This March, most town meeting ballots will forgo big-money requests

A sign in Brattleboro advertises the coming March 2 local election. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Last March town meeting season, Vermont’s 28 municipalities with 5,000 or more people voted on special one-time-only spending requests — everything from new schools to infrastructure improvements to public swimming pools — totaling an eye-popping $250 million.

This pandemic year, the same communities — now proposing less than one-tenth that amount for anything above and beyond their regular budgets — are focusing on issues without hefty price tags.

Eight of the state’s most populous hubs — Bennington, Brattleboro, Burlington, Lyndon, Middlebury, Montpelier, Waterbury and Winooski — will vote March 2 on whether to allow the local sale of recreational marijuana starting in 2022.

Vermont last fall became the 11th state to legalize such business, although the law requires communities to “opt-in” before retailers can seek the permits they need to operate.

“Opening up a cannabis retail store will require people to make a substantial investment in terms of time, effort and money, and people will be hesitant to make that kind of investment in any town if they don’t have a level of certainty they’ll actually be allowed to open,” Middlebury lawyer Dave Silberman recently told the website Heady Vermont.

The question also will appear on ballots in the smaller communities of Barton, Berlin, Brandon, Brownington, Danby, Danville, Duxbury, Lyndon, Newport City, Pawlet, Pownal, Randolph, Richmond, Salisbury and Waitsfield, according to a VTDigger survey)

In other matters, Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, will consider whether to amend its charter to protect residential tenants from evictions without “just cause,” adopt ranked choice voting to elect its councilors, and regulate thermal energy systems in housing and commercial buildings.

The nearby town of Essex and its village of Essex Junction will decide whether to merge into one municipality with a shared governance structure that supporters say would cut costs. Some 70% of village voters approved the plan last November, leading to the larger town ballot.

Winooski will consider an advisory article on whether to urge the state to halt Vermont Air National Guard F-35 training flights that have sparked high noise levels since their start in 2019.

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Barre City, which has faced contentious debate over calls to raise Black Lives Matter and pro-police “thin blue line” flags, will vote on whether to limit the choices on public property to banners of the municipality, state, country and National League of POW/MIA Families.

In southern Vermont, Bennington will reconsider a proposal rejected in 2018 and 2019 to replace its current town manager system with a mayor, as well as weigh a new “Penny for Parks” reserve fund that would add a cent to the property tax rate to generate $100,000 annually for recreational improvements.

Brattleboro, for its part, will decide whether to join a growing number of communities asking the Legislature to let them adopt local charter provisions authorized by the state for other municipalities.

Several cities and towns are proposing special one-time-only spending requests, although not as costly as in the recent past.

South Burlington, which last year rejected a $210 million plan to build a new middle and high school and athletic center, is seeking $4 million for a series of highway improvements and another $2.5 million for replacement of a school roof and related building work.

St. Albans City, which last year unsuccessfully proposed a community pool with neighboring St. Albans Town, will consider tackling the $5 million project alone. It also will vote on a $1.5 million streetscape improvement plan and $2.3 million potable water storage tank — all to be paid through other sources including its local options tax.

St. Albans Town, for its part, will vote on whether to build a new $4.5 million town hall, while Shelburne will decide whether to spend $1.12 million to buy land for a potential fire and rescue station.

March ballots in 27 of the state’s 28 largest municipalities (St. Johnsbury won’t vote until April 6) also will elect local leaders such as mayor, with incumbents Miro Weinberger in Burlington and David Allaire in Rutland City facing challengers.

And several communities will consider whether to continue with merged school districts that were formed under the state’s Act 46 education governance consolidation effort.

Brattleboro and fellow Windham Southeast School District towns of Dummerston, Guilford and Putney, for example, will decide whether to disband the union they formed just two years ago. The question is spurred less because of particular problems and more to give residents the chance to weigh in on whether they want continuation or change.

“This is like a review on us,” Windham Southeast board member Kelly Young said at a recent meeting.

Middlebury and fellow Addison Central School District towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge will vote on whether to allow neighboring Ripton to withdraw from their ranks. That idea has received good words from an unlikely source: The district itself.
“A potential Ripton withdrawal,” its impact assessment says, “could result in a small savings in education spending per equalized pupil for the remaining towns.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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