Cavendish board talks energy, reappraisals and police coverage

By Cara Philbin
©2023 Telegraph Publishing

After considerable discussion, the Cavendish Select Board, on Monday, Jan. 9, voted to direct the town’s Planning Commission to begin the process of adopting the enhanced energy chapter for the Town Plan. Commission chair Etienne Ting had told the board that if it wanted that outcome it should tell his panel in writing. The board asked Town Manager Brendan McNamara to do that.

Planning Commission chair Etienne Ting explains that if the town adopts the state’s energy plan it will be expected to implement it. Images courtesy of Okemo Valley TV

The discussions revolved around whether adopting the enhanced chapter required the town to adopt “by reference” the state’s 305-page energy plan and whether that obligated the town to follow that plan or if the state’s plan is simply “aspirational” and will not be enforced. Ting and members of the planning panel believe the former, whereas members of the Select Board, including Sandra Russo and George Timko, believe the latter.

Board member Mike Ripley said he felt the topic needed more consideration by the board. He noted that it would be good to go in the same direction as other towns and follow recommendations of the state.  

The question of whether adopting the enhanced energy chapter would give the town’s point of view “substantial deference” remained unsettled. “Substantial deference” is the added weight given to a municipality’s viewpoint in hearings before the state Public Service Commission if a developer were applying for a permit to install, for example, a large renewable energy project.

Although members of the Select Board and the Planning Commission questioned whether the town could achieve substantial deference through its energy chapter, the crux of the disagreement was whether the state would enforce its plan to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Select Board member Sandra Russo felt that adopting the chapter shows a good faith effort by the town

“If we adopt, then we need to follow the state’s implementation pathways. They expect you to find a way to do it,” said Ting.

“I don’t feel there’s that much of an issue to putting this forward,” said Russo. “Everyone needs to put their best foot forward to do the best they can … a good faith effort to say, I’m contributing, in our way, to overall move this ahead for Vermont.”

Ripley echoed the Planning Commission’s uncertainty: “I need to know, if we adopt this part of the plan, how can we be punished if we don’t achieve it?”

“I didn’t see anything in there that would enforce the town to” adopt it, said resident Kem Phillips. “If the state gets a little draconian, we can always re-adopt another plan.”

State Rep. John Arrison (D-Cavendish & Weathersfield) admitted he has “not followed the issue as closely as I probably should have.”

Ultimately, a motion for Town Manager McNamara to issue a written directive for the Planning Commission to adopt the energy chapter passed 4-1 with Ripley abstaining.

The process does not end there however. The Planning Commission and the Select Board will have to hold public hearings on the issue before the chapter can be incorporated into the Cavendish town plan.

Reappraisal blues

Arrison spoke to the board about the problem of the town’s Common Level of Appraisal being out of whack due to the past couple of year’s hot real estate market. The CLA compares the actual sales prices of real estate with their assessments and expresses that as a number.  The idea is to equalize assessments across the state to make the education property tax rates fair. If sales and assessments are the same, that number is 1.

State rep John Arrison lays out the problem that high real estate sales prices have created for town assessments

When properties sell for less than their assessments, the CLA number is higher than one. In Cavendish, homes are selling for much more than their assessment, and thus the CLA stands at .82. When the CLA gets down to .85, the state mandates a reappraisal; because houses throughout Vermont sold for more than their assessments, many towns must do reappraisals.

This is important to taxpayers because each town’s education tax rate is based on the CLA; a low number increases the base tax rate.

McNamara called the idea of a new reappraisal “a difficult pill for us to swallow because we just had one done, and it took us three years to do it.” Arrison said that many of the towns that required reappraisal last year are still trying to get licensed appraisers.

“There aren’t enough firms in the state that are certified to do it. If you signed up tomorrow for reappraisal, they’d probably tell you, maybe 2050 we could get to it,” said Arrison. The board did not discuss the option of a “statistical re-appraisal,” which is being considered by Andover and is estimated to cost roughly half that of a full appraisal. A statistical re-appraisal uses sampling to arrive at more accurate numbers.

In light of the structural issues he sees, Arrison plans to suggest that the Ways and Means Committee “work up some kind of formula to prioritize the ones that need to go.” He is also recommending that the state incorporate “an inflation factor into the CLA.”

“The state has got to look at it, from a practical standpoint,” he advised. “Sit tight, don’t get nervous.”

New sheriff in town offers expanded service

Windsor County Sheriff-elect Ryan Palmer told the board about his plans to change the way his department does business, from providing services like traffic control and issuing speeding tickets to acting as a police force for several county towns.

Currently, Cavendish pays the Sheriff’s Office about $35,000 per year for 12 hours a week of mainly traffic control. Palmer would like to increase that number “plus or minus a 100 percent,” to $70,000 to $90,000, for expanded services that would include civil disputes and criminal investigations.

Sheriff-elect Ryan Palmer explains the changes he intends to make in the way his department will work in the future

“I’m looking to change the Sheriff’s Department to more of a county-wide police department that provides better service to our rural communities, answering calls for service,” Palmer told board. “You’re kind of buying a police department for a year.”

Citing a number of calls that received either a delayed response or no response from the State Police, Palmer said, “Everyone knows there’s no response here.” He pointed to a significant decline in the quality of coverage that State Police are providing and said he wants to “pick up some slack,” especially evening hours.

Asked if he had the personnel to cover several towns, he said the Sheriff’s Department would be “sharing resources across the county,” although he hadn’t “quite determined what that’s going to look like.” He noted that the Sheriff’s Department has “six uncertified people, who are going to the March academy, and three or four other certified folks in the pipeline.”

“I’m not going to leave you hanging,” he promised, but made it clear that the Sheriff’s Department expects a larger contract, saying, “The idea that you’re just paying for a four-hour block here and there is not how we want to push forward.”

Should Cavendish opt to stick with its current contract, McNamara said the responsibility of managing expectations would largely fall on him. “A lot of those calls for those civil matters end up right here,” he said. “And it’s not the best feeling in the world to tell one of our taxpayers … essentially, I’m sorry, but that’s not my problem. I have no control over that. I’m not a police officer.”

ARPA panel confirmed

Finally, the Select Board voted to confirm members of Cavendish’s new American Rescue Plan Act committee, which will provide the board with recommendations on the best use of the $420,000 the town received in federal Covid relief funds. The committee is composed of George Timko, Wendy Regier, Jen Leak, Betty McEnaney, Julia Gignoux, Peter Labelle, and Stephen Plunkard, along with Brendan McNamara as a non-voting member.

When it was first launched, ARPA’s funds could only be used for specific projects, with special emphasis on water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. Those restrictions were loosened over time. Then, in early 2022, the U.S. Treasury issued a final rule that allows the towns to spend the money (up to a $10 million limit) on “government services.” The town would not, however, be able to use the funds for lowering taxes by adding it as income to the budget or paying on existing debt.

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