This story by Tommy Gardner first appeared in the News & Citizen on June 8.
Smaller number, same outcome.
Morristown voters this week once again resoundingly defeated the town’s operating budget, despite the town money crunchers reducing the tax burden by a million dollars.
On a vote of 1,003-583, residents on Tuesday rejected a $9.4 million budget, sending a message to the selectboard that even a smaller set of figures wasn’t small enough.
Even though residents voted roughly two-to-one against the spending measure, it wasn’t nearly as lopsided as the 1,441-391 drubbing the original $10.1 million budget took on Town Meeting Day.
There was little time for reaction between Tuesday’s vote results being announced and press deadline, but selectboard chair Judy Bickford managed a late-night reaction that put a determined face on the task ahead of her and her fellow board representatives.
“Disappointed!” she wrote in an email late Tuesday night. “But the board will work toward finding a positive solution to bring back to the public.”
One other positive: at least the board tasked with coming up with a third iteration of 2024 fiscal year spending remains intact, even if it is populated mostly by brand new members.
Town Meeting Day saw two new board members elected and one long-time chair abruptly resign, only to have his seat filled by another newcomer. All told, the five-person body has roughly half a dozen years of Morristown selectboard experience, combined.
Morristown residents have for months railed against the budget increase, particularly the across-the-board salary increases. Those increases remained intact through the second iteration of the budget, with the town opting to trim from places like the paving budget and pulling nearly a quarter of a million dollars from its rainy-day fund in order to cushion the tax impact.
Town administrator Eric Dodge, who is resigning at the end of this month, has repeatedly insisted that the town is legally committed to its employees’ pay, whether through union contracts or selectboard policies.
“The selectboard is firmly understanding that they have contractual agreements with the town staff and collective bargaining units,” Dodge said last month. “They cannot violate that without inviting a labor action from the union that the union will win.”
It remains unclear what happens next. Dodge’s departure has thrown a monkey wrench into the works, as the board is tasked now with not only finding his replacement but now coming up with Budget 3.0.
With the new fiscal year beginning in just over three weeks, on July 1, the town will not have an operating budget in place. This remains uncharted waters, not only among the town administration, but at the state level.
When asked about the possibility of a second budget defeat last month, both the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Secretary of State’s office seemed unclear on what would happen.
Jenny Prosser, general counsel and director of municipal assistance with the secretary of state’s office, said state law spells out a town’s statutory spending obligations and authorizes voters to approve municipal appropriations, but does not address what happens if a town doesn’t have an approved budget from which to operate.
Prosser said state law also dictates how selectboards handle deficit spending, but she’s not sure that applies to a fiscal year simply beginning without a budget in place.
Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said, “The simple answer to your question of what happens if the town budget fails again in Morrisville is that state law states the town would set up another vote and continue doing so until a budget passed.”
One could hear a pin drop in the polling place Tuesday night after town clerk Sara Haskins read the results for the first time to the small group assembled. One unidentified person just said, “whoa.”
After the palpable silence set in for a minute, Haskins said, “Alright. Back to work.”