A model of efficiency
by Peggy Stevens
With 65 residents in attendance at 10 Tuesday morning, Charleston voters got to work, tearing through the Town Meeting agenda and breaking records for speed and efficiency as warned items were dispatched one by one.
Perennial moderator Jean Wilson was once again elected unopposed, commanding attention as she informed the audience of the rules of order, then led off with the 2023 School Meeting.
In school business, Ryan Besaw was elected, unopposed, to another term on the school board. Teri Gray was re-elected as the school treasurer.
Mary Esposito, school board chair, then reviewed this coming year’s budget of $2,664,868.00. She reported an increase in funding from the State Education Fund, which, combined with savings from the unfortunate shortage in staffing this year, allowed the increase in the school tax to be held at 5 cents per hundred dollars of assessed valuation.
Select board chair Pat Austin, who formerly chaired the school board, checked in with Ms. Esposito, warning against making too drastic a budget cut, which could work against the town in the future if it requires an increase in next year’s budget. Principal Chris Lawson clarified that because the board was able to apply funds from the staffing shortage savings, a future increase is less likely. With that, the budget passed without opposition and the school meeting closed at 10:14 a.m..
On to town business, with the election of officers. For select board, sitting select board member Larry Young was challenged by Tim Jenness, but willingly offered to step down in that case, saying, “I’ll be eighty years old by the time my term is up!” Mr. Jenness was elected unanimously, as was every other officer without opposition.
Janice Bowen of West Charleston is the new town auditor and also cemetery commissioner, replacing Dean Bennett who declined to run again. Grace Frizzell, reelected as delinquent tax collector is also a new cemetery commissioner, following another resignation.
The first and second town constable positions, having gone unfilled for some time, are now occupied by the husband-and-wife team of Mike and Anya Tynio.
After voting to authorize the treasurer to collect current taxes with a final due date of Friday, October 20, 2023, voters forged on to Article 4, the town budget. The voters authorized, again without opposition, the new budget of $935,658.56, an increase of $39,000 over last year due to increased costs for parts, diesel, sand, and gravel.
Discussion ensued about the issue facing most every town in Vermont this year, the effect of increasing property values on property taxes. Properties have been selling at much higher rates than previously valued in Charleston and everywhere else, which affects the common level of appraisal and tax rates. Mr. Austin again took the mike to explain that the hope is that by the time a new reappraisal date is set by the state, the tax rate may have adjusted itself back down as property values decline to more reasonable prices.
Bob Devaney then rose to honor former Road Foreman, Bernie Pepin, or “St. Bernard” as Mr. Devaney fondly referred to him, who suddenly died in the last year. He assured the audience that Bernie is sorely missed, but that Wendell Hastings, Mr. Pepin’s successor, is doing a fine job, having worked well with and learned well from Mr. Pepin.
The Charleston Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) budget of $52,291.26 was roundly approved after CVFD Treasurer Blair Moulton informed voters that they had found the best price for dispatching through Newport City. Because Charleston and Morgan split the costs fairly, the rate for local dispatch services is far less than the $15,000 annually it would cost to go through the state system.
As Ms. Wilson introduced the appropriations for various charitable organizations and human services providers, Mr. Austin rose for the last time to explain that as long as requests did not exceed the previous year’s, they were able to bundle all appropriations without requiring petitions as previously was the case. If any organization desires an increase, a petition signed by 5 percent of Charleston voters will be required.
One voter ask whether “We are being double taxed” for these services, but Sherie Lucas responded that these services and programs “run at a deficit, and resources don’t meet the needs of our communities.” The level-funded total of $12,374 was approved without further question.
In new business, the final agenda item, Peggy Stevens introduced herself and John Kellogg as the Charleston representatives to the Communications Union District Governance Board, committed to improving and expanding internet service in rural Vermont communities. Representatives attend meetings to get and share information between the governance board and the Charleston Select Board. NEK Broadband is an organization dedicated to improving internet access to Northeast Kingdom residents. Vermont has some of the worst internet accessibility in the nation, and the rural Kingdom towns have some of the worst internet access in Vermont.
A quick survey in January confirmed what many Charleston residents already know — they are not well served with broadband connections, especially on the back roads. Many folks are paying more per month in order to be able to work and learn at home via the internet because their service is so slow.
Ms. Stevens urged all residents, even those who are not internet users, to sign up with getnekbroadband.org and to spread the word to family, friends and neighbors. The more people who sign up, the higher priority for Charleston to get connected to better, faster internet service. This will also increase opportunity for Charleston to be awarded the grants that are required to offset costs for improved service.
Voters were directed to a table at the meeting where folks could sign up. Charleston residents will also be able to sign up at the Charleston Town Clerk’s office after March 7. There will also be a post on Charleston Coffee, the town Facebook page. The best way to ensure better internet service sooner than later is for as many folks in town as possible to register with NEKBroadband.
Unfortunately, the usual luncheon was not available, which was not a calamity since the meeting closed at 10:48 a.m. However, the Charleston Girl Scout troop did a brisk business at their Girl Scout cookie table, much to the community’s delight.