Candidates Share Views in Hartford

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, March 03, 2018

Hartford — A surgical technician, a law school student and two small business owners seeking elected office came together to offer differing views to voters during Town and School Meeting Day, held in the Hartford High School gym Saturday.

After the town conducted various items of business in advance of Australian ballot voting on Tuesday, Selectboard candidates Sandy Mariotti, Jameson C. Davis, Mike Morris and Kim Souza weighed in on how their backgrounds would influence their approach to solving the town’s ills, particularly a town infrastructure that seems to be breaking down more quickly than Hartford can afford to keep up with.

“The fiscal and financial struggle is real,” said Mariotti, a 51-year-old surgical technician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center who has lived in White River Junction for about 30 years.

Mariotti, an incumbent, said that her medical background comes into play as she weighs how different competing fiscal priorities before the town could affect residents’ safety.

“The biggest thing I think nursing brings to me is that every decision you make comes back to affecting the people who are involved,” she said. “In the community, it means that if I make a decision on a topic, it’s going to affect everyone else.”

Mariotti said she would generally not consider adding to the town’s amenities, because “I really feel like we have to focus on what we have and maintain that.”

She said the town could bolster its tax base by emulating communities that have crafted good marketing campaigns to bolster their image to visitors and new residents.

“Maybe we ought to start tooting our own horn a little bit,” she said.

Souza, 49, said her top priority would be to ensure that the town gets the maximum benefit from its tax increment finance district, which redirects its property tax dollars back to capital improvement projects within the zone in White River Junction.

Souza owns and operates Revolution, a clothing boutique, in White River Junction.

“There are funding opportunities to update the infrastructure, including the roads and water drainage systems,” she said. “We can’t keep building new stuff on top of broken stuff. I’d like us to take a deep breath and work on some of the foundation.”

Souza said the town should be more mindful of which of its amenities and attractions have the capacity to bring new families to the community, citing the Wendell A. Barwood Arena’s appeal to hockey families as an example.

Souza said she would also consider rethinking the town’s revenue structure, which is heavily dependent on property taxes.

Morris, a 62-year-old modular home business owner, has lived in the area since he was a child, and raised two children in the Hartford School District with his wife.

Morris, also an incumbent, reflected on the changes he’s seen in the community, and on how his experiences growing up in the town, and in the military, have helped to inform his perspective.

“Growing up, my father used to hear, ‘Buy American. Buy American.’ Now all we hear is, ‘Buy local. Buy local.’ And that’s a good thing,” he said.

Morris said he knows that affordability is an obstacle to people who want to move to the community.

“I’ve had friends move out of the state of Vermont for tax reasons,” Morris said.

Morris pledged to continue to bring a “common-sense approach” to his role as selectman, and praised the town’s effort to build its tax base with a 2017 move to eliminate municipal impact fees on new development. He said he expected the move would attract new businesses and residents in future years, and that he’d like to build on the effort.

“I think that’s a good start,” he said.

Davis, 31, a field consultant for Tesla and a Vermont Law School student who moved to Hartford recently, last year chaired a committee within an advisory panel formed by the Attorney General T.J. Donovan to address racial disparities in the juvenile and criminal justice system in Vermont.

“I will not bring my own personal agendas and issues, but will be an amplifier for your voice and issues,” said Davis.

Davis said he would draw on professional budget management skills, and that he planned to “squeeze every last drop” out of his law school experience so he could find ways to apply it to helping the Hartford community.

Davis, who has lived for some of his life in big cities, expressed great enthusiasm for Hartford’s natural resources, including clean air and access to nature that he called “priceless.”

“I can’t express how excited I was to move here. … The community has welcomed me with open arms in a way I cannot describe,” he said.

Davis said the town should try to reduce taxes on businesses, but consider adding taxes to things that undermine the quality of life, like cigarettes.

The four are vying for a pair of two-year Selectboard seats currently held by Mariotti and Morris.

Selectman Simon Dennis, who is running unopposed to retain his three-year seat, and Russ North, who is running unopposed to replace outgoing School Board member Lori Dickerson for a three-year seat, also participated in the discussion.

During the meeting, the Selectboard passed a resolution honoring Mary “Beth” Hill, who has served as town clerk since 1992 and is now retiring. Hill received a plaque and an enthusiastic standing ovation.

During the school district meeting, board members passed a resolution honoring a tearful Dickerson, whose seven-year stint on the board, including two years as chairwoman, are coming to a close.

Dickerson urged members of the public to seek office — or at least get involved in the year-round process rather than gripe about tax rates at Town Meeting time.

“You need to speak up at the time the decisions are made. … Step up at a meeting and offer your opinion,” she said.

School Board member Peter Merrill announced that a bench that’s being purchased as part of an upcoming high school parking lot renovation would be dedicated to Dickerson.

In two separate motions, voters unanimously approved continuing a $75 per-meeting pay rate for School Board and Selectboard members. School Board members are paid for any meeting they attend in their role as board member, and it amounts to roughly $15,000 in costs to the district.

Selectboard members are paid for meetings of the Selectboard and formal town committees, and their cumulative pay was estimated at roughly $47,000.

This is the first time the annual floor meeting has been held in advance of Town Meeting Day, which is scheduled for Tuesday. Participation was higher than last year — roughly 75 people (excluding board members) participated in the compensation votes, as compared to eight last year.

Ten different social service agencies, including Advance Transit and New Beginnings, also made brief presentations related to requests for appropriations that will come before Australian ballot voters on Tuesday, along with budgets for both the town and the school district.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.