New charter put to the test

Charlotte citizens put their new charter to the test this week with their first town budget vote by Australian ballot. The April 11 vote decided the fate of two articles: the town budget, and Article 6, a $40,000 expenditure for the Town Link Trail. While both articles passed by a comfortable margin — the $3,046,847 budget with a vote of 379 to 93 and Article 6 by a smaller margin of 285 to 190 — the tally for Article 6 reflects the discontent of some citizens over the ongoing trail project.

Though both the budget and Article 6 were voted off the floor at Town Hall Meeting without any amendments, robust debate trailed Article 6 up until Tuesday’s vote. The article allocates $40,000 to the Town Link Trail project, an effort by the town’s Trail Committee to create a 7-mile path that will connect Charlotte town beach and Mt. Philo. “We’re over-the-moon excited that we received the funding,” says Laurie Thompson, Co-Chair of the Trail Committee. According to Laurie Thompson, Co-Chair of the Trails Committee, the money allocated in Article 6 will expedite the trail’s construction, and represents only a $20–$25 cost per household, depending on property value.

Yet, not all of Charlotte’s citizens see the project in such positive light and the expenses as so negligible. They have turned to Front Porch Forum and showed up at public meetings to voice their concern that it’s unfair for taxpayers, the majority of whom they say will not use the path, to shoulder expenses in addition to the $5,000 already allotted for the Committee in the town budget. Instead, the town should have pursued alternate ways to raise the money.

Charlotte resident Patricia Frost has been vocal on Front Porch Forum in her opposition to the trails project. When reached for comment she voiced a concern about not just the trails project but what she sees as deeper problems. “They are taxing us old timers out of here. … The money allotted for running such a small town here is out of control.”

Town officials are not blind to these concerns, and. “You have people on fixed income, lower income, and as the taxes go up, it’s a challenge to certain people, so some folks don’t want their taxes to go up,” says Selectboard Chair Lane Morrison. He explains that Article 6 specifically may not represent an increased tax burden over last year on account of a $50,000–conservation fund that wasn’t included in this year’s budget.

Thompson too acknowledges these concerns. “With any new project, there are always people who are interested in it and there are people who don’t see it as a priority,” she explains. “I don’t see it so much as opposition to the trail as not wanting to pay any more in taxes.” She says that the Trails Committee has worked to address concerns and minimize the burden to the taxpayers through fundraising and grants. The hope, Thompson says, is to use the Article 6 allocation as seed money in acquiring additional grants from the state.

If nothing else, this robust debate might indicate that democracy is alive and while in Charlotte, and may put to rest concerns that the new town charter had the potential to impoverish the town meeting experience. According to Selectboard Chair Lane Morrison, the day was a clear success for the charter, as over 475 voters cast their vote to decide the fate of the two articles. While that number is still well below the threshold of the more than three thousand registered Charlotte voters, Morrison says it’s more than double the average town hall meeting turnout. “You can still have town meeting and by having this Australian ballot vote at this time, it got more people involved.”

Morrison says that if voter turnout continues to improve over the next several years, he anticipates the charter will be amended to keep the measure active, and the Australian vote alive and well.