Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Town Meeting Day: 5/12 Winter


Mother Nature threw pretty much everything she had at us on Monday during Town Meeting Day -- snow, rain, sleet, hail, graupel, black ice, and minor flooding. The only thing missing was a tornado. But maybe there was one and I just missed it.

Town Meeting Day is of course the one solemn day each year when people all over the great state of Vermont gather together and pretend they can understand a municipal budget.

In Middlebury's case alone, the budget ran to nearly 1,000 lines. (Line 55: Sales/Accident Reports; Line 812, Operating Supplies for Flag Football.)

I dutifully attended Town Meeting in Middlebury, where I was disappointed to find that the cozy confines of the Town Hall Theater were not in use this year for the meeting. Instead we were stuck with the cavernous, badly lit, generally pall-inducing municipal gym.

Apparently the town officials wanted us to leave early.

Sitting in that gym always reminds me of taking finals exams at my high school, which was built using the same kind of Depression Chic architecture. Just being in the gym, useful though the space may be, evokes a sense of exam-time déjà vu, guaranteed to make me wish I was home watching reruns of Family Guy.

This year's meeting saw the return of Town Moderator Jim Douglas (né Governor Douglas) after an absence of at least a couple years.

Say what you want about Douglas’s politics as governor, but he does run a smooth meeting.
And with his radio-trained voice, he can make even the dullest of subjects sound as if they should be interesting, mellifluously reading a budget item about "a single-axle, medium-duty plow truck" as if it were the latest news from the Middle East.

The former governor's characteristically dry wit was unfortunately little in evidence. It was only after the end of discussion and voting that he got a chance to crack wise.

Rising from the audience, former select board member Peg Martin asked Douglas, "Mr. Moderator, is it illegal for me to offer a perhaps germane comment?"

"Well," he replied, barely suppressing a smile, "we won't know until we hear it."

Then noting that the meeting had in fact moved on to "Other Business," Douglas allowed that “virtually anything is germane at this point."

Even with a 2.6% tax increase at a time when we are barely digging ourselves out of the Great Recession, the town budget was approved by an overwhelming majority. Just a couple of scattered "no" votes arose from the gathering of happy campers.

The voters are just fine with expenditures totaling $6.8 million. But ask them to allocate another $5,000 for the local Humane Society, and things get lively. Suddenly the question under discussion is the moral equivalent of war, with heartfelt opinions voiced on both sides of the question.

In comparison to last year when the Humane Society came out on the losing end of two votes, the organization was better prepared for this year's meeting and indeed fared better -- coming away with its requested appropriation from the town.

As more than one speaker noted, the appropriation of $5,000 was greater than the town grants to some of the worthy agencies that serve humans, among them Women in Crisis and the John Graham shelter for homeless people.

On other topics, one could pick up all kinds of momentarily interesting though ultimately useless information at Town Meeting.

We learned, for example, that Middlebury has 64 miles of town roads and an astonishing 15 miles of sidewalk. (Imagine what it would take to shovel the snow off all that sidewalk if it were done by hand.)

We were informed that the approximately $47,000 in annual debt on the new police headquarters is less money than it costs to heat the municipal building each year. (Another reason to hate that gym.) The town is facing an eye-popping 17% increase in the annual cost for employee health insurance. The newer diesel engines in town trucks now use urea – which according to Stan Warner, the town director of operations, sometimes makes the exhaust smell like French fries and at other times like hotdogs. A product called Ice B’Gone now supplements the 24 tons of salt the town throws on its roads each winter and, because it is less corrosive, is extending the life of our vehicles.

It was also a revelation to find that winter consists of five-twelfths of the year. For budgeting purposes, anyway, the town’s yearly budget for highway maintenance is divided up into “summer” consisting of seven-twelfths of the year, and “winter” for the other five-twelfths of the year.

Remember that old joke about how winter in Vermont is 10 months long, followed by two months of bad sledding? Not anymore. Now winter accounts for only half that much of the year, five-twelfths in all.

Apparently global warming truly has taken its toll.

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