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Cell Tower On Warning In Norwich

Norwich town and school budgets will be discussed Monday, March 4 at 7 p.m. in Tracy Hall. Voting for town officers and all warning articles will be done by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 5 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Tracy Hall.

Norwich — This year’s Town Meeting warning isn’t lacking for controversy with one nonbinding article that would authorize the Selectboard to spend $275,000 to build a new communications tower, undercutting a deal the Selectboard struck with a private telecommunications company.

Voters will also decide whether an assistant town clerk who has been working full time will have her hours reduced to part time.

The tower flap started last fall when the Selectboard authorized Town Manager Neil Fulton to sign a letter of intent with VTel, a Springfield, Vt.-based telecommunications company, that would allow the firm to lease property on New Boston Road in order to build a communications tower to provide high-speed Internet service to the area. In return, the town could freely use the tower to upgrade radio communication among the police, fire and public works departments.

Norwich residents petitioned the article that calls on the town to build and own the tower itself. Proponents said passage would show the Selectboard that there is widespread opposition in town over the deal with VTel. The article is not legally binding, however, and if it does pass, the Selectboard wouldn’t required to spend the money as requested.

“The Selectboard can basically do what it wants,” said resident Rick Otto, who helped gather signatures to place the article on the ballot. “But we’re really trying as citizens to give ourselves an option.”

Fulton said he would favor the Selectboard granting him the authority to sign a “definitive agreement” with VTel on Feb. 27, which would finalize the deal and would likely render the petitioned article vote moot.

Fulton has also said the $275,000 sought by the article would not fully cover the town’s cost of the project, and he estimates that the tower could cost the town $335,000 to $475,000, depending on grants.

Also on the ballot are two articles that could decide the future of the assistant town clerk’s position. One article asks residents to support increasing the assistant town clerk’s hours to full time retroactive to Jan. 1. The second article asks that the assistant town clerk continue to work full time at the beginning of the fiscal year, in July.

Last fall, Town Clerk Bonnie Munday hand surgery and took a leave of absence. While she was on leave, assistant town clerk Judy Trussell filled in, but that caused Munday to use up the funding in her budget for an assistant town clerk for the fiscal year.

So in order to maintain back up for Munday, the Selectboard said that the hours of her assistant town clerk’s position could be doubled from 20 to 40 hours per week — but that would require voter approval.

Since Trussell went full time last month, Munday has been able to focus on more time-consuming tasks, such as indexing maps.

“I am now able to do things that have been put on the back burner for many years,” Munday said. “It has made all the difference in the world.”

Despite the tension behind the warning articles, the Selectboard races this year appear unusually calm.

Selectwoman Linda Cook and board Chairman Christopher Ashley are both running unopposed. Both Cook and Ashley voted against the VTel agreement in August.

T he town budget calls for a slight decrease in spending, but residents will still see an increase in their taxes as they continue to absorb the cost of damages caused by Tropical Storm Irene.

The proposed $4 million municipal budget includes nearly $10,000 less in spending than the current year budget. Nonetheless, if all warning articles pass, residents are still likely to see a 3 percent increase in their municipal tax rate.

The higher tax rate is the result of Norwich drawing down its fund balance after Tropical Storm Irene. The fund can be tapped for “rainy day” expenses Fulton said, and the town wants to begin rebuilding the balance.

Last month’s budget process was quite contentious among the Selectboard, and many members found themselves at odds over the large salary increases being granted to the town’s department heads. The planning, finance and recreation directors will receive pay increases of about 14, 19 and 27 percent, respectively.

The town spent $15,000 to hire consultants Condrey & Associates to evaluate the salaries of non-bargaining unit employees. Fulton supported the salary increases because he said it brought them in line with other town employees.

But not everyone on the five-member Selectboard agreed. Selectman Keith Moran and Cook voted against the budget, and Cook said she voted nay because of the salary increases.

Putting town employees on a grade-and-step pay plan has been a goal of Fulton’s going back to when he served on the Selectboard from 1997 to 2003. He said he has employees who have worked for the town for more than 30 years who have only received cost of living adjustments.

“I look at it as I finally got something done that I’ve been working on since 2002,” Fulton said.

At the same time, Fulton was able to find savings in the budget by changing the replacement schedule for police cruisers and public works vehicles, which means less money would have to be set aside in reserve funds.

The town is proposing raising $3,396,254 in taxes, a 3 percent increase from the current year’s $3,291,673.

If all articles pass, including funding for nonprofits, the budget will increase to $4.3 million, which is still lower than last year’s budget with monetary articles. If everything passes, then the tax rate would increase by about one cent to 48 cents per $100 of valuation. The owner of a $400,000 home would see their municipal tax bill increase from about $1,875 to $1,920. Residents who qualify for the state’s income sensitivity program would pay less.

Also on the warning is an advisory article drafted by a Norwich-based gun control group that asks federal and state legislatures to ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

On the school side, the Dresden budget is decreasing by 0.3 percent to $23.2 million. The only budget that is increasing is the Norwich school budget, which is rising nearly 5 percent to $5.1 million. If both school budgets pass, it could raise the tax rate an additional 1.2 percent.

The increase in the Norwich budget can largely be attributed to an increase in special education and an estimated increase in the number of students that will need out of district placements. There is also a $450,000 bond on this year’s warning that would be used to make capital improvements at the Marion Cross school building. If the bond is approved, it would likely pay for a gym roof replacement in addition to replacing energy recovery units that are part of the school’s ventilation system.

The Dresden budget includes $99,550 for technology initiatives, including iPads at the middle school and high school.

The education tax rate is expected to increase from $1.75 to $1.77 per $100 of assessed value, which would be about $7,080 on a $400,000 home — an $80 increase.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.