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In Hartford, Big Projects On Warrant

Ambitious Plans to Upgrade Town Facilities to Be Decided

Voting for articles on Hartford’s town and school warnings will be held on Tuesday at the Hartford High School gym. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This will follow a presentation of bonds and a proposed charter change, as well as a candidate debate, at the same place on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. A floor meeting for other articles will take place at 10 a.m. at the gym on April 6.

Hartford — Infrastructure improvements will be at the forefront during Hartford’s Town Meeting, as two proposals aim to upgrade out-of-date facilities to the tune of nearly $14 million.

The “Hartford Improvement Bonds” will ask taxpayers to approve borrowing money to pay for renovations to town and school recreation facilities as well as for the town’s aging municipal building in White River Junction.

But of the articles on the municipal side of the warning, the bond to finance athletic facility renovations will probably weigh heaviest among voters, given its $9 million total.

The bond is a joint effort between the town and school district, and if passed, the money would be funneled into six projects, the largest of which is a $3.1 million build-out of the so-called Maxfield property along Route 5, which would add sports facilities such as basketball and tennis courts, as well as baseball and softball diamonds.

Other projects include $2.5 million to go toward renovations at the Wendell A. Barwood Arena, $1.6 million for a new fieldhouse to be located adjacent to the high school and $800,000 toward the construction of a track — which Hartford High School has never had — around its football field.

“Some of these facilities are in dire need of attention and in dire need of renovation,” Selectboard Chairman Ken Parker said at a bond presentation earlier this month.

The project would also move the high school’s baseball diamond to the Maxfield property in order to make room for the other improvements on the campus.

If the recreation bond passes, it would add 4.5 cents per $100 of assessed value to residents’ tax bills, reflecting the shared burden between the town and school. On a $200,000 property, that would mean an additional $90 in annual taxes.

Lori Dickerson, the School Board’s clerk, said yesterday that upgrading the buildings and fields would benefit Hartford because it would help attract both tuition-paying students and new families to the community.

“We really want this bond to go through,” she said, “because we really think that this is going to help our school situation.”

Enrollment in the Hartford School District, like many in Vermont, has been on the decline. As of Jan. 2, there are 586 students who attend Hartford High School either full or parttime (meaning students who divide classes between the high school and the Hartford Area Career & Technology Center). Last year, there were 600. In 2010, there were 656.

The proposed school general fund expenditures total $24.7 million, up 5.2 percent from the current fiscal year.

A surprise increase in the common level of appraisal — the state formula intended to ensure that each town contributes its fair share of school taxes to the Vermont Education Fund — helped to offset a higher tax increase. According to Dickerson, early drafts of the budget showed as much as a 7 percent increase to the tax rate, taking into account negotiated wage increases and a 13 percent rise in health insurance costs. However, the final result shows just a 0.8 percent increase to the tax rate.

“(The administration) came back with very favorable numbers for us,” Dickerson said.

Under the final proposal, annual taxes would go up 1 cent, to $1.33 in the school rate per $100 of valuation. For a property assessed at $200,000, the yearly tax bill would increase $20.

The proposed school general fund expenditures total $24.7 million, up 5.2 percent from the current fiscal year.

On the town side, if the $4.9 million municipal building renovation bond passes, it would add about $53 in annual taxes to a property assessed at $200,000.

The town office building, which was built in 1884 and hasn’t been renovated since the 1950s, would be gutted and brought up to code. A potential floor plan shows the creation of a circular first-floor lobby and a small addition that would add a vestibule.

A similar bond in 2009 was rejected by voters, by 902-501. It asked for $4.7 million.

Selectboard Vice Chairman F.X. Flinn said yesterday that the town did not do a good enough job explaining its case when the bond proposal was defeated several years ago.

“We now know that the majority of the town would like to see that building renovated,” Flinn said, based upon comments made at previous public hearings. “If that’s true, we need to see a positive vote this time around.”

If the bond proposal fails, he said, the board will have to look at “alternatives.”

“There’s just no way that building is safe, or an acceptable workplace,” he said.

Hartford’s municipal budget followed a winding path to its final draft, as the Selectboard added and subtracted various positions over the course of its deliberations.

One such change was the elimination of the town’s vacant police chief position in favor of a newly created public safety director, a cross-departmental administrative head who oversees the police and fire departments. Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg has said the change can save the town about $90,000. Fire Chief Steve Locke took the position earlier this month, and Deputy Police Chief Leonard Roberts, who was serving as interim chief, stepped back to his previous role.

The Selectboard also funded a half-year of the town’s curbside recycling, for $75,000.

The town’s proposed general fund budget totals $13.5 million, a more than $35,000 increase from the current year’s. If it passes, the municipal tax rate would increase 4 cents, to about 78 cents per $100 of valuation. That means an annual tax increase of about $80 on a property assessed at $200,000.

Also on the Town Meeting ballot is a proposed charter change that, if passed, would give the Selectboard the authority to impose a 1 percent “local option tax” on meals, rooms and alcoholic beverages in Hartford. Approving the new tax, however, doesn’t mean it would immediately go into effect. Instead, the tax would only be implemented if and when the Selectboard votes to do so at some later date.

The tax would be placed atop current Vermont rates of 9 percent on meals and rooms and 10 percent on alcoholic beverages.

Seven candidates will run for three open Selectboard seats. Newcomer Karen Ganey and Mark Donka, who served on the Selectboard in 2011, will run for a single two-year seat against Parker, the incumbent and current chairman.

Alex DeFelice, a three-year veteran of the board, will run against former Selectboard chairman and farmer Chuck Wooster, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center surgical technician Sandra Mariotti and Matt Bucy, who owns the Tip Top Media and Arts and Dreamland buildings in White River Junction.

Two of the four candidates will win three-year seats. Sonia Knight, who had come under fire for missing meetings due to work-related travel, is not seeking re-election.