Town meeting 2020: budget passes with some gymnastics, trails get funded, and more

For almost four hours, with the Selectboard on stage in the Charlotte Central School multi-purpose room and moderator Charles Russell at the helm, a year’s worth of goals and governance were discussed, addressed, and voted upon. With 8 articles in the town’s annual report, which served as a guide for the meeting, ayes and nays were handed out by voters, and the town budget vote ended up pushing one of the other articles right off the table.

Rep. Mike Yantachka opened the meeting by thanking Charlotte voters for allowing him to serve the town for the past decade. He pointed to the family paid leave bill and minimum wage bill, both of which were vetoed by the governor; he was greeted by applause when he said the legislature was able to override the minimum wage veto, which will be effective in January. He also discussed several climate change bills that are in the works in Montpelier.

Following is a summary of each article, what the discussion entailed, and the voters’ decision. Per the Town Charter, which sunsets this year, all articles that were approved during town meeting require a town-wide Australian ballot vote in April in order for final approval.

Article 1: Town Officer Reports

Who and what: Tree Warden Mark Dillenbeck, who the Selectboard recently approved to serve another term, presented a report on the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that will eventually wipe out the ash tree population. “The only way to keep your ash trees is to chemically treat them,” he said. This costs between $200 and $300 per tree and has to be done every two or three years. “We want our children and our grandchildren to know what ash trees look like,” he said, so he and the other town tree stewards chose three ash trees at the park, three at the beach, and one behind the senior center. He said they will support the state’s Slow the Spread program and remove trees steadily and with purpose throughout town before they cause danger, while trying to keep the cost of ash tree removal steady over a longer period of time.

Who and what: Jonathan Silverman, Chair of Board of Trustees, Charlotte Public Library, thanked the town for their contributions to the library expansion project and said the library board would appreciate any further donations, as they are very close to reaching their goal. He also thanked Selectboard member Fritz Tegatz for his diligence, care and “very dry humor” while working with the library on this project. The library is now open after construction, and a formal grand opening is scheduled for May 3.

Decision: The ayes had it for town officers’ input; no issue was voted upon.

Article 2:  Will the voters approve property taxes due on November 16, and will the town treasurer be the receiver of taxes?

Discussion: Stephen Kiernan said from that floor that he thinks the town report should list not only Parcel ID numbers for delinquent taxpayers, but that the list should include names of those who are delinquent, as it was until the recent past. He said, “What if a Selectboard member was on that list? I would want to know.” Town Treasurer Mary Mead said the information is public, so those who are interested can access that information, and that she “made a judgment call” when she decided not to include names in the town report.

Decision: Article passes.

Article 3: Will the voters approve the town budget?

Discussion: Budget discussion started off with some good news and a report from Selectboard Chair Matt Krasnow, who said the board attempted to reduce the budget as much as possible. One of those attempts was creating a separate voting article on the agenda for the more than $17,000 in annual nonprofit donations made with tax dollars, so that voters could choose whether or not to spend that money in that fashion. Over the course of the discussion, things took a turn—one that Town Clerk Mary Mead called “silly.”

Krasnow said in one effort to lower the total, the Selectboard asked committees with higher budget requests than last year to come back with lower figures.

Another measure, Krasnow said, was to “pull out from the Selectboard budget items to be discussed as separate articles. Donations used to be out of the budget, then they were rolled in, and now are a separate article.”

The third attempt to provide voters the opportunity to choose how to spend tax money was to separate a $57,00 request from the Trails Committee for their reserve fund, Krasnow said, “due to an increase in interest and a large necessary expenditure, the Selectboard thought it was important to have it as a separate article.”

Before the long discussion about the nonprofit items, Krasnow pointed out some good news: revenue was up 11 percent, Thompson’s Point rent increased by 3.4 percent, and even better, there was a remarkable increase in interest income from the town general fund. “Mary’s work with Peter Trono and Tom Cosinuke meant having general fund money earn interest throughout the year,” Krasnow said—the original budgeted amount was $350, and year-to-date, that amount was already $15,274, “a little over a 4100 percent increase,” Krasnow said.

On the expenditures side, Krasnow said, “the most significant change to the budget was [Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue’s] 12.7% increase, largely due to changing their employment structure.” Medics went from a per diem to part time or full time pay structure, which Krasnow said was “presented as a necessary way of keeping employees in service.”

Then the nonprofit kerfuffle started. In the past, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, Krasnow estimated, there was a committee reporting to the Selectboard that considered, vetted, and chose which nonprofits the town would support financially. These organizations are traditionally ones that directly support or impact the town. (The Charlotte News is regularly one of those nonprofits, and was on this year’s list for a $500 donation.) The tax impact was predicted to be .019 percent of each property value dollar, or $9.50 per $500,000 household.

From the floor, Dean Leary made a motion to zero out $5k from the general budget that was earmarked for the Charlotte Land Trust, with the end goal of including those funds with the other nonprofit donations, since the land trust is not a Charlotte entity.

Kate Lampton, who is on the board of the CLT, said “the money is use it or lose it money. Over the course of years we don’t always spend it.” She said it is used for expenses associated with contracts, helping landowners with cost of appraisal, assessments to see if a project is worthwile, administrative fees, special events, and “a hodgepodge of things,” noting that in all cases, they try to “use it for what’s most relevant to the town.”

Mary Mead said, “It is an expense the town considers part of our whole budget; it has nothing to do with Article 5.”

Decision: With a vote on Leary’s amendment, the nays had it and the amendment failed.

Walter Gates then proposed adding $10k to the town budget to support ash tree removal, doubling the allocated amount. “If we don’t  budget enough early on, we’ll pay more later,” he said.  Tree warden Dillenbeck said he supported the increase, saying he has talked to many experts in the field in New England, “and they  wish  they had started earlier with preemptive removal.”

Decision: The ayes had it and the motion carried.

Then things took an unexpected turn.

Marty Ilick motioned from the floor to add back into the general budget the entire amount from the nonprofit donations budget: $17,992.

Resulting discussion and debate pointed out that it would render Article 5 effectively useless; passing Article 5 later in the meeting would essentially mean doubling the town’s donations.

After a voice vote, which was too close to call, and then a standing vote which was too close to call, and a division of the house, the Board of Civil Authority had their moment in the sun and counted voters standing in support of their decision.

Ilick’s motion passed 70 to 59.

Decision: When all was said and done, the final decision was simply whether or not to approve the town budget: it passed as amended to $3,451,157.

Article 4: Will the voters approve $57,000, raised through property taxes, for the Trails Reserve Fund?

Trails committee members Ajat Tariyal and Ethan McLaughlin made a presentation explaining the need for the increase, which would cost taxpayers approximately $6.10 per $100,000 of assessed property value. Tariyal said it is currently a “really nice trail, but…if we connect the dots more, we’ll get more use.” The money will be used to eventually connect the trails to centers in the east and west villages.

Decision: The motion carried.

Article 5: Will the voters approve raising the sum of $17,922 by property tax for nonprofit organizations as requested by those donations?

Krasnow started the discussion by saying he wanted to create “a friendly amendment.” The item, regardless of whether or not it has any actual financial impact, is required to be on the April Australian ballot per the Town Charter’s rules. That item on the ballot legally needed to be put in the affirmative; a motion was made to reduce the article’s amount by $17,922.

There was a motion to amend to set the item to $0; the ayes had it.

From the floor, Peter Joslin expressed concern that the item on the ballot would be confusing to voters with a $0 amount; Mead expressed similar concerns, wondering if voters would take it to mean that no money was going to nonprofits.

Krasnow said, “This will be the last complicated mechanism of the Town Charter, as it will be sunsetting in July.” He said the Selectboard will take care to create some kind of public relations efforts to educate voters on the change in the amount.

Decision: The ayes had it, and Article 5 was passed with an amended amount of $0.

Article 6: Will the voters authorize the Selectboard to borrow not in excess of their budget for the issuance of bonds?

Decision: The article was approved with no discussion.

Article 7: Will the voters of the town authorize the elimination of the office of lister and replace that position with a professional assessor?

Discussion: Current chair of the Board of Listers Betsy Tegatz outlined the state’s program to provide professional assessors to towns at the same cost, with the same duties, and with the same town control over the position. She said she and another member of the board of listers are not running for re-election, a third position on the board is vacant, and that it is increasingly difficult to staff a full committee. “Little, if anything, will change,” she said.

Decision: Approved by paper ballot, the results were 70 yes and 9 no. The motion passed.

Article 8: Other business

Patrice Machavern made from the floor an advisory motion for the Selectboard to “create a committee to review, perform due diligence, and vet donation requests and report to the Selectboard as part of normal annual budget process.”

Decision: The ayes easily had it and the motion passed.

Jeffrey Horbar said he would like a report from Fire and Rescue regarding possible additional training and materials regarding coronavirus, or if they have additional recommendations about resources they might need. Machavern, who is the CVFRS business operations manager, said she would pass that request on to the firehouse.

Susan Ohanian proposed an advisory motion for the Selectboard to send a letter to climate activist Greta Thunberg, saying, in part, “We are a small town in the USA, and thank you for your courageous efforts to make a difference…we want you to know that we see the importance of your work, and we hope that our youth will follow your call.” The letter also said, “We apologize for the greedy priorities of our federal government that ignores the truth of your words that our house is on fire.”

Decision: After a brief discussion and a voice and standing vote, the motion was approved.

Bob Mesaros brought up Coronavirus again. “What’s the plan?” he asked. Rep. Yantachka said he knows that the state health department is looking closely at the issue and putting plans in place, and that he would investigate the particulars further and write an article about it for the newspaper. Selectboard member Tegatz said it was more a district-wide not local issue but more of a district-wide protocol issue.

Jane Kaplan, on the heels of that discussion, requested disinfectant wipes at future town meetings for the shared microphone in the audience.

Lane Morrison stood to recognize “the hard work of Fritz Tegatz—the retiring Selectboard member who is retiring in about 15 minutes. He really has done a fabulous job. He is so understated of all the things he does: he’s been climbing the roof of the town hall to see if we need a new roof, he’s done the library work, he’s everywhere. Thank you for all your work.” Morrison’s thanks was met with applause.

Catherine Bock made an advisory motion that the town of Charlotte petition the state legislature to add an amendment to the Vermont constitution acknowledging the “inherent and inalienable rights of nature…ecosystems have same rights as corporations.”

Decision: The motion passed.

Peter Nobes said he misses Fire and Rescue budget reports at town meeting, and made an advisory motion to include that report in future town meetings when majority of attendees are still there.

Decision: The motion passed.

And with a motion to adjourn, Russell said, “All right, we’re all done, thank you.”