by Doug McClure
WOLCOTT – As the 2021 budget planning begins, the Wolcott Select Board heard appropriations requests from three organizations that have not asked for funding before, discussed ways to explain property taxes to citizens, and discussed the funding for the listers and zoning.
Historically, appropriations from new organizations need to get petitions signed to appear on the town meeting warning, but with a pandemic raging that process is unsafe, and the board decided several meetings ago to drop that requirement for this upcoming year.
The first appropriations request came from Craftsbury Saplings. Alison Fischman was on Google Meet as a representative and as a parent of a child who attends Craftsbury Saplings. She described the program as a “nonprofit childcare center and they provide universal Pre-K.” What funding the organization takes in, said Fischman, is “to offset the cost for the families” and she noted that “especially since there’s no longer a preschool in Wolcott” the current enrollment of five children from Wolcott is likely to increase. Craftsbury Saplings is asking for $500, which is the same as the organization asks from Albany and far less than the $6,000 that she said Craftsbury funds. The board approved adding the appropriation to the warning.
Another new request came from Morrisville-based North Central Vermont Recovery Center, for $1,000. Executive Director Daniel Franklin and Vice President Imelda Turner spoke to the need in the community the organization fills, and how COVID had impacted their organization, which describes itself as “a non-profit corporation dedicated to providing an upbeat, welcoming, safe, and substance-free environment for individuals and families on their paths to lasting recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.”
Turner said “We’ve seen such an increase in the consumer needs during the COVID situation. The safety of our citizens is really important to us. People are really stressing these days. The recovery center has coaches who walk them through difficult situations.”
Franklin said that while almost half their funding is from grants and private donors, the rest is made up in part through fundraisers. “This year, we haven’t been able to hold any in-person fundraisers, so we’re looking for town support.” He said that the shortfall is in the neighborhood of $45,000. The board approved adding the $1,000 appropriations request.
Lamoille Housing Partnership (LHP) asked to be added to the warning for $300. Representative Kerrie Lohr described LHP as working to “build new and rehab existing affordable housing within Lamoille County and the town of Hardwick.” She said one in three people rent in the Lamoille Valley and about half of those people “struggle to afford rent,” which LHP works to ameliorate. Lohr said the market rate for rentals in the Lamoille Valley ranges on average from $900-$1500 excluding utilities and LHP rentals range from $79-$940 including utilities, and more housing is slated to be opened through their initiatives in the coming months. She said over 440 residents have found affordable homes through LHP this year. Select board chair Kimberly Gravel asked why no housing was available through LHP in Wolcott, and while Lohr could not answer that question, select board vice chair Linda Martin said that the problem is that Wolcott has no public water and sewer, which runs afoul of the grant requirements that fund LHP. The board approved adding the request.
In terms of budgeting, one larger-ticket item the board briefly discussed was employee health insurance. Wolcott currently uses Blue Cross/Blue Shield, but the town is investigating MVP Healthcare because that could save the town between $11,000 and $14,000, according to board member Kurt Klein. Klein and the board wanted those employees to research if MVP would meet their coverage and prescription needs to help make a decision. Gravel said in her case that had not proven to be so. Town Administrator Randall Szott said while Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is not in the MVP coverage, all Vermont hospitals are.
The listers asked for level funding, keeping to the standard inflation-based 2% increase. Zoning wanted less money by about $1,100. It was noted that several select board members have family who are in these departments being reviewed for budgeting, which raised concerns about a conflict of interest, though the board was cautious to not make motions on any items on this night and only say the requests were filed.
“We need to think about how we’re going to maneuver this,” said Gravel. “Right now, we’re just accepting [the budgets] on a piece of paper, but when the time comes we need to think about how to maneuver this.”
Martin disputed that the conflict was a major concern and said she wanted to sign the budget once she was confident it was as tight as possible. She said in the end, the voters were the ones who would approve or shoot down the budget, and with no floor vote on the table for this year, Australian ballot voting should encourage more participation.
Property taxes were brought up by Klein. He said, “there are a number of taxpayers who are kind of sounding the alarm about their tax bill and asking the question as to how their taxes are calculated and why the increase is what the increase is.”
Town Clerk Belinda Clegg said that the issue was more specific. Noting that despite the pandemic, “around the same amount” of taxpayers were past due this November compared to 2019, she said “I’ve had a good response from people paying their taxes and only had two complaints. I don’t think people necessarily are upset about paying their taxes, I think they want to see where their money’s going.”
Noting a projected major increase in the education tax, Gravel said “we can’t keep having the increases we’ve had in [town] taxes” and Martin said this year especially “has to be a really good, tight budget.”
The board and Szott decided that education for taxpayers was an aspect that should be explored in detail, so people understood their tax bills. Some do not understand that the town has no control over the education property tax rate, which Szott pointed out is not only tied to changes in the school budget, but also driven by the state allocation formula for all schools. One suggestion was to put information in the town report to help clarify things.
Zoning Administrator Tom Martin chimed in to say that from what he had seen, the property market was on fire in Wolcott this year, and “things are selling a lot higher than valued and [there’s] a lot of sales and some new properties.” He also noted that Wolcott has four times the rate of tax exemption for veterans than the minimum that the state mandates, but no one on the board wanted to discuss the issue. Under Vermont law, towns must deduct $10,000 per $100,000 for properties owned by veterans in specific cases, but towns can opt to deduct as much as $40,000, which Wolcott does. Tom Martin agreed that education was important because some programs such as Current Use are not clearly understood. While the property owner does get a reduction if accepted, that reduction is reimbursed to the town by the state in the following year.
One further topic of discussion suggested that the town report’s dedication should, in Linda Martin’s view, be reflective of the COVID crisis “in case someone picks up the town report 50 years from now.” Board members had suggestions such as photographing signs placed at the Wolcott Store, the post office, and the town offices.
Beyond budgeting, the board heard from Road Foreman Dillan Cafferky about a new issue created by the removal of the bridge on Fort Hill Road. With the configuration changed, “it’s a lot tighter, there’s very little room to turn a truck around” said Cafferky. While the town has a smaller truck that can plow the area, that truck can’t sand. Whether creating a turnaround within the town right-of-way is possible will be investigated. Cafferky said that the new plow was in New York and should be in this week. He had no further updates on the grader’s arrival date but still expected it by Christmas. Regarding what Gravel referred to as “Nightmare Truck 13,” that piece of equipment continues to live up to its number. Cafferky said it had a problem with the exhaust, and then he’d had to drive to Milton to get a replacement alternator for it. “Just nickel and dime stuff,” he said.