  The vote is a result of a petition signed by 148 Chester voters to reconsider the change made in the zoning regulations that have become part of the town’s new Unified Development Bylaws.

Several residents on both sides of the issue attended the meeting but board member Derek Suursoo pointed out that the time for statements would be the town meeting on Nov. 17. Town manager David Pisha clarified a statement he had made in the past regarding the affect that approval of the petition question would have. “The original thought was that it affects seven businesses,” said Pisha. “After (assistant) Julie (Hance) ..  researched the map and looked at it, (it’s) four. ”

The Oct. 15 meeting was also the start of the municipal budgeting season. Pisha presented a preliminary budget for the Fire, Police, Ambulance, Public Works and Recreation departments and noted that it was still early to get numbers from other departments.

The town looked into having its employees sign up individually with the health care exchange to take advantage of government subsidies. The town would then reimburse the employees. But the IRS sees the reimbursement as a pay raise that could boost an employee’s income level out of eligibility for subsidies.

Some highlights of the budget included an anticipated 7 percent increase in health insurance premiums for town employees, discussion of hiring another full-time police officer to be a “resource officer” in conjunction with the schools and the cost of reorganizing the ambulance service, which was also on the agenda for the evening.  Pisha noted that in its first iteration, the budget is up, but not by the percentage that last year’s budget rose.  Pisha also pointed out that much of the budgeting hinges on how the current year turns out and whether there is a deficit to carry forward. “The state is moving forward to compensate towns for storm damage and we are moving shortly toward a tax sale,” said Pisha. “And I don’t believe we have gotten our land use payment, a rather large influx of cash so there are still some good moments out there — cashwise — to look forward to.”

Insurance — all risks, plus medical — is 20 percent of the municipal budget, Pisha said, adding that the town looked into having employees sign up individually with the health care exchange to take advantage of government subsidies. The town would then reimburse the employees. But the IRS sees the reimbursement as a raise in pay that could boost an employee’s income level out of eligibility for subsidies, making the situation much more complicated.

Sewer is running a deficit of $73,000 and according to Pisha, needs a rate hike of 15 percent. It won’t completely cover the deficit, he said, but it will put them on the right track. New rates would be in the November billing and need to be approved at the Nov. 5 meeting. The Select Board asked for the figures at the next meeting.

Help for the Ambulance Service, in-town hiking trail

In the discussion of restructuring the ambulance service, Pisha noted that an agreement proposed at the last meeting to cooperate with a nearby town in staffing the two services during the day on weekdays in the winter had fallen.  Winter weekdays are especially hard to staff since most volunteers have day jobs. “We’re holding our own on nights and weekends,” noted ambulance service coordinator Dan Cook. The current options are to go full time with Golden Cross, based in Westminster and in Claremont, N.H., or to keep the ambulance service going and have Golden Cross respond on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Cook would like to do the latter while rebuilding the staff of the local service.  This would increase the cost of the ambulance service by about $7,600 next year while decreasing the income that comes from billing for “transports.” Cook would like the town to negotiate to have the ambulance service respond during the day when it can and have Golden Cross pick up the rest.

Frank Kelley of the Chester Conservation Committee asked for permission for the Chester Conservation Committee to begin the process of applying for grants to establish hiking trails on the 14 acre lot across the Lovers Lane Brook from the Brookside Cemetery. The area has natural and historic man-made features including a stonelined well and a barn foundation. According to Kelley, the project would give Chester an “in-town hiking experience” in addition to a place to take 5th and 6th graders to work on nature and history studies. The project would involve building two bridges, making trails and getting rid of the barberry bushes. The first step is to apply to determine eligibility. Board chair John DeBenedetti  said that as long as this application process was non-binding and did not put the town on the hook for money it could go ahead.

Reimbursing other towns

In other action, the Select Board did not back away from its decision to not fully reimburse other towns’ emergency departments that helped the Chester Fire Department when a tanker overturned on Route 11 last May. Fire Chief Matt Wilson had requested that the board reconsider its decision, made when the insurance company refused to pay $2,300 of the total recovery bill of $41,000.

“We asked our neighbors to help us,” said board member Arne Jonynas, who voted against pro-rating the payments at the last meeting, “and now we’re going to stiff them a little bit.”

Characterizing it as a dead issue, board member Derek Suursoo questioned whether Wilson should be negotiating with the insurance company, “It might be better coming from you,” Suursoo said to Pisha.

Meetings open to the public

  • The Vermont Department of Corrections will hold an information meeting on transitional housing from 6 to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 23 at Chester Town Hall, 556 Elm St.
  • And the Vermont League of Cities and Towns presentation on Vermont’s Open Meeting Law will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29 at the NewsBank Conference Center, 397 Main St. The public is welcome.
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  1. Amy O'Neil says:

    This is a bit misleading. I have a sample ballot in front of me and it reads, “ARTICLE 1: Should the Conditional Use of “Automotive Fuel/Sales/Service” be removed from the Residential-Commercial (R-C) District as stated in Article 2.4 of the Unified Development Bylaws.”

    Automotive Fuel/Sales/Service is already a conditional use in the R-C District. Article 1 seeks to REMOVE that use from the R-C District.

    All three of the lots in the Gold River Industrial Park off Pleasant Street near the Green Mountain Railroad lie in two districts. They are in both the Commercial-Industrial District and in the Residential-Commercial District. Article 3.21 of the Unified Development Bylaws states, “When a parcel is located in two or more districts, the proposed structure or use must meet the more restrictive district standard.” The vote to remove Automotive Fuel/Sales/Service from the R-C District means that all three of the lots in the Industrial Park would be restricted from any activities proposed in the future involving automotive fuel, automotive sales, and automotive service(s).

    Regardless of the number of current businesses in Chester this vote will impact, it will restrict future business proposals within the Town of Chester. Even though the industrial park is primarily commercially zoned a portion of each lot lies in the R-C District. The article Chester residents are asked to vote on would remove Automotive Fuel/Sales/Service uses from the entire industrial park.

    Article 1 is not a simple vote to protect South Main Street from development of gas stations and car lots. It will restrict development of gas stations to Elm Street and Grain Store Road which even though those areas are in the Commercial-Industrial District they are a mix of businesses and residences.