Sharon Still ‘Wallowing’ in Irene Repairs
Sharon — Facing no change in the amount of taxes that property owners as a group will pay in the coming year, voters at Town Meeting yesterday agreed to spend $1,165,567 on municipal-related operations.
While the town will spend $122,000 more overall than in fiscal year 2012-13 — most of the increase arising from the cost of fixing and maintaining roads — enough of a surplus remains from previous budgets to avoid increasing the burden on property taxpayers, Selectboard Chairman Brad Atwood told the gathering of a little more than 100 residents at Sharon Elementary School. The town will collect $923,752 from property owners in 2013-2014, $606,625 of it for highway expenses.
Although the spending on highway costs prompted several questions from voters, even more sought explanations of how and why the Selectboard restructured its system of financial management. Over the past year, the board created the position of finance manager and hired Deborah Jones to relieve the elected town treasurer of accounting duties that had grown more detailed and time-consuming. The treasurer now will receive a stipend for the part-time, state-mandated duties of collecting taxes and signing checks. Meanwhile, the finance manager, whom the Selectboard appoints, will work a mostly full-time job with benefits.
Current Treasurer Margaret Raymond, who ran unopposed for re-election to the reduced role, acknowledged that the financial management duties grew vastly more complicated in recent years, especially when the town worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on repairing damage following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Those and other obligations prompted the Selectboard to consult a certified public accountant, who recommended hiring a finance manager.
“I was overwhelmed this year,” Raymond told the gathering. “In the long run, I think this is best for the town.”
Resident Richard Wilson, among others, said that while the change was needed, he would have preferred that voters have the chance to say yes or no to the restructuring, which also includes the separate job of financial assistant.
“The Selectboard hired a person who’s not accountable to us” (except through voting for the Selectboard), Wilson said.
Atwood and Selectboard Vice Chairwoman Mary Gavin reminded voters that the board posted the position in newspapers, and discussed creation of the position at its regular public meetings.
The accounting challenges will continue while the town continues negotiating with FEMA and other agencies on reimbursements for post-Irene road repairs. Sharon officials still are seeking money for replacing bridges and buyouts of flooded properties.
“We’re still wallowing in this,” Atwood said. “It’s really getting old.”
Turning to the regular costs of maintaining roads, voters approved the highway department’s request for $606,625 in local funds, up from $496,880 in the current fiscal year. That includes increasing the reserve fund for replacement of heavy equipment from $65,000 to $100,000, and spending almost $15,000 more on materials for road repair and maintenance. Salaries and benefits for the road crew rose by $5,170.
The town also will pay the South Royalton Rescue squad $11,276 more in the coming year for ambulance service — accounting for almost all of the increase in the town’s total spending on law-enforcement and other emergency services.