Towns, voters prepare for meeting day

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(Host) A few towns held their annual meetings over the weekend, but most of Vermont’s annual town meetings will take place Monday night and Tuesday.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this preview of town meeting 2003:

(Zind) Vermonters will gather in schools and town halls across the state this week. They’ll pore over budgets and cast their votes. They’ll take up issues of little interest to anyone outside of their communities, and debate resolutions of global concern.

One thing seems certain: school budgets and property taxes will be the dominant theme this year.

(Steve Jeffrey) “I really am getting a sense out there that things are beginning to boil over on school budgets and particularly school tax increases.”

(Zind) Steve Jeffrey is Executive Director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. Higher costs for health insurance and special education, declining enrollment and state budget problems have all put a greater financial burden on local schools. A burden passed on to taxpayers.

School officials are anxious about the reception school budgets will get at this year’s town meetings. So is the governor. He said last week that he’s concerned about a taxpayer revolt over rising property tax rates.

In many instances this year, proposed school budgets are going up only a few percentage points, but school property tax rate increases are still soaring into double digits. That’s because of an adjustment the state makes in school taxes in towns where property is under-appraised.

The Legislature is scrambling to deal with education funding problems, but Jeffrey wonders whether taxpayers will express themselves by voting down their school budgets.

(Jeffrey) “Given the economy, given the increase in these property taxes, how much can they afford and how much are they willing to afford to support these schools? And whether they choose on Tuesday to send a message to their legislators about doing something about these escalating property taxes.”

(Zind) Jeffrey says the increasing school tax has an impact on town budgets, too. He says selectboards are scrimping on municipal budgets to try to minimize sticker shock when voters open their tax bill.

Once again this year, there are a number of non-binding resolutions on many town meeting warnings. Organizers say 85 communities, mostly in southern Vermont, will vote on a renewable energy referendum. It calls on the state to devote more resources to developing solar and wind power, and to improve energy efficiency.

John Berkowitz heads the group spearheading the effort. Berkowitz says even though the resolutions are non-binding, they’re important expressions of public opinion.

(Berkowitz) “Well, I definitely think so. It’s the democratic process at work; Vermont with it’s town meeting democracy. We feel like particularly since last year the Legislature did not pass a good renewable energy bill, so we thought it was really time to let Vermonters speak from town meeting.”

(Zind) Seventeen Windham County towns will take up a referendum urging the Legislature to prevent the re-licensing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Vernon. The plant’s current license expires in 2012.

Other resolutions include a call for limits on genetically engineered foods, a referendum expressing concern over the impact of the USA Patriot Act on civil liberties, and the Earth Charter, which calls for a just, sustainable global society. There’s bound to be a fair amount of talk about the weather, too, so there could be some long town meetings this year.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

Related link:
VPR’s Town Meeting Day coverage in available online.

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