Derry board ponders delay in Town Meeting; addresses property taxes and budgeting

By Cherise Madigan
2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Londonderry’s 2021 Town Meeting may move to Pingree Park — and from March to May — if the state grants towns the ability to delay meetings due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And state legislators are working to make the one-time exception a reality, Town Clerk Kelly Pajala, who also represents the district of Windham-Bennington-Windsor in the State House, told the Londonderry Select Board at its Monday night meeting.

Town Clerk and state Rep. Kelly Pajala explains some of the hoops that the state — and towns — will be going through to hold safe Town Meetings during Covid.

There is no outright ban on traditional town meetings, but it’s unlikely that pandemic restrictions will be relaxed enough by March to allow such large gatherings, said Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie.

Currently, a town could open the meeting briefly on the planned date before immediately moving to postpone, theoretically requiring only three people — a moderator and two residents — to be present. However, if more people show up, it’s possible that the motion to postpone could be voted down, creating a contradiction between legal and public-health mandates.

Vermont law does not currently allow for electronic town meetings, though a temporary pandemic measure signed by Gov. Phil Scott in October would allow for voting to be conducted by Australian ballot. Remote, informational meetings would be required ahead of voting though no amendments will be permitted.

Pajala said she supported postponing the meeting until May, if pending legislation allows the town to do so without convening in March. Pingree Park would provide plenty of space for the meeting, she said, complete with a sound system and electricity. If pandemic conditions haven’t improved by then, the Select Board could still warn a vote by Australian ballot.

The board discussed the potential costs of printing and mailing ballots to voters, as well as programming a tabulator to count the votes. Board member Vincent Annunziata argued that important progress is made during Town Meeting discussions. He also questioned the quality of those conversations if they were conducted remotely through informational meetings. Board member Jim Fleming agreed, alongside Chair George Mora, who acknowledged that any option would require “logistical somersaults.”

Pajala and Town Treasurer Tina Labeau noted that a decision was needed as soon as possible. But the board can take no formal action to delay without assembling since that authority has yet to be granted. Until then, the board agreed to continue preparing the town report and budget as if voting will be conducted in March.

Pajala said that the legislature was working to get the bill to the governor by Jan. 16, ahead of the deadline for town reports.

Pajala added that the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union school district has decided to proceed with the Australian ballot and remote informational meeting option for their board elections, which will be conducted on the first Tuesday in March per usual.

Additional staff, reduced appropriations mulled

Londonderry residents would see a property tax increase of just over 2 percent — from $0.40401 to $0.41275 per $100 of assess value — under the draft budget reviewed by board members, though further cuts to town appropriations are being considered.

The town anticipates approximately $703,728 in revenue from other taxes, licenses and fees, Transfer Station income and grants, according to Labeau. Changes include a 10 percent dip in Current Use tax income following a decline this year and an increase in zoning fees due to increased activity.

The town road crew, said Select Board member Taylor Prouty, is understaffed for certain jobs.

A new building and maintenance employee, who could also provide winter road crew support, was included in the budget at $41,000 per year. Residents have asked for better maintenance of town buildings, Mora said. Board member Taylor Prouty added that road crew employees have also recently worked long hours in the recent snow storm and difficulties flagging properly during road work due to limited staffing.

Board member Tom Cavanagh questioned the need for such a position, saying that part-time employee who would not have to receive benefits. Annunziata agreed the cost was “a lot to spend right now.”  Town Administrator Shane O’Keefe argued that the position could replace some contracted services, and save money. Ultimately, Mora advocated for leaving the expense in the budget and allowing the voters to decide.

The new position of Town Assessor was included in the budget, reflecting the hiring of Jeremiah Sund last month. Other increases sprung from adding life and disability insurance for town employees, anticipating more legal expenses, more use of mailing during the pandemic, new Zoom subscriptions for town boards, a new phone system, and septic costs related to monitoring for chemicals.

At the Transfer Station, the coast of hauling is expected to increase due to an explosion of food scraps after a composting requirement went into effect this summer, although the amount of that increase is unknown. The town parks budget includes plans for tennis court resurfacing, plowing at Pingree Park and mowing at Memorial Park.

Less money will be dedicated to the highway equipment fund and infrastructure fund, to provide some tax relief for residents in the coming year, Labeau said.

Appropriations to community organizations were down 1 percent from last year, but further cuts were considered by board members hoping to keep the tax rate as low as possible, in recognition of the financial struggles faced by many because of the pandemic.

Deciding where to cut, however, proved challenging as many of the organizations provide essential services. The largest appropriations are allocated to:

  • Champion Fire Company #5 ($20,000),
  • Londonderry Volunteer Rescue Squad ($10,000),
  • South Londonderry Library ($10,000),
  • Visiting Nurse Association ($7,000),
  • Neighborhood Connections ($6,000),
  • Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy ($5,307) and
  • the Mountain Valley Medical Clinic ($5,000).

Select Board chair George Mora expressed concern about residents’ pocketbooks during the pandemic.

If organizations are removed from the appropriations list completely, they will need to be notified with enough time to file a petition to be re-added. More likely, according to the board’s discussion, there will be slight cuts to their appropriations.

“What we’re talking about is trying to lessen the impact during a year when people have been struggling because of the pandemic,” Mora added, implying that cuts would be temporary. “The question is, what are the appropriations that we could let slide for a year?”

Budget discussions will continue until late January and board members agreed to review the budget and appropriations in the coming weeks.

Throughout the three-plus hour meeting, a number of other issues were also discussed:

  • The region seems to be responding well to regional and national increase in Covid-19 cases according to Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie, and social service organizations “seem to be chugging along OK” to provide food and other services. Housing for the homeless is a growing problem regionally and statewide, though not so much locally, Beattie said, adding that some Vermonters who have lost their homes since the pandemic started.
  • Vaccinations have begun, including for local first responders, Beattie said. He advised that residents with  questions about the vaccine or how to get it contact their medical provider.
  • The board agreed to enter mediation for a zoning appeal filed by Vermont Woodchips beginning on Jan. 11, and the town will be responsible for one-quarter of the $320 hourly rate.
  • Following an executive session at the end of the meeting, the board also agreed to pursue mediation in the case of Contos vs. the town of Londonderry
  • New zoning administrator and floodplain administrator Will Goodwin began work last week
  • A planned town generator connection has been delayed due to the accumulation of water in the panel itself, according to O’Keefe. The panel is being repaired at a cost of $300.
  • Londonderry received a planning grant totaling $22,000, to be used for a Main Street study and master plan for the North Village.
  • Residents can now access public Wi-Fi at the Town Office parking lot thanks to a booster installed by the Windham Regional Commission.
  • Longtime Energy Committee member Bob Borella has stepped down, and the town will begin advertising for a replacement.


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About the Author: Journalist and photographer Cherise Madigan specializes in writing about outdoor recreation, the environment and travel. She has roots in Manchester and a history of reporting throughout Southern Vermont. Madigan is a graduate of Nazareth College of Rochester, earning her degree in Political Science summa cum laude in 2015.

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