Light Community Turnout Colors Hartford Community Town Meeting
Larry Kasden, left, volunteer supervisor for Ottauquechee Natural Resources Conservation District, and Jon Bouton of the Hartford Conservation Commission use a stream table to explain river altering processes to attendees of the Hartford town meeting at Hartford High School in White River Junction yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Ella Stainton, 6, of West Hartford, peeks out the door of the room where lunch was being served during Hartford Town Meeting at Hartford High School yesterday. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Jim Vezina, left, Hartford School District director of finance, Assistant Superintendent Julia Haynes and Superintendent Tom DeBalsi talk together at yesterday’s meeting. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Voting on Hartford’s Australian Ballot items, including the two bonds, charter change and school and town budgets, will occur on Tuesday. Polls at the Hartford High School gym will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
White River Junction — The problem at Hartford’s “Community Town Meeting” yesterday wasn’t that presentations, comments and suggestions were falling on deaf ears.
It was that they weren’t falling on many ears at all.
At the beginning of the day, there were about 100 people occupying folding chairs and bleachers in the Hartford High School gym, gathered to hear presentations and ask questions. By the time the final portion of the meeting — the Selectboard candidates’ roundtable — began, there were barely more than 30.
Community members grabbed onto that thread when asking questions of the candidates.
“As you can see, the audience is dwindling here at Town Meeting,” said Jeff Arnold, a School Board member who is not up for re-election. “Can you give us some ideas or some strategies on how you would improve attendance?”
So the five Selectboard and two School Board candidates on hand offered ideas. They could reach out in more tangible ways to all five villages. There could be an increased web presence. They might encourage the young members of town to be more involved.
The small attendance numbers cast something of a pall over the proceedings, especially after lunch, when some residents hoping to speak their minds about a proposed charter change on the ballot didn’t have much of an audience.
“I wish more people were here,” said Skip Symanski, co-owner of Elixir Restaurant in White River Junction, facing the bleachers. “Sort of sad to see such a small turnout.”
He then turned his attention to the charter change, a “local option tax” that, if passed, would give the Selectboard the power to impose a 1 percent tax on meals, rooms and alcoholic beverages that would be placed atop Vermont’s current rates. The state has set tax levels of 9 percent for meals and rooms, and 10 percent for alcohol.
The revenue generated from that tax would give the town more than $200,000 annually, town officials said, a number that represents 70 percent of the net revenue. The remaining 30 percent goes to the state.
Of the three presentations of ballot items, the tax presentation drew the most direct concern from citizens, as it has over several months of hearings and Selectboard meetings. Several downtown business owners spoke out yesterday against the idea.
“My problem with this tax is it’s fundamentally wrongheaded for government to continuously expand tax horizons,” said David Briggs, owner of the Hotel Coolidge in White River Junction. “This is just wrong.”
Symanski said he felt it was unfair and unequal to add taxes only to specific types of businesses, instead treating everyone equally across the board.
Before that conversation was a back-and-forth discussion about the $9 million joint athletics bond, which would be shared between the town and school district if passed and would be put toward renovations to town and school recreation facilities.
Projects under the proposed bond include a $3.1 million buildout of the so-called Maxfield property, which would put in basketball courts and baseball and softball fields, among other things, $2.5 million for large-scale renovations to the Wendell A. Barwood Arena, and $1.6 million for a small fieldhouse near the high school that would include a weight room and locker rooms.
The overall tenor of the athletics bond discussion was upbeat.
Paul Keane, a former Hartford High School teacher, said that the tax impact — about $90 a year on a $200,000 property — would be the same as buying two extra cups of coffee a week, a small expense for the advantages it would give the town’s children.
“I see this as a great investment in the community in the long term,” said Susanne Abetti, of White River Junction.
“I’d like to weigh in in favor of this project,” Briggs said afterward. “I think it’s a tremendous thing.”
Town Meeting voters must vote on the athletics bond proposal on both the school and town ballots. Because the two entities would share the cost of the bond if it passes, a “no” majority on either the town or the school ballot would kill the proposal. More information about voting on the proposal will be available on the town’s website, www.hartford-vt.org, Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said last night.
The other proposed bond issue — a $4.9 million renovation of the Municipal Building — was touched on yesterday but not heavily debated.
There are seven candidates vying for three Selectboard seats this year. Incumbent Ken Parker will run against Mark Donka, who was not part of the roundtable yesterday, and Karen Ganey, for a single two-year seat.
Incumbent Alex DeFelice will run against Sandra Mariotti, who was not part of yesterday’s roundtable, as well as Chuck Wooster and Matt Bucy, for a pair of three-year seats. Sonia Knight, whose seat expires this year, is not running for re-election.
There are no contested school board races.
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.