Monday, March 10, 1997

Town Meeting addresses pressing issues

Published in the Mountainview

The registered voters of the town of Middlebury gathered at the Municipal Auditorium Monday night, March 3 for the annual Town Meeting. Ten items were on the agenda, two of which were voted on by Australian (secret) ballot on Tuesday. March 4. As of this writing, those results are still pending. The first seven articles were approved by voice vote, and the eighth, "other business," provided the public a chance to offer otherwise unsolicited input to the town governing process.

The meeting began with a call to order by Town Moderator James Douglas. Prior to beginning official business, Selectboard Chair Peter Lebenbaum was thanked by the board and the public for his nine-year service on the selectboard.

The reports of the town officers were presented to the attendees by members of the Selectboard. Questions from the floor were brief, and residents seemed relieved that last year's reading of printed reports had beendispensed with in favor of a more abbreviated summary presentation followed by questions. After a unanimous approval, business moved to the budget.

The annual budget for fiscal 1997/98 was discussed at length. The discussion included questions about provision of services, alternative sources of funding, and other budgetary concerns.
Concerns were raised by residents about the condition of sidewalks around town. Sidewalk repair is being level-funded this year, a fact which one resident noted was ironic because "level is the exact opposite of our sidewalk quality." A voice vote approved the annual budget and taxation amounts.

Only one comment from the floor was offered about the collection of taxes, and Town Manager Betty Wheeler explained that by popular request, the payment of tax had been split into three payments rather than the previous two, to accommodate those with less ready cash throughout the year. Wheeler also noted that, due to confusion over this year's conversion from a calendar year to a fiscal year, over half of the town residents had not paid their taxes to the town as yet. The deadline for payment is March 5.

The voters unanimously voted to spend town money on highways at a level to maintain state highway assistance funding.

The next item of business was the authorization of the use of the Village Green by St. Stephen's Episcopal Church for a building extension. St. Stephen's does not own the land on which it sits. That land is owned by the town, and use variations must be approved by the town voters. The church has long been looking to expand its facilities to accommodate more office space, an elevator, and a meeting room. Many community groups use the space, in addition to the congregation; the construction proposal is expected to benefit those groups as well. After much discussion, use of the small strip southeast of the existing structure was approved by voice vote, with some dissent. Residents' concerns included potential interference with the railroad, the border between the Village Green and the railroad property, building design, and the precedent set by this action. A member of the church's vestry explained that the Agency of Transportation had indicated no conflicts between plans for the future of the railroad and the proposed use of the land. Other issues were not appropriate for the venue, and were postponed until the appropriate point in the planning approval process.

The final issue decided at the meeting was whether the town should advise the Selectboard to continue to include in the Town General Fund Budget, funding for health and social service agencies. Currently that funding is provided within the general budget; other towns use other methods of approving municipal funding to these agencies. Selectman Bill Perkins suggested that municipal funding removes the impetus for voluntary charitable giving on the part of the public, and removes some of the drive from these organizations to raise funds from individuals in the community. Town Manager Wheeler argued that there was greater control for the town,    and greater predictability for the agencies, if money was budgeted annually by the town. Selectman Fred Copeland offered the voters a chance to have more say in how their dollars were spent, by reviewing each of the agencies' proposals separately from the town budget. Board members of several agencies offered their opinions, which largely indicated that Seleetboard review was more thorough than the general public would undertake, so scrutiny of agency budgets was stricter with the current system. Members of the public also offered their approval to the Selectboard for their handling of the matter to date, and suggested that the Selectboard continue to review those agencies which have traditionally been funded by municipal dollars. The advisory voice vote was to continue to include the funding within the general town budget.

Other business included a question about dog license fees, a proposal for the outlawing of smoking tobacco products by those not allowed by law to buy tobacco, and a commendation to the American Legion for donating their old property on Creek Road to the town for recreational purposes, expected to be youth activities.

The meeting ended at 10 PM, after all business was concluded.