Thetford Debates, Passes Ban on Assault Weapons
Marty Jacobs looks up from her knitting during school meeting at Thetford Academy yesterday. Jacobs’ husband Eric Pyle is at right. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Norman Snow, of Thetford, raises his voting card in favor of allowing the Selectboard to pay off outstanding debts ahead of schedule during Town Meeting in the Thetford Academy gym yesterday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Voters will choose town and school officers and decide on the school district budget by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 5, at Thetford Town Hall. Polls will be open between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m.
Thetford — A town tax increase merited little discussion relative to articles asking for money for the Public Works Department. Meanwhile, an article asking for a ban on assault weapons and a request for the state Constitution to afford nature certain inalienable rights, were nearly knocked off the table for discussion altogether.
Some 230 people, roughly 11 percent of registered voters, showed up to vote for both the school and town meetings yesterday at Thetford Academy, although not that many stayed to the end.
Voters unanimously approved a budget of $1,045,618 for general fund expenditures, after Selectboard Chairman Donn Downey corrected a typo on the warning that had incorrectly stated the amount. Because all of the town’s warning articles passed, Thetford residents will see a nearly 7 percent rise in the property tax rate — an increase of 3.6 cents to a little more than 55 cents per $100 of assessed value. That means the owner of a home valued at $250,000 would pay $1,375 in municipal property taxes, $75 more than the current year.
The school portion of the tax rate, remains the same at $1.71 per $100 of assessed value.
The town’s budget went up about $66,000 for four main reasons, Downey said.
First, the town wants to hire a new part-time administrative assistant at the police department. Thetford Police Chief James Lanctot said he eliminated that same position when he came to the department a few years ago. But he was asking to reinstate it because there is talk of the Vermont State Police barracks moving. Since he said the town relies heavily now on the state police, he feels they will need to add a person who can help officers with the office work as their fieldwork increases.
Second, the Recreation Department needs about $20,000 since it has been increasing its program offerings, although that should be offset by program fees, Downey said. Third, $20,000 more is accounted for by 2 percent cost-of-living increases for town employees.
Last, surplus and grant money last year obscured spending increases in the budget, Downey said. Without those grants and a surplus, there is — on paper at least — a 13 percent increase in spending.
Some of those increases can be seen in the newly named Public Works Department, formerly the highway department. The change formalized the oversight of maintaining town facilities and assets under one department. As part of this change, the Selectboard is recommending a 10-year schedule for repaving all of the unpaved roads in town. To get that program started, voters agreed to contribute $100,000 to a permanent paving fund, with the idea the same amount will be added each subsequent year. This money along with matching funds the town hopes to get through grants, should pay to repave these roads or go a long way toward it, Downey said.
Not everyone was on board with the changes.
“There was never any discussion about a new department. It was just a done deal,”said voter Suzanne Lupien. “I’m skeptical whether that method is good for the town.” She said she was worried that the changes would cause the department to balloon into something very costly for the town.
But in the only paper ballot of the day, 110 people voted to pass the public works budget while 42 voted against it.
Voters also spent a considerable time questioning whether the town should purchase an excavator for $95,000 and a used 2008 John Deere backhoe. Downey said the excavator would allow public works employees to clear ditches much faster and with far less impact to traffic than they could with the existing backhoe.
The measure passed in a counted vote 59 to 41.
A warning article asking the town to urge federal and state legislatures to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, require criminal background checks for every gun sold in America and make gun trafficking a federal crime almost didn’t make it up for discussion.
Voter Bill Huff made a motion to postpone discussion indefinitely, and did the same again a short time later with a warning article that asked the town to vote to petition the passage of a constitutional amendment that would have allowed nature the right to be clean and free from man-made substances that may damage ecosystems, among other things.
Huff argued that these issues were not directly related to the functioning of the town and so shouldn’t be discussed. Not to mention, he said, there were only a handful of people left to vote and so even a vote in the affirmative on either issue wouldn’t be a true representation of how the rest of town feels.
“I think this trivializes the Town Meeting process,” he said.
He was overruled both times by a majority of voters who wanted to discuss these issues.
Melissa Weinstein, one of the people who got the gun issue article on the warning, said the whole point was to show lawmakers in Montpelier and Washington that there needs to be a conversation about gun violence. While Didi Pershouse, who helped get the nature item on the warning, said her measure was similarly important in order to send a message that the people of Thetford value nature.
Residents who spoke against both articles said the language was too vague. For guns, the article left too many questions about what constitutes an assault weapon or high-capacity ammunition. When it came to the nature measure, the original wording allowed people to sue corporations on behalf of nature when they does something to harm nature. But voters questioned whether that meant that a fisherman, for example, could also get sued.
In the end, the gun ban measure passed, but the nature measure failed.
The school budget of about $7.9 million will be voted on by Australian ballot on Tuesday. The budget represents a 4 percent increase from the current year’s spending plan. Despite the raise, the tax rate will remain at $1.71 per $100 of assessed value, due to a higher common level of appraisal from the state.
Also working to keep the tax rate steady were surpluses from this year’s budget, said School Board Vice Chairman Charlie Buttrey. He said that the 4 percent rise was mainly due to employees opting into health coverage who hadn’t had it in the past.
Voters will also have to weigh in on two warrant articles that would set aside a combined total of $90,000 in two separate reserve funds for unexpected cost increases. The total surplus, which stems from both the current and previous budget years, is $358,000.
Up for re-election is School Board member Lisa Swett. Jennifer Wallace is running unopposed to fill the seat vacated by Elise Tillinghast.
Mike Pomeroy is running for the two-year seat held by the departing Casey Huling. Stuart Rogers and Theresa Davidonis will be running for the three-year seat on the board.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Tuesday, March 5 edition of the Valley News:
Didi Pershouse helped get an article on Thetford's Town Meeting warning seeking a constitutional amendment to bestow legal rights to the Earth. Her name was misspelled in a story in the Sunday Valley News.