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Norwich Divided Over Tower

  • Jane Korey, of Norwich, observes Town Meeting proceedings at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. Norwich residents vote on the warning articles by Australian ballot today. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Jane Korey, of Norwich, observes Town Meeting proceedings at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. Norwich residents vote on the warning articles by Australian ballot today. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, of Norwich, whispers to his daughter, Nori Teller-Elsberg, 5, during Town Meeting at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. (Valley News - Libby March)

    Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, of Norwich, whispers to his daughter, Nori Teller-Elsberg, 5, during Town Meeting at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jane Korey, of Norwich, observes Town Meeting proceedings at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. Norwich residents vote on the warning articles by Australian ballot today. (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Jonathan Teller-Elsberg, of Norwich, whispers to his daughter, Nori Teller-Elsberg, 5, during Town Meeting at Tracy Hall in Norwich last night. (Valley News - Libby March)

Norwich — Residents and Selectboard members last night were once again divided over whether a proposed communication tower should be owned by VTel or the town, and they haggled over salary increases for some department heads.

More than 160 people filled Tracy Hall for the discussion portion of Norwich’s Town Meeting, with voting to take place by Australian ballot today from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

After a 40-minute budget presentation by Town Manager Neil Fulton, Town Treasurer Cheryl Lindberg, a member of the Norwich Finance Committee, noted that the panel voted 4-0 not to support the proposed budget. In the town report, the Finance Committee cited large salary increases for several town employees.

The proposed $4 million municipal budget is essentially flat this year and is $10,000 less than the current budget. The budget includes large salary increases for the planning, finance and recreations directors of about 14 percent, 19 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Selectboard Chairman Christopher Ashley soon stood up and spoke his mind.

“Our director of planning, director of finance and our director of recreation, I think we owe them a legitimate salary on what they currently do,” Ashley said.

But as is accustomed in Norwich, not all agreed. Both Selectboard members Linda Cook and Keith Moran said they didn’t support the increases because they didn’t think a $15,000 salary-comparison study conducted by Condrey & Associates for the town was accurate.

Cook argued that Norwich employees shouldn’t be compared to employees in Hanover, Lebanon and Hartford because Norwich is much smaller.

One resident also questioned why Fulton’s salary was $97,894 and called it out of line while another resident said she would have rather seen the Selectboard give the budget presentation instead of the town manager.

“I would rather have the people that we elect present us with the budget and the rationale, and be advised by the person we hire,” said Mary Magavern Sachsse.

After debating the budget for more than an hour, residents approved a motion to jump to the tower article, a $275,000 bond to pay for a communication tower.

The article was petitioned by a group of residents who are determined to block a 60-year lease to allow VTel to build a nearly 200-foot communication tower on town property on New Boston Road. Town officials say the tower will improve communications for emergency service workers throughout Norwich.

But the article never mentions the word “VTel” and many worry that the meaning of the article will be misconstrued.

Residents who petitioned the article say that a vote in favor of the bond would show support that residents don’t want the VTel agreement and they are willing to pay for the tower themselves. A vote against the bond would show that residents are fine with the VTel agreement and don’t want to take out a bond for the tower.

Former Selectwoman Alison May was the first person at the microphone and she urged others to vote down the article and support the VTel plan.

“I hope everyone understands very clearly what this article actually does,” May said.

The $275,000 isn’t enough money for the town to build a communication tower, May said, and it would likely cost the town more than $400,000 to build the tower itself, according to estimates by Fulton. Additionally, a yes vote on the bond does not guarantee that the Selectboard will sway from a deal with VTel.

Selectman Stephen Flanders said he believes the correct moral choice when it comes to the safety of neighbors is to vote against the petitioned article because that would clearly allow the VTel agreement to proceed.

Conversations about the tower started more than a year ago because of the town’s need for better communication for the police, fire and public works departments. Other members of the public simply urged the town to move forward on the tower and said they didn’t trust that VTel could get the job done in a timely manner. It’s about six months since an agreement with VTel was initially made, and residents argued that not much progress has been seen.

“We can control our own destiny if we can built it ourselves,” resident Carey Callaghan said. “Let’s build this thing and get it done. But let’s do it as a town tower.”

If all town articles pass, 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 pay a municipal tax bill of about $1,920

On the school side, the budget is up 5 percent to more than $5.1 million.

The school tax rate could increase from $1.75 to $1.77 per $100 of assessed value. Owners of a $400,000 home would see an increase of $80 to $7,080. Residents who qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program would pay less.

But last night, Callaghan, who is also a School Board member, said that the town could see a decrease in the tax impact depending on legislative action in Montpelier. Due to a possible increase in the base rate at the state level, the school district could see a 6 cent decrease in the tax rate to $1.69 per $100 of valuation.

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