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Westmore Town Meeting

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Select board expanded to five

by Kenzie Strange

WESTMORE — Before Town Meeting in Westmore began, current select board member Pete Hyslop said he was “nervous” about the vote concerning the change in select board size and wanted the community to weigh in.  Miriam Simonds, a fellow board member, said it’s “best to let the people decide.”

About 70 people were at the Westmore Community Church Fellowship Hall on March 5.  The majority of attendees were over the age of 60, with a few younger people sprinkled in.

It took about three hours to get through the  21 Articles on this year’s Warning.  A lunch break was considered, but a different intermission was provided halfway by a visit and address from House Representative David Templeman of Brownington.

In an impromptu speech, Mr. Templeman spoke about concerns people have about rising tax rates, saying there are 29 factors that influence tax rates, and as he’s not a member of the House Ways and Means Committee can’t claim an expert’s perspective. Representative Templeman serves on the Agriculture, Food Resiliency, and Forestry Committee.

Mr. Templeman said he thinks what Ways and Means does is “not nefarious” but still believes state money could be handled better.  With coffee in hand, he said he shares concerns about taxes felt by other citizens.

“What we’re looking at right now is a moving target,” he said.

Mr. Templeman said he wants retirement funds and pensions protected, and teachers, students, and schools taken care of.

He told Westmore residents that he has regular monthly “office hours” at different restaurants around his district.  His next meeting will be at 9 a.m.  on March 16 at The Carriage House in Orleans.

When voters considered the article calling for the expansion of the select board, some said people thought it a “good time to give it a try,” that “the select board is handling a lot,” and their responsibilities seem to increase every year.  Issues regarding Lake Willoughby continue to grow, as do other responsibilities.

Nancy Mallory, of Westmore, said she considers the select board seats to be “volunteer positions” because of how small the pay is.

The select board runs “a multi-million dollar business,” and Ms. Mallory thinks spreading the work out to five people is better.

One person said that if there are three people and one of them is out, a vote can’t be held.   That would be the case if, and has been sometimes, in the past when a board member was sick, but was also the case in the last board meeting in Westmore, when Mr. Hyslop walked out of the meeting after a conflict of interest accusation was made during a recent select board meeting.   Mr. Hyslop said he felt “too uncomfortable” to stay.  The reason he gave was that two of the people who made the accusations were on the agenda, so he left.

In fact two people can vote at a select board meeting, but can’t resolve a tie.

Westmore resident Tony Strange said creating a five-member board is good because “two heads are better than one” and that “five heads are better than three.”  Others reasoned having a larger board would save time on decisions, give residents more choices about “who to complain to,” and create a lighter workload for the board.

With five people, another said, the board will be able to create more committees and recruit more citizens for community involvement.

On a voice vote citizens decided to have a five-member select board.  As part of the motion it was decided to elect one person to a one-year term and select another to hold a board seat for two years. That way select board terms will be properly staggered. Russell Curtis won the one year term.  Bill Perkins was chosen for the two-year seat

“I have a very good understanding of what our board deals with and I’m happy to do my part assisting, so I appreciate your support,” he said.

David Stevens was reelected and will stay on the select board for another three years.

Voters decided property tax payments will be due on or before Sunday, October 20.  Town Clerk Elaine Cashin reminded everyone, “there’s no mail on Sundays.”

When the question of whether to allow the select board to use a portion of unspent general fund surpluses to offset the 2024 municipal tax rate came up, some wanted all unspent money used to lower taxes.  Others argued that it would be in Westmore’s best interests to save for a rainy day.

Treasurer John Zimmer said the town relies on the surplus fund for deficit spending.  He said if Westmore ever needs a loan, “banks look upon it favorably, if you have some kind of surplus.”

With general, restricted, and committed funds already spoken for, the surplus funds have appealing flexibility.  The motion to use some of the funds passed easily on a voice vote.

A general fund budget of $265,000 was proposed by the select board.  Some community members argued the budget could be cut to as low as $195,000, but that would mean cutting things like trash pickup.  Most thought the savings wouldn’t be worth the loss of services and the budget was passed by an overwhelming margin.

Some also challenged the proposed $348,231 highway budget.

Town resident Richard Mallory said, “I’m pretty sure it can be done cheaper.”  He said the town ought to be frugal and that “we do more for our roads than other towns.”  One of the things Mr. Mallory brought up was a $1,100 chainsaw the highway department recently purchased.

Road Foreman Daniel Sicard defended the purchase, saying he went to three places and that was the most reasonable price for the specific chainsaw needed.  In response to another challenge about a budget line for providing clothing for highway workers, Mr. Sicard said, most towns buy clothing.

Right now, the department already has limitations, he said.  It “can only do pieces” sometimes and are lacking some essential equipment, including a truck to haul stone.

The road budget passed on a voice vote as did items calling for paving funds of $50,000, gravel and sand reserves of $40,000, and a capital improvement fund of $20,000.

Voters approved a $80,000 contribution to the town equipment reserve fund, which is mostly being used to save up for a new truck.

Westmore citizens voted to add $6,000 to the cemetery reserve fund and to put $14,768 into the milfoil program fund.

While $30,000 was voted for the Westmore Fireman’s Association, some said the money could be better looked after.

The church bells went off at noon, signaling a lunch break, but Moderator Andrew Berley encouraged the people to keep going, as there were only a few agenda items left.  He said they could tackle them before lunch.

The only disagreement in the consideration of 17 appropriations for social service agencies was whether to add $500 to the town’s contribution to the Barton Public Library budget to make it equal to the $2,500 allocated to the Jones Memorial Library.

Total appropriations were originally budgeted at for $11,580, but after boosting Westmore’s contribution to the Barton library, that rose to $12,080.

Discussion about how to increase participation in Town Meeting was the basis for Articles 18 and 19, which asked whether the Westmore should move the meeting to Saturday or start at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday.  Last year at a special Town Meeting, voters turned down a proposal to move to Australian ballot.  The two scheduling change proposals came out of discussions at that meeting.

“I don’t understand why people want to break tradition,” one person said.

“It’s only 250 years old,” another community member commented.

After discussion, those in attendance decided to keep things as they have been with a Town Meeting starting at 10 a.m. on the first Tuesday in March.

The last two articles appeared to be related. Both addressed taxes related to tourism in the area.  They both called for taking advantage of state law on local options to add 1 percent to the state’s 9 percent hospitality taxes  One would add 1 percent to the meals and alcoholic beverage tax, the other would do the same for the rooms tax.

It’s an “opportunity for more levers to pull,” one person said, to pull in income beyond personal taxes.

Another asked, “Why would I pay when I can go five miles down the road and pay less?”

Article 20 regarding meals and alcohol taxes failed, while Article 21 passed.  While some may feel a slight pinch from its passage, the measure is meant to pull a little more money from the tourists using Airbnb in the area.

While most at the meeting are longtime Westmore residents, mostly in retirement age, some were young and new.

Maggie Patton, 35, and her partner, Josh Tipton, 34, were a couple of the younger attendees.  They moved to Westmore from Hawaii in the fall after living in the island state for six years.  They said they wanted to be “closer to family in New England, live in a safe community, and enjoy the nature of Vermont.”

Ms. Patton said she likes being able to put faces to the names of those who run the town she lives in and was glad she attended Town Meeting. She said her interest was partially inspired by the TV show Gilmore Girls, her “favorite show of all time.”  In the show the lead characters go to Town Meeting.

After the meeting was over, there was a spread of food for attendees to enjoy together for lunch.  There was chicken noodle soup, bacon wrapped wieners, cornbread, pesto pasta salad, and four kinds of cookies.

An item that was not on the Warning was the last topic spoken about at Town Meeting.  Most want “no wake boats on Lake Willoughby,” and said the shouts and claps to suggestions for banning boats that leave a wake “should give the select board an idea of where people stand.”

 

 

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