Town Meeting Plans Discussed, Budget Revisited

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Without even the most optimistic expectation of a return to normal by the next town meeting, the state has indicated some leeway for towns over process for Town Meeting 2021.

Town Clerk Alberta Miller said that beyond the logistical impossibility of meeting the 75-person state limit on large groups, which is around half of the typical attendance for Hardwick Town Meeting, with social distancing in place, the usual site is Hardwick Elementary School and that building will be closed to public access for large groups. The legislature is expected to take up specific details in January as one of its first tasks, but the signals from the state so far are that two things are on the table: going to all-Australian ballot for Town Meetings or moving the date for those towns that felt a public forum necessary. 

The expenses that going to Australian ballot will introduce are not insignificant, and include a tabulator that costs somewhere in the range of $3,000 and another $3,500 to mail the ballots. Additionally, the added printing means that timelines to get the warning out would likely be compressed which adds pressure onto the process of putting together a final budget and town report. But the alternative of trying to postpone the meeting would create chaos, board member Shari Cornish said. 

She floated and then immediately abandoned the idea of hosting a reservation-only town meeting at the Hardwick Town House for 70 people and trying to spend more of the extra expense for a one-time occurrence toward improving the technology at that site to allow a hybrid town meeting.

Several board members raised concern at once because many of the hybrid select board meetings this year had been discombobulated by technical problems even with far fewer participants than a town meeting would require.

Chair Eric Remick added “I don’t know I’d want to be there with seventy other people,” and vice chair Elizabeth Dow said that as of right now even if vaccination met its threshold deployment by March, “we don’t know for certain the vaccine prevents transmitting the virus.” She also said “Most of the people that come to town meeting in person… [are in] a dangerous age group [for COVID].” Fielder said that while nothing had to be completely finalized now, a direction was necessary sooner rather than later. “I’ve had two calls already. I think that’s something folks don’t want to be hearing for the next couple of months.”

Business Manager Casey Rowell presented an updated budget draft. She said she had received new figures for insurance and workers’ comp. The unemployment insurance number increased by 30% since Hardwick is part of a pool of towns and many towns used unemployment insurance due to COVID even though Hardwick did not, but the amounts in Hardwick’s budget were “small to begin with” so the impact was minimal.

She had also gone over the Hardwick Police Department (HPD) budget once more. In the process of trying to explain stepping down the COPS Grant over several years to offset the end of that grant in FY2024 and avoid that number falling off a cliff all at once, everyone got confused. The question was whether the roughly-$72,000 COPS grant officer in the budget might be double-counted and in the overall payroll for the department as well. She said she will review the figures.

HPD continues to be the largest budget item for the town at $983,697, followed by highway department at $947,720, line items at $940,840, office expenses at $448,209, buildings at $78,829, payroll/part-time at $72,788, and the fire department at $47,036. In this latest revision of the budget draft, the town’s budget is at $3,519,119, a 1.56% increase. Revenues are presently at $1,051,334, a 3.5% decrease, and total property tax at $2,467,785 which is a 3.9% increase. 

How that translates to municipal property tax is still in the works since some numbers, most significantly the grand list, are not finalized. Right now it is looking like the municipal tax rate for FY2022 is estimated to be $1.31 per $100 before appropriations, up from $1.28. With appropriations (at this point the same amount as in FY2021) the rate would increase to $1.34 compared to FY2020’s $1.30.