Four Candidates Eye Hartford Selectboard Seats

  • Jameson Davis

  • Sandy Mariotti

  • Mike Morris

  • Kim Souza

Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2018

There will be a floor meeting at 10 a.m. on Saturday, March 3, at the Hartford High School gym to vote on various minor items of business, including setting the pay rates for members of the Hartford School Board and the Selectboard. The municipal and school district budgets will come before voters at the polls from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6 at the high school.

Hartford — As Town Meeting voters cast their ballots on proposed town and school budgets, they also will be presented with a choice among four candidates vying for two open slots on the Selectboard.

Incumbents Sandy Mariotti and Mike Morris are trying to retain their seats against challenges from Vermont Law School student Jameson C. Davis and small business owner Kim Souza.

A 31-year-old field energy consultant for Tesla, Davis moved to Quechee recently, having grown up in a small Connecticut town before spending a few years in Los Angeles. He’s seeking a master’s degree in environmental law and policy, but says he intends to stay in the area after he graduates.

Souza, 49, moved to Hartford Village in 2007 from her hometown of Canaan, five years after she opened Revolution, a clothing boutique in White River Junction’s downtown.

“I enrolled my son in the White River Elementary School and have just never regretted opening my business here,” she said.

Morris, 62, moved to the area when he was in elementary school, and has lived here ever since, raising two children in the Hartford School District with his wife. The owner of a modular home business, he has been on the Selectboard for two years.

“I want to see our Selectboard continue to work as well as they have,” he said. “I think they work well together, which is a nice thing. We haven’t always had that.”

Early last year, when Morris forwarded an email that contained a cartoon with a racist depiction of President Barack Obama, it prompted calls for his resignation. Morris has since made several public apologies, and expressed support for a town committee on racial inequality that was formed in response to the public outcry over the email.

One of his more notable achievements on the Selectboard came in October, when he derailed discussions about a town staff proposal to build a multimillion-dollar parking garage in downtown White River Junction by discovering the town owned more land than it had previously supposed.

As a result of his efforts, the town is now likely to create as many as 100 new parking spots on its existing land.

Mariotti, 51, is a surgical technician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and has lived in White River Junction for about 25 years.

She was the former president of the Hartford Youth Hockey Association and has received credit from her fellow board members for bringing together leaders from the various town libraries at a time when infighting and dysfunction threatened their ability to continue to provide services to the community.

She has found herself in the minority on a couple of key split votes on the board, including when she voted against a proposal to build a hotly contested riverside “pocket park” in Quechee, and when she joined Morris in opposing a resolution to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.

Davis, an African-American, has been an advocate for racial justice in various ways and believes his joining the board would help diversify the points of view represented.

“I want to really be a voice for all, definitely,” he said. “But also give a voice to those who feel disenfranchised.”

Davis said one way to build the tax base is to be more welcoming to businesses that cater to the needs of people of color and other oppressed minorities.

“Black barbershops, maybe safe spaces for the LGBT community,” he said. “Different types of businesses that can bring in revenue that may not have been in Hartford before.”

Morris wants to continue to bring his common-sense approach to solving the town’s financial woes by going the extra mile to scrutinize each issue that comes before the Selectboard.

“I don’t just sit back,” he said. “I go out and around. I visit the sites, take a tour of the buildings. I actually see those things so I can make a wiser decision, and a lot of people don’t do that.”

Souza said her primary objective is to improve communication between the public and the town’s elected leaders as it decides how to maintain its existing community assets.

“We haven’t been super-proactive about engaging the community,” she said. “That’s a strength I have that I can share.”

Residents will cast votes for two of the four candidates, and the top two vote-getters will be seated.

Also on the ballot, Selectman Simon Dennis is running unopposed to retain his seat. Quechee resident Lannie Collins filed to run against Dennis, but withdrew his candidacy for personal reasons, according to the Town Clerk’s office.

The proposed $15.7 million municipal budget is up 2.9 percent over the current year’s $15.3 million in spending, but because non-tax municipal revenues are down or flat, the impact on the municipal property tax rate is expected to increase by about 3 cents, or 3.4 percent, to 99.06 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

If the budget is approved, the owner of a $250,000 home would see their taxes go up about $82 to $2,477.

On the Hartford School District side, the School Board approved sending a $38.2 million budget proposal to voters on a 3-2 vote, with Peter Merrill and outgoing Chairwoman Lori Dickerson opposed.

Under the budget, the district’s general fund, which comes from tax revenues and excludes fee-supported entities such as the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center, would increase from $28.9 million to $29.6 million, or 2.1 percent.

In part because of a statewide funding gap that is passing costs on to districts across Vermont, the spending increase will have an outsized effect on the education property tax rate, currently $1.58 per $100 of assessed property value. Under the proposed budget, that would go up by 7.6 percent to $1.70, which would increase the education property taxes on a home valued at $250,000 by $300, from $3,950 to $4,250.

The School Board initially targeted a budget increase of 3 percent in the fall, but as the statewide picture changed, they reluctantly adjusted, supported a budget with a projected impact on the tax rate changing to 6 percent in mid-January, and then again to the 7.6 percent in late January.

Income-sensitive households, defined as making less than $97,000, would see their rate increase by 1.9 percent, which would mean that a household with a combined income of $50,000 would see an increase of about $25, to $1,360.

The terms of Dickerson and Nancy Russell are expiring this year — Wilder CPA Russ North, who had a brief stint on the board to fill a vacant post two years ago, is now running unopposed to fill Dickerson’s seat.

Russell, a day care owner with three grandchildren in the Hartford schools is the only candidate on the ballot, but Hartford resident Peggy George, an active supporter of an effort to build a track at the high school, has declared a write-in candidacy against Russell.

The town will host a discussion of the budgets and candidates at 7 p.m. Monday in the Hartford High School gym.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.