Chester voters shorten two tax exemption articles at Town Meeting

By Cynthia Prairie
©2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

About 100 Chester voters turned out for town meeting on Monday night

About 100 Chester voters turned out for town meeting on Monday night. Photos by Shawn Cunningham. Click any photo to launch a gallery.

Two of three articles to exempt organizations from property and education taxes were substantially changed at Monday night’s Chester Town Meeting, when both the Rod & Gun Club and the Green Mountain Softball League were given one-year tax exemptions (rather than five) and asked to return next year with more information.

But it was the Rod & Gun Club, a membership organization, that came in for the most questioning, lead by Select Board member Arne Jonynas who told the crowd of about 100 that he’s received complaints from town residents who have been asked to leave the property because they were not members. He added that in the past residents had used the property to sight their rifles. “These are the people in town who are paying your tax bill,” he told the club, “and I have a hard time supporting (the tax exemption) for that reason alone.”

The club, which has 200 members who pay $35 a year in annual dues to access the 121 acre property off Route 11 West, is exempt from paying a tax of about $5,410, according to its assessed value.

Rod and Gun club member Bob Pelletier speaks on behalf of the club

Rod and Gun club member Bob Pelletier speaks on behalf of the club

Club member Rob Pelletier stood to say that the club began restricting the property because “We’ve had people from out of state who were coming in and trashing the area.”

Sandy Vincent countered, saying that her father helped build the club. “I can hear him hollering right now: ‘The Rod & Gun Club should reconsider how they treat us in the community.’ ”

Frank Bidwell asked what benefits the club brought to the town, to which Pelletier responded, “State and local police qualify there. The military sometimes uses it. There are hunter safety classes given for free.” The club also sponsors a fishing derby.

A number of audience members offered solutions to the club’s plight. Penny Benelli asked if it were possible to allow Chester residents in free with an ID. Select Board member Heather Chase suggested that the club open its doors a number of days a year just for Chester. And Dee Robinson suggested allowing a resident to come in for a day pass with a donation.

Pelletier responded that those decisions are “up to the organization. It would be good to have folks come to a meeting. … We need input from the community about what it wants.”

And several people suggested that the club raise its dues. But member Harry Goodell said that club bylaws prohibited them from raising without a year’s notice.

Finally, Scott Bonneville suggested giving the organization a one-year tax break instead of a five-year exemption.

The amendment was accepted and roundly passed.

Things went more smoothly for the Green Mountain Softball League but the outcome was still the same. The fields, on 6.6 acres accessed through the Stone House Antiques Center property on Route 103 East, are assessed at $110,000 and would be assessed $2,286 in taxes.

The fields, which in the past have also hosted the Green Mountain Union High School girls softball practices and games, have been in disrepair since Irene and the July 2014 flash floods. One field has been repaired and is being used, according to Ruthie Douglas.

The GM girls have been using the Greven field in Ludlow since the floods. But the league, which owns the fields, have been using it and have been allowing their use for other events. Douglas said that last year, only eight of the 16 teams that are league members, used the field.

Pelletier then moved that the same rule apply to the GM Softball League as was given the Rod & Gun Club.

Moderator Bill Dakin and the Chester Select Board at Town Meeting

Moderator Bill Dakin and the Chester Select Board at Town Meeting

With that, the article was amended and passed.

There was some objection to giving the Olive Branch Lodge a property tax exemption, which will amount to more than $44,689 over five years. But that passed easily after lodge master Tom Amsden told the audience that the piece of prime Chester real estate that the lodge sits on – assessed at $431,300 – houses two organizations that do much charitable work.

The Order of the Eastern Star, he said, makes donations to the Chester-Andover Summer Camp, American Legion Cadet Program; Chester-Andover Family Center, Yosemite Engine Company among others. He said the Masons donate to the Springfield Hospital Apple Blossom Cotillion, Green Mountain scholarships, the Chester-Andover Family Center and dinners for older citizens. He added that the group has also given $5,000 to the Merritt Edson monument and closed the gap on money for fireworks for Edson Day festivities. When asked for a breakdown of the donations, Amsden could only say that the total was “around $9,000.”

Amsden did admit that most the money that they donate comes from a fund that was left to the lodge by a generous member who designated it strictly for charitable works and could not be used to pay taxes.

Although he said it was not a threat, Olive Branch member Ron Patch told the meeting that if the 65 member lodge had to sell the building and leave because it could not get its tax exemption, it would likely take all its charitable donations with it.

Past projects, future projects, today’s vote

Town Manager David Pisha explains the town's budget and capital plan on Monday night

Town Manager David Pisha explains the town’s budget and capital plan on Monday night

Early in the meeting, Town Manager David Pisha updated residents on projects and department budgets from the last year and previewed upcoming projects. The realignment of Popple Dungeon Road was complete as was the repairs to the Cavendish culvert, which is the final work that needed to be done from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Construction on the town water project is expected to start soon and the Vermont Electric Power Company is going to replace the old communications tower with a new one with more capacity.

He added that the town has a small surplus of $13,472 from the 2015 budget that will rollover to the 2016 budget.

The Police Department budget will rise by about $55,000 to $581,000, Pisha said, and the Ambulance Service will be hiring a full-time person at the EMT level to help fill the gap left since there aren’t enough volunteers. He added that it made more fiscal sense to do this than to contract the entire service out to an ambulance that would be more expensive and whose response times would be longer.

Today, town residents will not only vote on candidates in the presidential primary and for Select Board, they will also vote on two bond issues. Article 2 seeks $269,900 in general obligation bonds — that could be reduced through grants.  Included in that bond are: $8,500 for a mower for the Cemetery Department; $45,400 for the new pool decking for the Recreation Department; for the Fire Department: $40,000 for replacement hose, $18,500 for two air packs, $11,000 for a washer/dryer unit and $15,000 for a thermal camera; $70,000 for upgrading the Elm Street pumping station; $30,000 for a pickup truck for the Sewer Department and $31,500 to replace fire hydrants for the Water Department.

And Article 3 seeks $220,000 for to pave 5,300 feet of roadway in a number of possible projects including High Street, First Avenue and Coach Road.

Capital expenditures approved

Springfield Regional Development Corporation Executive Director Bob Flint updated the meeting on his organization's efforts

Springfield Regional Development Corporation Executive Director Bob Flint updated the meeting on his organization’s efforts

On Monday night, residents also approved Article 6, to spend $452,324 from the capital budget. It includes:

$6,500 for fencing for Cobleigh Field; $10,000 for resurfacing and repainting basketball court; $8,000 for refurbishing Fire Department compressor; $7,500 to buy pagers for the Fire Department; $85,000 for a fire truck lease payment; $133,000 for a new dump truck for the Highway Department that is part of the normal truck rotation; $20,000 for a new pickup truck for the Highway Department; $54,167 for payment for sidewalk renovations; $20,000 for first payment for renovations to Whiting Library; $20,000 for Town Hall building improvements; $39,000 to buy a new cruiser for the Police Department.

As the numbers in attendance began dwindling, voters also approved $8,649 for Springfield Regional Development Corp. In lobbying for funding, SRDC Executive Director Bob Flint said that “Chester is uniquely positioned” to begin attracting new businesses and new residents. He added that the Vermont Chamber of Commerce has established a Vermont Futures Projects that will be holding focus groups around the state, and he intended to make sure that Chester is one of those sites.

Also approved with little or no resistance:

  • $13,807 for Visiting Nurses Association & Hospice of VT and NH
  • $3,044 for Health Care & Rehabilation Services
  • $3,040 for Southeaster Vermont Community Action – SEVCA
  • $900 for Women’s Freedom Center.
  • $1,200 for Senior Solutions
  • $2,700 for Meals on Wheels
  • $2,250 for the Current transit
  • $800 for Windsor County Partners
  • $400 for GM RSVP & Volunteer Center for Windor County
  • $1,800 for Community Cares Network.
  • $3,000 for Chester-Andover Family Center.

 

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About the Author: Cynthia Prairie has been a newspaper editor more than 30 years. She has worked at such publications as the Raleigh Times, the Baltimore News American, the Buffalo Courier Express, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Patuxent Publishing chain of community newspapers in Maryland. She and her family moved to Chester, Vermont in 2004.

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