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Woodstock Rejects Budget

  • Philip B. Swanson, Municipal Manager, speaks after receiving a lifetime service award from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns at Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Tom Debevoise recalls a story about Municipal Manager Philip B. Swanson, after the latter received a lifetime service award from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns at Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Moderator Matt Maxham presides over Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Moderator Matt Maxham presides over Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Town Planner Michael E. Brands watches Town Meeting from the town hall's light booth in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Town Planner Michael E. Brands watches Town Meeting from the town hall's light booth in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong

  • Town Meeting in Woodstock, Vermont on Saturday, March 3, 2018. Copyright 2018 Rob Strong



Valley News Correspondent
Sunday, March 04, 2018

Woodstock — Voters on Saturday soundly rejected a proposed $6 million town budget with a 10 percent tax increase following about two hours of discussion.

After the budget went down on a 91-48 vote, Town Manager Phil Swanson said the board would need to develop a new budget and bring it before a special town meeting, probably within the next two months.

The estimated tax rate increase of 4.2 cents per $100 of valuation turned out to be excessive for a majority of voters.

“I think 10 percent is way too much of an increase,” said Candace Coburn. “We have so many families in Woodstock living on the edge and this increase can break them.”

Of the proposed $588,000 increase in spending — representing an 11 percent hike over current spending — 40 percent, or $240,000, was earmarked for increasing capital reserves, including $100,000 toward a new fire truck to replace a 30-year-old truck.

Selectboard member Sonya Stover said putting more money in reserves for future purchases reflects a new strategy intended to save money on borrowing costs, including interest, by having more cash for major purchases.

“Part of the (tax) increase is driven by a change in strategy,” Stover said.

Nearly all of the proposed increase in capital reserves appropriations would have gone to highway, ambulance and fire department equipment.

Former Selectboard member Tom Debevoise strongly challenged the new budgeting approach and called for defeating the budget. He talked at length about why he believes relying exclusively on reserves for capital purchases is the wrong approach and said capital budgets were set up to borrow some money. He favored putting some money into capital reserves, but said it made “no sense” to set aside the entire $500,000 for a new fire truck.

Debevoise also said the strategy may appear to save the taxpayers money, but it really doesn’t because the town can borrow at lower interest rates than individuals or businesses can and because the town keeps the interest it earns on the reserves.

“People with loans lose because they have less to pay,” he said. “To make this shift for all items does not save taxpayers money unless they have no need to spend that money in the intervening years. I really feel they (Selectboard) have to go back over the budget line by line and figure out what we can do without. I hope the budget is turned down and they come back with a more reasonable rate of increase than proposed.”

But others, including resident Al Alessi, said the strategy of building reserves makes sense to him.

“We are saving over time and reducing the budget by not having debt payment into the future,” Alessi said, adding that the transition to get to that point is difficult. “I support the town saving toward these purchases.”

Stover said once they make the initial increase in reserves, they can fund them at that level going forward so it won’t require annual tax increases.

Before the budget discussion, Selectboard member Jill Davies said the main drivers of the budget increase, beside capital reserves, include higher salaries and benefits, roads and sidewalk repairs and money for an energy savings project, including new boilers and a roof for town hall.

The voters who remained after the budget and lunch break unanimously supported a non-binding resolution urging passage of three bills related to gun violence now in the Legislature. One would extend background checks, a second would allow police to confiscate weapons from a person cited for domestic assault, and a third would prohibit a person found by the courts to pose a “significant danger” from possessing a firearm for up to one year.

Resident Alan Willard, who strongly supported the resolution and in particular, House Bill 422, which would remove guns in a situation where there was a threat of domestic violence, said he has read too many stories over the years about women killed by guns in situations involving domestic violence.

“This is not a gun rights issue, it is about women we failed to protect over the years,” Willard said. “It is a chance to save a life.”

Others spoke in support of the resolution that will be submitted to Gov. Phil Scott and the leaders of the House and Senate.

Town Meeting continues Tuesday with voting by Australian ballot from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Town Hall to elect town officers and to decide on $221,000 in separate appropriations under 15 articles for social service agencies, the Thompson Senior Center, the library and Pentangle Arts.

At the start of the meeting, Town Manager Phil Swanson was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Vermont League of Cities and Town Executive Director Maura Carroll.

Swanson is the longest serving town manager in Vermont with 32 years and is on his way to becoming the longest serving town manager in the state’s history, Carroll said.

“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve and I am looking forward to a few more years … quite a few more,” said Swanson, who received a standing ovation.

Turnout for Saturday’s roughly five hour meeting was a little less than 5 percent of the town 2,833 registered voters.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.