Power Struggle In Pomfret

Pomfret’s annual Town Meeting will take place Tuesday, March 4, starting at 9 a.m. at the Town Hall. The school district portion is scheduled for 1 p.m. Voting by Australian ballot for the Woodstock Union High School budget will be at the Town Hall from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Pomfret — With two years remaining in his term on the Selectboard, Neil Lamson announced his resignation, effective immediately, last Thursday.

But he hopes not to be on the sidelines for long. After talking with some residents over the weekend, Lamson has decided to run against Selectboard Chairman Michael Reese, who is up for re-election at Town Meeting. Reese, a lawyer who previously served as town attorney, joined the three-member board last November after winning a special election for a vacant seat.

Reese, a former state legislator, and Lamson, who has been elected to the board three times, have had their differences in recent months, including a recent flap over the proposed town budget.

In an email sent to the Valley News on Monday, Lamson said he couldn’t support the proposed spending plan that residents will vote on at Town Meeting because “there is nothing in the budget for the highway equipment reserve and not enough for computer support in the town office.”

When asked about his disagreement with Lamson over the highway equipment reserve fund, Reese pointed out that since 2012, the town has invested more than $550,000 in three new trucks.

The highway equipment fund is now down to roughly $60,000 and needs replenishing, said Lamson. He wants to put away at least $50,000 in taxpayer money this year for future highway equipment purchases.

Reese said he agrees with Lamson on the importance of saving for future big-ticket items, but was hoping to “get by” this year without adding to the fund. As it turns out, Lamson still might get his wish. A recent estimate on a bridge replacement project is about $50,000 less than expected and the savings could go into the fund, said Reese.

Lamson said via email that he resigned last week because “I refuse to serve on the Selectboard with Michael Reese. His actions leave me no choice but to run against him at the 2014 Town Meeting.”

Lamson grew up in Pomfet and returned in 2001, after 30 years with the U.S. Forest Service.

In his own email to the Valley News, Reese wrote that he was running to “offer some stability and continue the work we’ve already begun to improve transparency and accountability in town government.”

On Monday, Reese said he welcomed the competition for the three-year seat. “I think a healthy democracy requires options.”

In Pomfret, elected positions are settled by floor voting on Town Meeting Day. Candidates don’t have to declare their intentions until that day, leaving the door open for other residents to enter the race as well.

Under Vermont law, the seat left vacant by Lamson’s resignation, however, can’t be filled at Town Meeting. The Selectboard can appointment a replacement, who will remain in office until the 2015 Town Meeting or a special election is called.

Along with the Selectboard race at next week’s Town Meeting, Pomfret residents will be asked to approve a change in the town’s budget system. Currently, Pomfret operates on a calendar year schedule. The Selectboard wants to go to a fiscal year budget that would run July 1 through June 30. If approved, the change would become effective in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Selectboard has scheduled a special meeting for tonight at 7 p.m. at the town offices to talk with residents about the plan. The change will help Pomfret’s “cash flow,” said Reese. It will minimize the need to borrow money for operating expenses or rely too heavily on other town funds, the Selectboard wrote in the town report.

The school district already operates on a fiscal year budget.

If the town makes the switch, Pomfret’s two property tax payment installments will be more spread out. Currently, property taxes are due in August and November. Under the Selectboard’s proposal, the installments would be due in August and February.

“That’s going to make it easier for some people,” said Town Clerk Lynne Leavitt.

In the 2013 town report, the Selectboard wrote that the proposed town budget, if adopted, will “decrease property taxes by 5 percent while transitioning to a new fiscal year ... The 2013 budget surplus of about $420,000 enables the town to pay for the six-month transition to a July fiscal year without raising additional funds.”

Under the proposed budget, the amount needed to be raised through property taxes would drop from $847,000 to $804,000.

On the school side, the proposed budget is also slightly less than a year ago. The School Board is seeking about $1,186,000 compared to more than $1,193,000 last year.

In putting together the proposed budget, the board opted not to replace teacher Jean Souter, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

Like many small towns in Vermont, Pomfret is struggling with how to handle declining enrollment. In 2003, the town’s K-6 school had 96 students. By 2012, enrollment had dipped to 58 students, a 40 percent decrease. “It’s not a very good sign,” said School Director Greg Greene.

With Souter’s retirement, the school will use more of a “team teaching approach” in K-3, he said.

School Board member Robert Coates, along with Woodstock Union High School Board members Brian Marsicovetere and Bob Crean are up for re-election. All three have indicated they plan to run again, said Greene.

If all town and school spending measures pass at Town Meeting, the projected tax rate for residents is expected to decrease from $2.05 to $1.94 per $100 of assessed value. Under the projected tax rate, property taxes on a $250,000 home would be an estimated $4,850, providing the resident doesn’t qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program. Last year, the tax bill on a $250,000 home was $5,125.