Hardwick Budget Nearly Finished

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – At its first meeting of 2022, the Hardwick Select Board received an update from Town Manager David Upson about the wastewater treatment plant. The board also mulled how to handle Town Meeting with the Omicron-fueled spike in COVID, and heard from Vermont ATV Sportsman Association (VASA) Executive Director Danny Hale about a proposal to invite ATV traffic partway into the village.

The nearly finalized $3,564,808 budget was presented by business manager Casey Rowell. For FY2023, the estimated tax rate is $1.4267, up from the FY2022 rate of $1.3092. Rowell said some of the town’s capital fund is being used to cushion the tax impact. Upson said he had been notified by New England Municipal Consultants Vice President Matt Krajeski, who the town uses for lister services, that Hardwick’s Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) had sunk to 88.45% due to the surge in homes being purchased over appraised value during COVID. If the CLA drops below 85%, it triggers a state-mandated re-appraisal, which could cost in the neighborhood of $150,000. 

Upson said he had met with the wastewater plant’s engineers, Aldrich + Elliott (A+E), and the state to tackle the expensive problem of sludge removal. He said that A+E had expressed concerns over what they described as “astronomical” construction costs, with all the bids coming in over the cost of the bond. Grants are being sought to cover the added expense. One idea on the table that the board has discussed on multiple occasions is directing the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the town received from the federal government to the project, or, as Chair Eric Remick described it, “we’re just going to send it down the sewer.” Even if the entire $855,277 were allocated to the sludge removal, it would still not cover the estimated $1.2 million needed. The board can raise the bond amount by up to $200,000 without going back to voters. No decisions were made, as the adjustments are still being sorted out. 

Town Meeting was discussed, but no decision was made as the state legislature is still working on a bill to allow towns to only do Australian ballot voting. Board member Elizabeth Dow said “it just seems that out of what is being called an abundance of caution doing it as we did it last year feels responsible. If this particular Omicron variant does in fact go in waves, it may have passed through the community by then, but we’re seeing it take effect now and it’s only five or six weeks until Town Meeting. It feels like it would be a good thing to put off an in-person Town Meeting just one more year and hope it’s over by then.” Remick said he had a sense of deja-vu, remembering that the same thing had been said last year.

Thus far, if the board were to resume in-person Town Meeting, the school has not declined to host it, but Town Clerk Alberta Miller said that if the voting were held there it would mean strict masking protocols. Remick said that he felt an in-person meeting would result in people more vulnerable to COVID being less likely to vote. It was pointed out that last year Miller mailed ballots to every address in town and that had resulted in higher turnout. She added that if the board elected to vote by Australian-ballot-only again, she would need a tabulator, but the costs associated with that were reimbursed by the state last year. 

VASA said it is responding to a request from many town business owners in proposing extending ATV access to the blinking light. Currently, the access only goes from Mackville Road south to Carey Road, and the proposed change would make the section of Vermont 14 from Carey Road to the blinking light open to ATVs. Upson and Hale both expressed multiple times that ATVs on the road would be treated with all the same safety requirements as cars and trucks are now. Hale said the state wants to make sure safety concerns are addressed and also wants to make sure residents want the extension. Upson added that there would be substantial signage making it clear where ATVs were allowed.

At the meeting wrapped up, board member Michael Deering said he wanted to reiterate that the Atkins Field skating rink needed to be re-opened, which would require a new liner. He said that when it was open he saw frequent use of the rink by children and adults. Vice chair Galloway-Kane is on the recreation committee that oversees the rink and said the concern is the increased amount of vandalism at Atkins Field. The rink had seen its own damage from vandalism.