Chester board approves $3.3 million budget

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The Chester Select Board approved the town’s $3.343 million budget at its Wednesday,  Jan. 20 meeting and decided to use the general fund surplus of $335,295 to pay upfront for the match for the grant to do the Depot Street sidewalk project rather than borrowing the $200,000 required for the $1million grant.

The budget will be among the 21 articles on this year’s Australian ballot since there will be no in-person meeting and no voting from the floor this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Chester’s outside auditor Ron Smith has long told the board it should have at least two months of operating cash in case of emergencies.

The money is also set to go to the town’s reserve fund ($20,000) and toward growing the fund balance in the town’s general fund by $72,000. The town’s outside auditor, Ron Smith, has long urged the board to have a fund balance to cover at least two months of the town’s operations in the event of an emergency.

The surplus arose out of a combination of extra revenue from Covid relief funding and the austerity position that town department heads observed from March 2020 through the end of the year. Town Manager Julie Hance told the board that town departments put off scheduled spending and spent only what was absolutely necessary.

Select Board chair Arne Jonynas also noted that a large savings came from reorganizing the town staff when Hance took over from David Pisha, who retired, and did not replace her previous position as assistant. Jonynas praised the town office staff for stretching to make that possible and said, “Department heads worked at keeping their costs under control this year and the budget for next year reflects that.”

Hance said that the Water Department has met the financial threshold required by the negative interest bond used to upgrade the water system and that no further rate increases are anticipated. Board member Jeff Holden, who is also the superintendent of the water and sewer departments, said the town does need a backup well, as suggested by the state.

“As far as water goes, we’re trying to figure out with the state whether we can use (the well) on Canal Street or drill a second well,” said Holden.

“That’s the next project, I’m not anticipating a rate increase for that,” said Hance, noting that in a few years the wastewater treatment facility will need an upgrade.

Greenhouse group seeks statement of support

Members of the Chester Community Greenhouse and Gardens board brought the Select Board up-to-date on progress they have made toward their goal of erecting a 1930s Lord and Burnham greenhouse for community use. Greenhouse board member Cheryl Joy Lipton noted that the project has drawn a number of endorsements and has about $3,700 in the bank.

Arne Jonynas, left, and Robert Nied unload greenhouse parts in July.

Lipton said that the organization’s website is up and running and next steps include  a logo contest and an engineering study to see if the galvanized steel frame will support energy efficient glass glazing that will allow for four-season use. The project has run into a coronavirus snag since the technical drawings for the structure are in the library of the New York Botanical Gardens Library, which is currently closed to the public.

The organization asked the Select Board for a resolution of support and to agree to consider the use of town property for siting the project if a suitable piece of town-owned land can be found. Greenhouse board member Robert Nied said the group had created a matrix to help identify a site. He noted that the ideal place would be within walking distance of The Green and large enough to accommodate the 100- by 35-foot structure plus garden plots and a shed. The site would also require access to water. Nied estimated that could take 2 to 3  acres.

Photo of the greenhouse in it’s original site in Walpole. From the Walpole Clarion courtesy Dale Woodward.

“Speaking for myself,” Jonynas “I overwhelmingly support this project and hopefully it comes to fruition. Seems like with the leadership you have you’re heading in the right direction.”

But Jonynas also explained that the final decision will need a majority of the board and possibly even citizen input on choices being made on property. “It’s not unheard of that we lease out and share properties,” said Jonynas pointing to the Chester Historical Society lease of the Academy building.

Asked about a timeline, Nied said he was optimistic that once the site is identified, it would be 18 to 24 months before the project would be up and running.

Board member Lee Gustafson asked if the group has a plan if things don’t work out and they need to go out of business. Nied said that the group won’t start construction until it has the funding to complete it plus operational funding going forward. He also said the group would have a plan for a fund to “decommission” it and take it down if necessary.

Jonynas said the board would have a letter of support drafted to review at the next meeting.

Board approves applying for tanker grant

Every year, FEMA offers an Assistance to Firefighters grant and a few years ago Chester attempted to get funding to replace its 1985 Mack tanker that has a number of issues that make it difficult to use. That grant was unsuccessful but grant administrators have told the town that the application was good and in cycle tankers for rural fire departments are a priority in this cycle.

Assistant Fire Chief and Yosemite Engine Company President Ben Whalen <small>Telegraph file photo

Ben Whalen, a former Select Board member and president of the Yosemite Fire Company, which raises funds for  Chester’s Fire Department, told the board that if the town wanted to re-apply, Yosemite would provide the 5 percent match of up to $25,000.

Whalen described some of the problems with the old tanker including a 9-speed split manual transmission that most firefighters can’t drive, “touchy” brakes and a 4,000-gallon tank that a welder told the department could fall off the truck. There are a number of repairs and upgrades — like adding seat belts — that would cost more than the truck is worth, but it is being kept in the fleet because it increases the town’s Insurance Services Office rating to have a 4,000-gallon water truck. And the good ISO results in better home insurance rates.

Whalen also suggested that if the tanker grant is approved, it might be a good strategy to trade in Engine 1, replacing it with a “pumper tanker” that would fill two roles and reduce the size of the Fire Department fleet. He noted that this kind of “overbuilding” of equipment is allowed by the grant but would require some money from the town The board approved applying for the FEMA grant.

Fall Festival future, Jeffrey Barn, Public Safety Building

Hance said she had attended an initial Zoom meeting of the group that is looking to put on the Fall Festival this year and noted that there were great ideas and energy and that it would be different from those in the past including use of other town properties and “more Vermont” than in the past including agricultural demonstrations.

Jonynas said it was “really positive for the town.”

The Jeffrey Barn on Rt. 103 north

Hance told the board that she had met with Steve Mancuso who is rallying contractors in town to do the work and that Jeff Holden has been taking them in to look at the building. Holden noted that the sills are still in good shape and the building  does not appear to have moved so he didn’t think the work needs to be a rush.

Town attorney Jim Carroll has been researching police policies and oversight. Hance said that she had had good discussions about an “advisory committee” to work with the Police Department and would make a presentation during the second board meeting in February. She noted that such a civilian board would not have oversight with discipline. In recent meetings, Chester resident Leslie Thorsen has campaigned for a board with actual oversight, but that appears to be off the table.

Hance told the board that the slab for the new Public Safety Building on Pleasant Street will be poured soon and that, with no change orders to date, the work is on budget. She noted that the building is scheduled to be finished in the first week of June and that the plan for rehabbing the Town Garage is being finalized and is expected to be done in early November.

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