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Bethel’s Spending Plans Pass Smoothly as Retiring Town Clerk Passes Reins

  • Gene Kraus asks a question regarding a two dollar discrepancy before voting on the budget during the Bethel town meeting at the Whitcomb High School gymnasium in Bethel, Vt., on March 6, 2018. Kraus said his wife had pointed out the fact that the budget was off by two dollars from one figure to the other. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • Slices of pie for Bethel residents are arranged on a table outside the gym during the Bethel town meeting at the Whitcomb High School gymnasium in Bethel, Vt., on March 6, 2018. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • Bethel resident Nancy Hughes asks a question about the maintenance of a town-owned building during the Bethel town meeting at the Whitcomb High School gymnasium in Bethel, Vt., on March 6, 2018. (Sarah Priestap photograph)

  • Eric Benson, Bethel town moderator, listens to the proceedings during the Bethel town meeting at the Whitcomb High School gymnasium in Bethel, Vt., on March 6, 2018. (Sarah Priestap photograph)


 By David Corriveau
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

 Bethel  — Voters at Town Meeting on Tuesday approved all but one of the Selectboard's spending proposals — and added $500 to that one exception.

After filling the Bethel school gym with applause for former Town Clerk Jean Burnham for her 48 years in office, the gathering of 169 residents re-elected Selectboard members Maurice Brigham and Lindley Brainard, then agreed to spend more than $1.9 million on municipal and human services, $185,000 more than voters agreed to a year ago.

And even though that increase includes almost $101,000 as the first annual payment toward retirement of debt that built up over a decade, this year's gathering barely blinked at adding $500 to the amount that the Selectboard recommended contributing to the Randolph-based Stagecoach Transportation Services.

In asking voters to contribute $4,000 — $500 more than the town's Human Services Advisory Board recommended — Tom Burgos, Bethel's representative to the Stagecoach board of directors, described the nonprofit as “a critical link to essential human services.” He said that Stagecoach provided 10,000 rides for Bethel residents in 2017 — hundreds each to senior day care, senior meals, medical appointments, addiction treatment centers and grocery stores and on other errands — and expects to provide 18,000 rides this year.

In all, voters approved more than $167,000 to a slate of social-service agencies, and almost $128,000 — an increase of more than $6,000 — for Bethel's annual contribution to the White River Ambulance service.

With the debt payment included in the final operating budget, town officials estimate that property owners will pay 10.5 percent more in taxes in 2018-2019 than in the current year. On a house valued at $200,000, the owner will pay almost $200 more under the new tax rate.

Residents expressed more frustration with the town's inability to collect unpaid property taxes and water and sewer fees, than with the use of a line of credit to cover cost overruns on infrastructure projects. The town report documents that delinquent taxpayers owed more than $320,000 as of Jan. 2, while users of sewer and water owed more than $150,000.

“We are subsidizing people … who can't pay or don't want to pay,” resident Yaroslav Stanchak said. “It has to be addressed in some manner.”

Town officials said that Bethel is monitoring spending, and working more closely with delinquents to pay more regularly, under new Finance Administrator Therese Kirby and Town Manager Greg Maggard.

“We've never had the capacity in our administration that we do right now,” Selectboard Chairman Carl Russell said. “We have a lot of faith in what we've created.”

In addition to the operating budget and the social-service expenditures, Town Meeting voters appropriated $10,000 for repairs and upgrades to the heating system and exterior of the town fire station, and $5,500 to replace fire hydrants.

And after nominating Pam Brown, her replacement at Town Hall, for election as town clerk, Jean Burnham sat back with the rest of the audience and watched as a civilian for the first time since her own election in 1970.

“It's kind of nice,” Burnham, who retired in January, said while gripping a pile of cards of congratulations in both hands. “I did go down to Town Hall to help Pam get ready — make sure there's enough paper and pencils if anything goes to a ballot vote, go over the voter checklist, things like that.”

When Burnham's predecessor showed her the ropes, she recalled, “I had no idea I'd be doing it for this long. I was 27. I was young. I'd just been appointed by the Selectboard. … Now I'm 75.

“It was time.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.