Article 4, asking for authorization to borrow money to replace Look Road Bridge “in an amount not to exceed $444,000” using funds borrowed and repaid over a five-year period, received more scrutiny than any other spending article on the warning. Meg Streeter kicked off the discussion with a motion to cut the amount to $44,000. “I don’t think anyone is questioning the need for Look Road Bridge, but asking voters to finance a half-million dollars on top of the other costs we’re incurring this year seems incorrect,” said Streeter.
Several voters suggested that the board’s plan to finance the work with a bank loan resulted in an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. Suggested alternatives ranged from cutting other projects to pay for the bridge to bonding the project. Some, including Streeter, suggested using the town’s 1% local option tax, earmarked for economic and community development, to fund the project. “There are other funds available to the selectboard through the 1%, almost three-quarters of a million dollars. I think it would be better fiscal management of the town’s revenues to borrow much less and take $400,000 out of the (1% local option tax) funds available.”
Selectboard chair Tom Fitzgerald said that, although there is about $742,000 in the town’s community and economic development fund, some of the money has already been committed for projects. “It’s wonderful to say it’s there, but there are commitments,” he said.
Board members said that, although the replacement of the bridge had been planned, the construction date was moved up because of safety concerns. Additionally, the cost estimate more than doubled because existing bridge abutments had to be replaced. An initial evaluation suggested that the existing abutments could be reused. The five-year loan period, the board said, was the longest payback period authorized by statute without requiring a bond vote. “We had the temporary bridge installed because we were afraid the original bridge was too weak to make it through the winter,” Fitzgerald said. “We decided the fastest way out of this was to take a five-year loan, and pay it off.”
Jim Burke suggested that bridge replacement could be considered community or economic development, since users of the bridge are part of the local economy. “You can slice community and economic development any way you want,” he said.
“We didn’t see addressing infrastructure as economic development,” Fitzgerald said. “When we started this (1% tax) we said it wasn’t a rainy day fund. It’s not for bridges. Don’t we have to own up to our responsibilities? That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Tom Consolino, who was one of the original proponents of the local option tax to fund economic and community development, agreed. “Over the past five years since the 1% local option tax passed for the second time, the selectboard has gone back and forth numerous times on whether this should be used to reduce taxes. And over the last five years selectboards have agreed that it should not be used to reduce taxes.”
Janet Boyd said she agreed, but suggested a compromise. “The 1% was intended to be money we invest in ourselves, and it shouldn’t be attacked needlessly,” she said. “Couldn’t we vote to lend the town the money from the 1% fund to be paid back over 10 years?”
But Fitzgerald said, according to the town attorney’s interpretation of state statutes, the funding institution for a loan can’t be specified in the warned article or any amendments.
Streeter’s amendment, along with other amendments, was eventually defeated. On the original motion to spend $444,000, Wilmington resident Ralph Staib pointed out what he saw as a flaw in the wording of the article. As written, the article would allow the board only to spend the $444,000 on the bridge. The actual cost of the bridge replacement is over $700,000, with the balance coming from funds already on hand. “This says $444,000 is all you can spend on the bridge,” Staib said.
Board members seemed nonplussed by Staib’s reasoning, until Ann Manwaring and Nicki Steel spoke in support of his interpretation. “I understand what is meant,” said Manwaring, “but I’m wondering if Mr. Staib’s point isn’t correct.”
Board member John Gannon amended the article to a figure of $721,033. The motion was eventually passed, with the moderator calling for a standing vote after determining the voice vote was too close to call. The measure passed 53-24.
Article 6, which called for a vote by Australian ballot on a future question to vote all Town Meeting budgets and questions by Australian ballot, also garnered extensive discussion. Steve Butler, who circulated a petition calling for the measure, moved to pass over the question because there was a typographical error in the version that appeared on the official warning. “The way it was worded on the warning is different than the way it was worded on the petition,” he said.
Passing over the article would have ceased all consideration of the matter, but Fred Skwirut said he wanted to talk about the issue now, and not at a future date. “We just had three hours of what Town Meeting is all about,” Skwirut said. “Going by Australian ballot would be doing away with discussing each article. We’ve just proven how involved the community is. Let’s deal with the article and defeat it.”
Butler agreed that the meeting was a good example, but offered a different interpretation of the situation. “What do we have here, about 120 people? Out of some 1,400 registered voters in town? But you’ll probably have 350 to 450 ballots cast in the other room. Should 120 of us decide how much the town spends for the next year, or let 400 to 450 people decide how much to spend?”
With no second coming from the crowd for Butler’s motion to pass over the article, the question was taken up. Gannon amended the article to read “Shall the town of Wilmington adopt budget article and public questions by Australian ballot.” Gannon said his motion was intended to address the future question in Butler’s article. “I’m making this amendment so we can take the vote today and resolve this,” he said. “I don’t support moving to Australian ballot for budget or public questions.”
Gannon was not alone. Cliff Duncan suggested trying other ways to make the process more accessible for voters who can’t take time from work on a weekday, such as holding Town Meeting in the evening. “This is a form of citizen participation that people in other areas of the country admire tremendously,” said Duncan. “I value not only the opportunity to affect the outcome, but the opportunity to respect an angle or approach that hasn’t been considered.”
Barker Willard said Butler’s goal of a more inclusive system was admirable, but said that it would come at the cost of civic involvement. “I started coming to Town Meeting because I could get extra credit from Mr. Larsen (former Wilmington Middle/High School teacher Dave Larsen).” Even though if we were to adopt the ballot we could have discussion on those articles, how much of that discussion would come about? I don’t think you’d get much participation in that. I think we’re, unfortunately, going down a road that needs to be discussed, but it’s something I wouldn’t want to see happen. Now we can discuss something, and we have our chance to throw rocks at it, and then we live with it.”
Jim Burke said he “forced” his brother, visiting from Florida, to come to Town Meeting one year. “His first reaction was ‘Wow, that was pretty Neanderthal,” Burke said. “But the next day he said “Now I understand, I don’t get to voice where my tax dollars go in Florida.’ He realized what actually happens on the floor.”
Laura Stevenson said participation in Town Meeting with her fellow Wilmington residents was as important as voting on the issues. “When I come to Town Meeting, there are people with whom I vehemently disagree, and deeply love, my friends and neighbors. We disagree, but we agree that this town is important. In a world of fake news we have to meet each other face to face, and I think that’s more important than the inconvenience.”
Article 6, as amended, was defeated by a loud chorus of “nays.” Only two “ayes” could be heard in support.
The rest of the town’s budget articles passed with little discussion. In Australian balloting, Wilmington voters voted against the school budget 160-114. While there were no contested races, Adam Grinold was returned to the board on a write-in vote. Grinold had earlier announced that he would not run for another term, and was not on the ballot. In other races, Ann Manwaring was elected to the selectboard, and Dennis Richter was elected to the school board.