The often lively financial discussion began even before the budget article was presented. During the selectboard report, Ray White asked board chair John LaFlamme where in the town report he might find an accounting of the FEMA funds spent on cemetery cleanup. LaFlamme said that the money in question was paid to the town after the end of the fiscal year (June 30) and therefore does not appear in the current report. Another source of confusion is the fact that FEMA regarded all the different jobs involved in the ice storm cleanup as a single project.
During the auditors’ report, Margaret Bartenhagen asked why auditors Mary Brewster and Merle Eggert resigned from their positions. Speaking for herself, Brewster said, “I can no longer audit that which is not auditable.” Brewster cited repeated difficulties in getting information and accounts from the selectboard in a timely manner.
Brewster stressed that the auditors’ work is nonpolitical, being strictly a matter of following the flow of all monies into and out of the town treasury. The legally-mandated audit, said Brewster, serves to protect the town from any appearance of misconduct and from the possibility of a state audit. “So you can imagine,” she continued, “how shocked I was to be the recipient of a warning that sought to discourage me and Merle from continuing to work toward the highest of standards, not just as an elected officer of the town, but as a responsible citizen.”
Brewster had high praise for town treasurer Patricia Dow, but suggested that the selectboard use the services of a trained bookkeeper. The board’s books are currently kept by board member Mitchell Green.
Eggert said that for his part, he has served more than once as auditor and feels it is time to give someone else an opportunity. Eggert added that he thinks a lot of the unhappiness over town spending goes back to a 2007 state law allowing town governments to go into long‑term debt without a townwide vote. It is “a credit card,” said Eggert, “and it is being used.”
Greg Marguet rose to comment on “extravagant spending on equipment.” This was too much for an enraged Wayne Courser. “Where the hell is our trust?” he exclaimed. At that point, moderator Patricia Pusey cut Courser off, stating firmly that personal comment and argument would not be allowed. Pusey needed to repeat that stricture a moment later, as Keith Stone angrily addressed Eggert on the subject of the town’s new excavator and its use in Eggert’s neighborhood.
Road equipment came up once more, when Bartenhagen asked whether the town has a purchasing policy in place. Highway commissioner Bradley Rafus said that while there is no formal policy, there is a replacement schedule. Trucks, said Rafus, are expected to need replacement every 10 years, while larger machines should be replaced every 12 to 13 years.
Bartenhagen, in the course of her report as Windham Regional Commission representative, cited a survey by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that showed many towns have reduced their town and highway budgets and their property tax rates.
Chris Estep referred to that study as he opened the discussion of the proposed 2011 budget. “Our budgets are all increasing,” said Estep. “I don’t see a plan or proposal to reduce spending; do we have a reduction plan?” he asked LaFlamme. “The selectboard has worked very hard to maintain services without increasing costs,” LaFlamme replied. He cited the current gravel crushing project, which is expected to save the town $108,000 over the next few years. But there is no overall plan for reduced spending in place.
A number of questions indicated that most townsfolk have not begun thinking in terms of fiscal years. The town is now more than halfway through the fiscal year covered by the budget passed at last year’s town meeting, but none of the spending for that year is shown in the current town report. Eggert said that he has come to regard the change from a calendar to a fiscal year as a mistake. It generates confusion, he said, and does not seem to have accomplished one of its objectives, to insure that all accounts reach the auditors well ahead of the deadline for the report.
There were more questions and comments, but the proposed budget was eventually passed.
Only one other article generated any prolonged discussion. Article 12 proposed that the town “consolidate and streamline the funding and oversight of all providers of EMS and to appropriate $20,000 as an omnibus budget for EMS utilizing area agencies.”
“This is my little brainchild,” said Christina Moore, head of Halifax EMS. Her idea, Moore said, is “to allow the town to enter into binding contracts” with various agencies and to pay them on the basis of performance, rather than promise a set amount of funding.
Marilyn Allen commented that since the town already receives quarterly reports from all EMS and ambulance services operating in the town, “Shouldn’t we already know (how they are performing)?” Allen also pointed out that agencies might find it difficult to budget for the coming year if they don’t know what funding they can count on.
“Not to pick on Whitingham Ambulance,” said Paul Blaise of the Halifax EMS, but their existence “is based on an agreement between the three towns. If (WASI) doesn’t exist any more, we need to be able to direct our funds elsewhere.” Andy Rice, another Halifax EMS member, continued the theme of a possibly shaky WASI that might not be able to “fulfill its contract.” If, Rice suggested, WASI’s one full‑time employee were “sick one weekend, we’ve paid for nothing!”
Moore admitted that her proposal is a “game changer” for the relationship between the agencies and the town, but also praised WASI’s service to Halifax. LaFlamme agreed, saying, “WASI has improved incredibly over the past two years.” But the town has a contract with Rescue Inc. for its service of the Thomas Hill area, LaFlamme said; it is “very professional,” and the board would like to have similar contracts with all the agencies. At the same time, LaFlamme made it clear that the proposal does not come from the selectboard, but is a petitioned article.
Estep and Howard Alboum expressed a fear of undermining WASI. Moore said WASI has only five licensed members, while six are required. The Halifax EMS, she said, is “compensating” for WASI’s lack, and spoke of the ambulance service as being “on the brink of failure.” LaFlamme said that Moore “has already talked” to WASI, and “they’re offended by this article.” “But they’re not here!” Alboum noted. A written vote was called for, and the article passed easily.
In the school district portion of the meeting residents passed the proposed $1,398,660 budget. There was some brief discussion, but few were inclined to argue with a budget that has been reduced for the second year in a row.
In contested Australian ballot results, Edee Edwards scored an upset victory over incumbent selectboard chair Mitch Green with 144 votes to Green’s 85. Patricia Dow will step in to the town clerk’s office, with 195 votes compared to Greg Marguet’s 31.