Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Town Meeting? Let's Talk about Underwear

You gotta love Town Meeting.

Even if 90% of the discussion is about budget numbers that are as dry as a speech by Gov. James Douglas, there's a certain Kabuki-like quality to the charmingly ornate process of gathering to discuss the town's business.

And speaking of Gov. Douglas, he was again absent from his role as moderator, out of Vermont on state business. He's now missed one-third of the town meetings going back to 2005, but Douglas ran again this year for the town moderator spot. It's apparently the one office to which he knows he can still get reelected.

But who worries much about the governor, when the Town Meeting discussion turns to long underwear?

My favorite comment Monday night was from a woman who noted that every time she walks into a town building in winter, it seems awfully warm in there. Couldn't the thermostats be turned down so people could comfortably wear their long underwear when they transact business in town buildings?

A reasonable suggestion, though the town staff members who labor in the drafty municipal building might see at a little differently.

The only item that required a counting of hands Monday was a request from the Addison County Humane Society for $5,000 "to support their mission to promote the ethical treatment of and the prevention of cruelty to all domestic animals and forms of wildlife." That well intended but vague wording -- and the rather large size of the request -- led Board Chairman John Tenney to pointedly indicate the board didn't support the request.

An amendment from the floor to reduce the town's contribution to $2,000 failed on a voice vote. Oddly enough, it was the subsequent vote on an even larger request for the full $5,000 that prompted the need to count the house. The measure went down to a narrow defeat.

Amid the stylized process of Town Meeting, it's always fun to hear a few idiosyncratic concerns. A review of the landscaping plans for the Cross Street Bridge, for example, led to a suggestion that trees be planted in such a way that they don't block the future use of solar panels. And had the planners thought about planting trees that could generate food?

I'll bet that was a new one to pretty much everybody in the room. And a good question, to boot.

It's a measure of how much interest there is in the new bridge that a lengthy presentation by the project engineers held the crowd's attention till nearly 11 p.m.

It will all be worth it in the end, but take note: Completion of the bridge project will turn much of the middle of Middlebury into a King Hell Mess this summer.

As one of the presenting engineers joked (paraphrasing here), "I hope you appreciated how much we didn't inconvenience you last summer with this project -- because that's all going to change."

But the end result, it appears almost certain, will be a nice new bridge with better traffic circulation, no loss of parking, and a downtown that is somewhat less choked by traffic.

Probably the most impressive thing about Town Meeting in Middlebury was the unanimous vote for the town budget. Nary a voice spoke in opposition.

Sure, there were some questions, and one sharp-penciled citizen spotted a mathematical error in the summary of the police budget. But the Select Board and town officials did a nice job of explaining how they got to the blessedly level-funded budget with no tax increase.

A round of applause, please, to the leadership of towns that manage not to raise the budget in tough economic times while continuing to provide the same level of service. Pretty impressive.

More applause for the dedicated corps of volunteers who make up the local ambulance and fire services. Every time I go to Town Meeting, in fact, I feel a swell of gratitude for living in a town where the local services are so well run.

You could see more than a little daylight, though, between the Select Board and their counterparts on the school board. In its annual report, the Select Board couldn't resist noting that while it managed to bring in a budget without tax increases, the UD3 Board -- which oversees the local middle and high schools -- put a big budget increase before the voters on Tuesday.

Here's how the Select Board put it:

"While the Board and Administration have concentrated on holding spending and the tax rate in check, we are chagrined by the prospect of a large school tax increase. Firmly committed to the need to hold taxes in check for struggling residents and businesses, the Board has taken an unprecedented stand to challenge and oppose the proposed UD3 school budget for the coming year. We hope you will join us in pressing for both local and state changes in school budgeting and funding to prevent huge tax increases."

I'm writing this before the will of the voters on the school budget is known. But certainly there will be more “no” votes on the school budget than we usually see. If the school budget goes down to defeat, it will be a sign that, while voters are happy the town didn't increase its tax rate, they are truly fed up with school tax increases.

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