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West Fairlee Voters OK Borrowing

West Fairlee — Voters at Town Meeting yesterday took the first steps toward fixing the town offices and the dam that forms Lake Fairlee.

Following a short discussion, a single person in the gathering of about 30 residents called “nay” in a voice vote on whether to borrow up to $200,000 to buy a new vault for the town clerk’s office in the West Fairlee Community Building, to erect a wall between the multi-purpose meeting area and clerk Rhonda Cook’s work area, and to build a shed roof along the edge of the building to prevent problems with ice in winter.

And in a unanimous decision near the end of the 75-minute session, voters agreed to contribute $5,100 to a study, in concert with the towns of Thetford and Fairlee, of how best to repair a privately owned, 200-year-old dam that is leaking and could, if it fails, lower the water level of the lake and with it the value of the homes surrounding it.

Cook has been conducting town business in the wide-open space — where yesterday’s Town Meeting took place, and where the Selectboard and other municipal bodies meet — since the condemnation in the mid-2000s of historic Bean Hall, longtime home of town offices. In the Bean Hall era, town clerks worked in a separate office with a vault out of public view.

“It’s been five or six years now,” Cook said after the decision. “The hardest part is, I still have records in the Bean Hall vault that I don’t have access to on a day-to-day basis. I have to wait for somebody to unlock the building for me.

“And when people want to use this room at certain times they can’t, because the records are very vulnerable.” The town will pay off the loan for the project over four years, Selectboard Chairwoman Delsie Hoyt said. Town officials had sought to perform a wider range of renovations, only to see voters in 2012 reject a plan to borrow $575,000 and seek grants to offset some of the cost.

“This is the essential component,” Hoyt said. “We’re asking (townspeople) to make a commitment to the building as the town office, and today they made it.”

While the Tri-Town Committee on Lake Fairlee this year was asking Thetford voters to commit $14,100 (at yesterday’s Town Meeting) and Fairlee taxpayers to contribute $10,800 (in the municipal budget on Tuesday’s Australian ballot), the West Fairlee members of the committee weren’t sure how their neighbors would greet the request for $5,100.

“This was the hardest nut,” said Tracy (Skip) Brown, a member of the town Planning Commission who represents the private Lake Fairlee Association on the three-town study group, of which he is chairman. “I was the most concerned about this one. West Fairlee is always the most frugal.” The taxpayer money from each town will go into a reserve fund, to which the Lake Fairlee Association, the Aloha Foundation, Camp Billings, and Camp Lochearn are each contributing $5,000. The Tri-Town Committee has estimated that the reconstruction — good enough to last 75 years, paid for over around 25 years — will cost at least $750,000. Brown said that the state of Vermont appears unable to contribute much if anything in the way of grants toward the work, and that the federal Army Corps of Engineers is not obligated to pay any of the cost, only to approve or disapprove.

Brown added that the committee now will consult a variety of sources on first the legalities of paying for the project, and then how to rebuild the structure.

“Until we have sound engineering numbers, we just don’t know what we’re talking about,” Brown said of the ultimate cost.

In all, voters yesterday approved warning articles adding up to $53,921 — including $25,000 for the West Fairlee Volunteer Fire Department and $17,604 for services from Upper Valley Ambulance.

On Tuesday, in addition to electing town officers, voters will cast Australian ballots on an operating budget of $474,520, up 12 percent from the current year’s spending. How that affects the municipal property-tax rate will depend on the results of a townwide reappraisal now under way, with results due in July.