Caruso said on Thursday morning she has scheduled the recount for Wednesday, March 12, at 6 pm at the Readsboro Town Office. The board of civil authority will conduct the recount. Caruso invited anyone with questions to call her during her regular hours.
At Town Meeting, four of the town’s big ticket items were decided by the slimmest of margins. In the current economic climate, Readsboro voters were picky about how they wanted their tax dollars spent. No matter how important these articles were to the town, Readsboro voters were not afraid to vote them down. Such was the case with the Readsboro Electric sale, the $1,430,000 water bond, and Article 5.
Article 11 asked voters to authorize the sale of Readsboro Electric to Central Vermont Public Service Corporation. Last year the selectboard approved CVPS’s offer of $167,000 that includes a $10,000 donation to Readsboro Elementary School, payment of half of the town’s legal fees at closing, responsibility for all rights of way, and the handling of all PCB contamination.
Clark said it was hard for the town to sustain the electric utility, and that it takes a lot of work, time, and money to maintain the electric lines, perform upgrades, and do tree trimming. Budget expenses were stretched thin and Clark said the town would need to impose a 20.3% rate increase if the article didn’t pass. Clark added the Vermont Department of Public Service said the town must sell the utility and will pressure the town until it does so. “If we vote ‘no,’ they will mandate us to death until we sell it,” said Clark. “They want to know why we didn’t raise the rates for 15 years. They’re taking a hard look at Readsboro.”
Stephen Costello, of CVPS, highlighted what CVPS would do, should voters approve the sale. Costello assured voters they would do their best to meet the electrical needs of the community. They will keep rates low, respond immediately to electrical outages, and be a team player in the community. Not everyone was buying it, especially Rodney Caruso.
Caruso said most of the poles and wires he saw weren’t in bad shape and many of the poles and wires that were wearing out were replaced after the recent ice storm. Caruso emphasized that Readsboro Electric was an asset to the town and if the sale is approved, then water, sewer, and electric rates will hit taxpayers much more.
Caruso also questioned whether CVPS was really interested in ratepayers’ needs. “Be honest now. You bought (our utility) because you want to make money. You’re not going to buy a utility if you don’t make money, correct?” questioned Caruso. Costello said CVPS is interested in making a profit over the long term. Caruso didn’t buy it.
Selectboard chair Raymond Eilers argued that the town was able to make repairs from December’s ice storm because it got lucky. “We wouldn’t have gotten all the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) money if we didn’t qualify for Bennington County,” said Eilers. “We would’ve had to pay the $88,000 bill ourselves.”
Selectboard member Tony Caruso, who opposed the sale of Readsboro Electric, said the town received an additional $33,000 check from a USGen New England Inc. bankruptcy deal and an additional $10,000 that the town overpaid to a supplier. By the end of the year, Caruso said the town had $42,000-$43,000 in the coffers.
But Clark responded that it didn’t mean the utility was self-sustaining. “We now have some operating money in our account but it’s not an overflow. All it means is we don’t have to worry about where our money is coming from right now,” said Clark.
The vote was determined by Australian ballot. One hundred fifty-six voters approved the sale while 117 did not. Because a two-thirds majority was needed to approve the sale, the article failed.
“We are somewhat disappointed in the decision, but we respect the voters’ decision,” said Costello. “Ending decades of municipal ownership is a big deal, and we understand the value the people of Readsboro put on that. Unless the town decides to reconsider, that’s the end of it; we have never, and will never, make an aggressive push to acquire other service territory. As far as we’re concerned, these types of purchases have to be instigated by the host utility.”
Article 12 also failed, this time by a three-vote margin. Article 12 asked the town to approve $1,430,000 in bonds to finance upgrades to the town water system. Eilers said the town’s water mains were not compliant with state standards and if the town didn’t comply, the hydrants would go out of service. The hydrants went out of service in fall 2008 and have yet to be approved by state officials.
Eilers said the Dubois & King engineering firm estimated it would cost $1,430,000 but it could be reduced based on the availability of state grants and other outlets of financial assistance. Repairs include an upgrade of the town’s water filtration facility and portions of the the water distribution system. The article was defeated 139 to 136. Chuck Goodling, vice-president and project manager of Dubois & King said he understood voters’ concerns, however, given the number of necessary repairs, this was the ideal time to fix it.
“We understand it’s a difficult economic climate out there. Communities have to make the best choice they can in front of them. However the state’s going to mandate that these changes be made. This is the best time to do it, especially with the stimulus program. Not being able to take advantage of that is disappointing,” said Goodling.
Voters also defeated Article 5, which asked the town to raise and appropriate $20,000 for the bridge fund. Readsboro has two bridges that need significant repairs. Hopkins said there was already $300,000 allocated for current bridge work and he thought it was not necessary for the town to be asking an extra $20,000.
Clark understood Hopkins’ point but said the town needs the money now. “Maybe we don’t need to fund it this year. But I’ve seen a lot of things go by the wayside. The cost of doing this goes up every year,” said Clark.
Article 7 passed by the slimmest of margins. The article asked the town to approve a $35,000 salary for a new town manager who would handle the town’s day-to-day operational tasks. Sue Bailey, of the Readsboro Planning Commission, said the selectboard’s workload is increasing and has compromised town operations. The planning commission studied the issue and determined a town manager would help the town run more smoothly.
Many voters voiced their opposition. Larry Hopkins said there were too many hidden costs to hiring a new town manager. He asked Bailey how much would be needed for initial setup costs such as health care, supplies, retirement packages, and whether the person requires clerical assistance. He suggested the town vote against it. “This $35,000 could approach $100,000. If you approve this, one year from tonight we’ll be sitting here asking again for more money,” said Hopkins.
Clark assured Hopkins the town manager would possess the qualifications to not require additional help. Caruso suggested the town consider a five-person selectboard to lighten the work load. But Bailey said the town needs someone with experience, not more selectboard members.
“How many of you have an accounting background? How many of you can go into these computers, contact officials upstate, and get stuff you need,” questioned Bailey. “We have to begin to move the town forward. We can’t do that with three selectboard members who are so inundated. Adding two to the board doesn’t solve the big problems.”
That prompted a strong response from Jim Finley. “Don’t you understand there’s a recession and a depression going on?” Moderator Robert Tool banged his gavel to call the meeting to order.
Planning commission member David Marchegiani had the last word. Marchegiani said the problem started 25 years ago, when the Town of Readsboro and Readsboro Village merged with no government set in place. Marchegiani said rules and regulations and work “doubled, tripled, and then some.” He reminded voters the position is not a permanent one and they can come back to the issue when the contract expires. Marchegiani added that voters should consider what the selectboard is doing now and what the town manager position can do for the town.
“There’s $100 million coming into Vermont for roads and highways. We have a minimum of two bridges and several road projects. Who’s going to chase that $100 million to Readsboro, three overwhelmed selectboard members or a town manager? That’s the choice you have to make,” said Marchegiani.
The vote went to paper ballot and voters approved the town manager position 54 to 53.
In other articles, Article 9 asked the town to raise and appropriate the sum of $15,000 for repair work at the town garage. The garage needs new vinyl siding and replacement windows but many voters questioned if funding for repair work was necessary. Clark said the town garage repair work was the most talked about issue at selectboard meetings and was surprised there was reluctance to pass the article. That prompted a response from Tom Deblois. “Didn’t we just vote to house the new town manager in the town garage,” asked Deblois. Voters laughed at Deblois’ comment.
Voters also approved the town and school budgets. The town budget was reduced from $744,092 to $698,129. Tony Caruso said there was a leftover surplus from last year’s budget that the town could use to level fund this year’s budget. The 2009-2010 school budget is $18,373 less than last year’s school budget of $1,302,307. “In April, there is a reappraisal that goes into effect. When it does, it will bring the common level of appraisal back to 100%, which would mean the tax rate could drop to as much as 86 cents,” said Clark.
Craig Bartosewcz was elected to a three-year term on the selectboard. He defeated Teddy Hopkins 154 to 116. Bartosewcz was happy with the results and looks forward to serving the town. “I’m ready to go to work. There’s a lot of unfinished business and I look forward to working with both selectmen,” said Bartosewcz.
Tracey Cole was also elected to a three-year term as Readsboro school director. She defeated Larry Hopkins 153 to 115.