Those actions to reduce spending in Whitingham clearly were out of sync with many other towns in the area. However, it’s not uncommon to have budgets slashed at Town Meeting, and to have one big-ticket item bear the brunt of voters’ frugality. In this case it was the paving plan. Other items passed over and not voted on were equipment for the fire department and some funds for building maintenance.
But there’s a little more to the back story than just a case of cost cutting by voters. In some ways it may have been a bit of buyer’s remorse. After all, in the past two years voters in the town have overwhelmingly supported the efforts to further consolidation of the town’s schools with Wilmington, creating the unified Twin Valley School District. While that meant long-term savings for taxpayers in both towns, and a return of a high school to Whitingham, there was a cost involved.
Property owners in Whitingham will pay a good portion of the construction expenses to expand the current Whitingham School into the new Twin Valley Middle/High School. Those costs will be the highest in the first two years of the bond, and those costs obviously weighed on the minds of many voters at Town Meeting. There can be little doubt those increased school payments played a major role in the spending reductions for the municipal budget at Town Meeting.
It was a little surprising that Whitingham’s selectboard would ask voters to shoulder the full cost of the paving in a bond. Most towns have gone to some type of reserve or capital fund to pay for ongoing costs like road paving. Perhaps, given last Tuesday’s action by voters, leaders in Whitingham should look to that option for long-term projects like road paving and maintenance. By paying into a roads fund consistently for several years, leaders can avoid voter sticker shock when a major project comes due. Also, by planning ahead 10 or 15 years for road repairs, voters and town leaders will be able to forecast and schedule road repairs, and talk about the projects a year or two in advance.
Regardless of what happens down the road, this year’s Town Meeting showed Whitingham voters were not ready to shoulder the costs of any additional big projects.