Police Costs Finally Catch Up in Plainfield Budget

Plainfield Town Meeting will be held on Saturday, March 16 at 10 a.m. in the Plainfield Elementary School gym. Town and school officers, along with a proposal to adopt SB2 ballot voting in the school district, will be decided during ballot voting on Tuesday, March 12, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the school gym. The Plainfield School Meeting will be held on Friday, March 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the school.

Residents will have a busy Town Meeting season as they consider budget increases, a first time candidate running for positions on both the School Board and Selectboard, and a whimsical proposal to build a free covered bridge.

The proposed $1.97 million town operating budget is up less than 2 percent from the current year’s. Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Halleran said town officials tried to draft a budget that would not result in any tax increase, but found they would have to enact significant service cuts to meet that goal, and decided against it.

“The reality is that’s as tight as we can do it without doing something differently,” Halleran said.

One of the biggest drivers of the spending hike is a $17,000 bump in funding for the Police Department, to accommodate salary and benefit increases for the officers.

Halleran said the increased police spending stems from the ongoing adjustment to the loss of former Police Chief Gordon Gillens, who retired in 2010. Gillens often volunteered to work patrol shifts on nights and weekends as part of his responsibilities, Halleran said, allowing the department to keep costs down.

“(Gillens) ate up a lot of hours that younger guys aren’t able to do,” Halleran said. “Plainfield is dealing with understanding the full cost of having a three-member Police Department. We got it at a discounted rate when Gordon was here because he would just work those hours.”

If all spending proposals are approved, the current town tax rate of $4.57 per $1,000 of assessed value would increase 3 percent to $4.70, which would give the owners of a $250,000 home a $1,175 town tax bill, $32.50 more than they paid this year. (Plainfield operates on a fiscal year calendar.)

Judy Belyea, who has served on the Selectboard since 1985, is being challenged by first-time candidate Maria Guzman. Guzman, a self-employed Spanish tutor and caregiver, is also running for a spot on the Plainfield School Board.

Belyea, who owns a scrap yard and recycling center, says she is an experienced hand who has helped guide Plainfield through years of growth.

“I’ve been through a lot of progress in keeping Plainfield a great place to live,” said Belyea, 70. She declined to offer specific plans for what she would do if re-elected.

Guzman said Belyea’s lengthy tenure is not an asset: She said it is time for a change.

“Who ever holds a position for 25 years?” Guzman, 56, said. “You need to have different members of the community have the opportunity to run, so there’s no complacency.” Other than saying she would listen to the views of townspeople, Guzman offered no specific proposals for change.

Selectman Rob Taylor designed what Halleran dubbed the “feel-good article,” of the warrant: A proposal to explore building and installing — at no expense to taxpayers — a covered bridge on Daniels Road.

The present bridge is structurally sound and not in need of maintenance, Halleran said. But town officials think a project to build a covered bridge with donated materials and volunteered time from local residents, would both bring Plainfield residents together and make the town a bit more picturesque.

“There are certain things that give a town identity, and one of them in New England are covered bridges,” Halleran said. “If people thought it would be fun to have a nice barbecue and barn raising, then lets do it.”

The plan, as currently conceived, would have the bridge built in an adjacent field and then lifted into place. Though materials and labor would be donated, Halleran acknowledged the town could incur maintenance costs in the future.

Any construction is likely years away: The article would only create a study committee to begin planning the project.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t meet opposition. Halleran said that one recent visitor to the town’s offices decried the proposal as the “Disneyfication of Daniels Road.”

“ ‘It’s like having an Eiffel Tower in Disney,’ ” the unnamed critic said, according to Halleran. “ ‘If you don’t need it, don’t have it.’ ”

The school meeting could prove more contention: The proposed $6.1 million operating budget is up about 5 percent from $5.8 million spending plan approved last year.

More than $93,000 of the increase is to pay for raises for teachers and support staff agreed to in a contract last year, Superintendent Gregory Vogt said: Teachers are receiving a 4.2 percent bump, and support staff 3.5 percent, including cost of living, step and track increases.

Plainfield, as with school districts across the state, is also being asked to contribute more to the state retirement system, accounting for $70,000 of the budget increase and more than swallowing up $18,000 in savings Plainfield Elementary School has achieved with recent energy efficiency projects, Vogt said.

If all spending proposals are approved, the town education tax rate would climb from $14.53 per $1,000 of assessed value to $15.49, which would give the owner of a $250,000 home a $3,873 school tax bill, $240 more than the current year.

Additionally, for the third time since 2008, residents will be asked whether to scrap the annual School Meeting in favor of deciding issues via day-long ballot voting. Voters rejected proposals in 2008 and 2009 to make the switch to the so-called SB2 system, and the School Board has recommended against it.

Advocates generally believe that ballot voting would allow them to vote down budgets and curtail spending. They also say it would allow people who cannot make it to the meeting to participate.

Guzman, who spearheaded the effort to place the SB2 question on the ballot, will face Christie Danen, a current member of the Plainfield Finance Committee, for a three-year spot on the board. The winner will replace board chairwoman Myra Ferguson, who is not seeking re-election.

Guzman has long been critical of school spending, and says that, with declining enrollment, taxpayers should not be asked to spend more money.

“It doesn’t mean you have to keep dumping more money and more money,” Guzman said. “It has nothing to do with money, it has to do with how they are teaching.”

Danen did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Incumbent Brian Garfield is running unopposed for a new three-year term on the School Board.

Mark Davis can be reached at mcdavis@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.