Norwich Balks At Tower Deal
Norwich — Voters sent a firm message to the Selectboard yesterday by voting overwhelmingly in favor of borrowing money to build a communication tower rather than have the town partner on the project with a private firm.
Selectman Steve Flanders, who in the past has supported the agreement with Springfield, Vt.-based VTel, said last night that the results likely means that the town would try to fund and manage the construction of the tower on its own.
“I will respect the fact that I’m pretty sure that the people voting thought that the town should have the tower itself instead of going through VTel and I will proceed with that expectation,” Flanders said.
Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley and Selectwoman Linda Cook both stood in front of the polls yesterday with signs that said they each supported the warning article for the communication tower.
The article asked residents if they supported a $275,000 bond that would pay for the construction of a communications tower for the fire, police and public works departments.
Town Manager Neil Fulton has estimated that it will cost more than $400,000 to build the tower, meaning the town will have to go back before voters later this year to ask for all the needed funds.
The tower has been a hotly contested issue since last summer, when VTel offered to pay for and build a nearly 200-foot tower on New Boston Road and allow the town to use it for radio communication.
The Selectboard voted 3-2 in August to sign a letter of intent with VTel, but many residents rallied against the deal. The article, if passed, was meant to signal the Selectboard that residents didn’t support the VTel arrangement and they are willing to pay for the tower themselves.
While standing outside the polls yesterday, Ashley said that if the bond passed the town would likely face two options: Move forward with a town-owned tower and back out of the deal with VTel, or look at the proposed VTel contract and see how it could be tweaked.
But either way, Ashley said he didn’t expect the controversy over the tower to subside any time soon.
“I actually suspect that if Norwich decides to build the tower, there will be other decision points in the future,” Ashley said.
Norwich residents who oppose the VTel deal may share sentiments with Norman Miller.
Miller stood outside the polls yesterday with two orange pieces of paper taped to his black leather jacket. The papers read, “Control our destiny. Vote YES on Article 34 to reject VTel control of the tower for 60 years.”
Miller was one of eight people who agreed to stand in front of Tracy Hall holding signs in support of Article 34. Miller made two cardboard signs and attached one to the pole of a fishing net.
“You have a huge company with many lawyers that could tie up a little town for 60 years,” Miller said.
Jon Voelkel voted for the bond — and against VTel — because he called the agreement with VTel a “fiasco.”
“The Selectboard and town manager have railroaded something that hasn’t been thought through and they’re using this bond vote as a referendum,” he said.
Voelkel is so frustrated with how the town has handled the building of the communication tower that he wrote in two people for Selectboard, including Watt Alexander, who has been a vocal opponent against the VTel agreement.
The approval of the bond doesn’t obligate the Selectboard to use it. Instead, the Selectboard retains the say-so over whether or not to follow what the article requests.
All articles on the Norwich ballot passed, including the $5.2 million school budget and a $450,000 school bond to fund renovations to the Marion Cross School.
The $4 million municipal budget also passed, 551-450. Cook, the Selectwoman, was one of two dissenting votes when the Selectboard approved the budget.
She stood in front of Tracy Hall yesterday with a sign that encouraged residents to vote down the budget. Cook has been vocal at Selectboard meetings about her opposition to the budgeted salary increases for department heads. The budget includes raises for the planning, finance and recreation directors of 14 percent, 19 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Cook said that she believes that the department heads deserve raises, but she argued that the increases could be phased in over multiple years.
The town budget is actually $10,000 less than the one voters approved last year, but Cook said that the town’s budget has been increasing too fast over previous fiscal years and it needs to slow down.
“There are people with fixed incomes that are finding the increase is bigger than what they can keep up with,” Cook said.
Georgina Forbes said she voted reluctantly in favor of the town budget because she thinks that Fulton’s nearly $98,000 salary is too high.
“I think it’s outrageous that he’s getting paid so much,” Forbes said.
Voters also approved an article that will increase the assistant town clerk’s hours from 20 to 40 per week.
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Thursday, March 7 edition of the Valley News:
Following a 689-341 vote at Norwich Town Meeting in support of a $275,000 bond for a communications tower, Selectman Stephen Flanders said in an interview, "I will respect the fact that I'm pretty sure that the people voting thought that the town should have the tower itself instead of going through VTel, and I will proceed with that expectation. A story in yesterday's Valley News rendered one word incorrectly.