Paving, police, library and health insurance among Chester budget topics.

By Shawn Cunningham
©Telegraph Publishing LLC – 2014

Taking up next year’s budget first on the agenda again at its Wednesday, Dec. 3 meeting, the Chester Select Board looked at issues from the cost of changing police and fire dispatch from Springfield to Hartford, to the need for a fifth full-time police officer and whether speeding ticket income could offset that cost to a cut in the paving budget and whether some paved roads – including Popple Dungeon – should return to dirt.

Fire Chief Matt Wilson told the board that the service Chester is receiving from Springfield is problematic to the point of being “a definite safety issue.” Wilson and Police Chief Rick Cloud are proposing changing dispatch from Springfield to Hartford through the Ascutney Repeater Association. The subscription fee for the change would increase the current cost by about $1,600 per year, but ahead of the change, about $23,000 worth of equipment and antenna tower changes would be needed.

Chief Cloud gave the board an analysis that projects that the $58,720 in pay and benefits for a new officer would be offset by a $15,000 reduction in part-time hours and $20,000 in income from speeding tickets for a net cost to the town budget of $23,720. Cloud said that would improve coverage during vacations, court appearances and meetings in addition to adding a second officer to every shift except Saturday and Sunday daytime. Cloud pointed out that if the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council puts a “three-tier part-time certification” in force, Chester’s part-time officers will be unable to make arrests and will have to work with full-time officers. “We’re not issuing tickets for profit,” said Board member Derek Suursoo. “Let’s be honest,” replied Board Member Tom Bock, “we are looking for income to support an officer.”

Roads, gravel and paving

Roads superintendent Graham Kennedy was on hand to discuss the proposed paving budget of $50,000. Kennedy noted that according to the road surface management program, it would take $180,000 just to maintain the status quo. “The paved roads are falling apart,” said Kennedy. “They’re in terrible, terrible shape … It’s just a matter of money … Not enough money is put toward roads, we are definitely going backward.”

Asked about state road funding, Kennedy pointed out that Route 35 eats up the 2 for 1 funding that becomes available every five years. “The road base is terrible,” said Kennedy, “and the road only lasts that long (five years.)” Such funding is limited to $163,000 and can only be used on one Class 2 road at a time. According to Kennedy, the Popple Dungeon job scheduled to be done on FEMA Hazard Mitigation grant funding in 2015 is only 900 feet long, while the paved road is “trashed from 35 to the dirt.” That portion is about 2 miles long.

Suursoo asked if it wouldn’t be better to take Popple Dungeon Road “back to dirt,” to which Kennedy responded that the results would not be good and that taking pavement away will make for “unhappy citizens.”

“If we had a large supply of cheap gravel would that be the solution?” mused Suursoo.

Suursoo then asked Kennedy what he thought the paving budget should be. “Whatever the town can afford,” answered Kennedy, “if you don’t, it’s costing you in the long run.” Board member Tom Bock suggested “penciling in” $91,000 for paving, down from $125,000 in 2014.

Whiting Library, employee health insurance

Whiting Library trustee chair Kathy Pellett requested that the general fund contribution be returned to its 2013 level. The funding to the municipal library had been cut by $5,000 in 2014 because the library had run a surplus the previous year. Pellett challenged the often-stated claim that with libraries at both the elementary and high schools, Chester has three libraries. She noted that the schools are not open to the public, so the Whiting is the only library in town that is open to everyone. Board member Arne Jonynas said he felt that “the library is just as important to the town as roads or police or any other service in the budget.”

Looking at the budget implications of the health insurance that the town carries for its employees, town manager David Pisha noted that insurance broker Suzanne Swanson had suggested changing plans. The current plan is going up, but by switching to a lower price plan with a higher out-of-pocket costs, the town might save money. The new plan would increase premiums by about $23,000 while out-of-pocket payments would be budgeted at $25,000 more than in 2014. Currently, the town of Chester pays all premiums, co-payments and out-of-pocket expenses for its employees.

Suursoo moved that the board authorize Pisha to move to another plan if the numbers look like they will be in the town’s favor, noting that Pisha could also opt to stay with the current plan at his discretion. Without knowing what medical needs would arise in 2015, the decision was called “a crapshoot.”

In the budget discussion of the Water and Sewer departments, Suursoo asked about a warrant that he had not signed representing a fund transfer from the general fund to the sewer department. An earlier fund transfer of $92,000 was scheduled to be paid back to the general fund but that payment was not made due to insufficient income. The new loan of $47,000 brings the total owed to the general fund to $139,000. According to Pisha, the recently approved increase in the sewer rates will make it possible to repay the entire amount in “eight quarters.”

On voted articles, eliminating voting at Town Meeting

With just old and new business remaining on the agenda, the board discussed whether several non-profits that petition the towns for funds should be allowed to submit one petition for their various articles, which are voted on separately.
Board chair John Debenedetti said he thought the town should be able to require a report showing the financials of those non-profits. “I keep hearing this buzz word: transparency,” said DeBenedetti, “I’d like to see some transparency.”

From voted articles, the discussion turned to whether the town should go over to Australian ballot for all voting, including the articles that support charitable institutions that are currently voted at the Monday evening Town Meeting in March. “I think we should give it a shot,” said Suursoo. The board intends to discuss eliminating voting from the floor at future Town Meetings at its Dec. 17 meeting.

Under new business, Jonynas said he had been to the town’s new website and said it was easy putting in the information for his business. Assistant to the town manager Julie Hance said it is a work in progress that’s coming along. DeBenedetti asked if it would have the same web address as the current site. Hance said it would not. While the website contractor had committed to recruiting and photographing 50 Chester businesses to the directory, Pisha noted that he and Hance would go out “knocking on doors” to encourage businesses to sign up.

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  1. Katherine Henry says:

    Unhappy citizens is a mild term for the results if Popple Dungeon is taken back to dirt. The pavement is all that kept us from having no road at all after the hurricane. I think a lot of people on Popple Dungeon would also have a very hard time understanding the tax base in the area if they were having to traverse a dirt road that would, no doubt, attempt to fall into the South Branch of the Williams River every spring. Perhaps if the logging and gravel trucks would comply with the posting it might not be QUITE so bad? I thought there were funds allocated for the improvement of Popple Dungeon Road. If so, what happened to that?