CHESTER, Vt. – The town moderator William Dakin opened the annual Town Meeting March 2 at 6 p.m. with Articles 1 and 2 to be voted on the following day: to elect town officials for the ensuing years; and general obligation bonds not to exceed $157,500 for the purchasing of a backhoe for the Highway Department, financed over a term of 10 years.
Article 3 passed to accept gifts and trust funds for care of cemetery lots, totaling $1,250. The board jumped to Articles 9 and 10, appropriating $4,000 to Meals on Wheels and $2,500 to Chester Fireworks for Independence Day.
Article 4 started with a presentation from Town Manager David Pisha for the town to vote to raise $3,351,306.26 in property taxes. Pisha reminded residents that the town-wide reappraisal is in progress, and all property values will be set this spring.
“Public Works was the most challenged of any of the departments,” Pisha noted. The general government budget, including town clerk, treasurer, lister, town manager, Selectboard, and so forth had a $12,760 savings in 2019. Public Safety includes fire, police, and emergency services, and their budget went over by $10,054. That included police investigations with cases going out of state, 180 calls made from the Fire Department, and the ambulance had 411 calls for service in 2019. The Parks and Recreation department had a savings of $15,900. “So all of the departments so far have been operating right on track,” said Pisha.
A large portion of the Public Works budget was affected by “highly variable weather, causing extreme havoc in the maintenance of Chester’s roads, in which we have about 120 miles,” said Pisha. “Staff could go from sanding the roads one hour, snowplowing the next, and this caused the stockpiles of both sand and gravel to become depleted at a rate that had not been experienced in recent years. Replenishing these stockpiles can be very expensive. As a result, the department experienced a deficit of $139,062, which was highly unusual.”
The capital plan is to purchase a dump truck, police cruiser, backhoe, and repair Palmer Bridge, which will be paid over a four to five-year timespan. Spreading out the budget for these items over time creates smaller payments instead of big spikes in taxes and expenses.
The only new bond that was approved was for the Emergency Services Building, with site work beginning as early as April. There is a $50,000 expenditure for that bond until 2024. In 2023, another major bond series will be completed, freeing up $123,000. At that time, the payments on the EMS bond will increase. “Again, that’s just a way to smooth out those payments,” explained Pisha.
By the middle of 2021, the EMS building will be complete. At that time, the town garage will be refurbished for $800,000, which is already included in the EMS bond, and will be used exclusively by Public Works. Both buildings will have a 50-year lifespan when they’re complete.
Gravel is becoming harder to find, is a distance away, and is more expensive. The proposal is for gravel to be extracted and made in town for the exclusive use of the town. If the Act 250 permit is approved, “it will be a huge benefit to the town,” stated Pisha. “So the benefit to Chester will be the savings of tens of thousands of dollars.”
After some public concern on Act 250, Selectboard Chair Arne Jonynas explained that previously the biggest concern of the public would be the noise of the gravel pit, in which the “crushing operation would only take place when school is not in session. It would be two to three weeks maximum during the summer.” And then you’d have the occasional trucks driving in and out.
Pisha added that the pit includes 139 acres, but “we only clear two acres at a time,” and trees surround the extraction area. “To produce our own material is one-third of the price as purchasing it elsewhere.”
Citizen Deb Epler noted that some departments did well in 2019 and asked what was being done about the departments that went over their budget, and also asked about employee health benefits.
Pisha explained that the Selectboard does monitor each department to keep track and control of budgets to the best of their ability. The town health plan does not cover vision or dental, but it does pay the premium and copays at no cost to their employees. Jonynas added that it’s “hard to manage the budget because we value our employees and their hard work.”
Public concern was about this budget’s increase of $263,719.40 over last year. Pisha reminded residents that each department is important and rhetorically asked what services the town could go without. “It is out of the Selectboard and management’s hands,” he explained. A majority of the overage was in the Public Works Department because of the unpredictable weather.
“Personally, I don’t want to see anything cut,” Jonynas expressed. It is a matter of paying for ticket items now or later. “This is what it costs to run a town,” he said, but he understands that “the middle class keeps getting squeezed further and further in an attempt to afford their taxes.”
After further discussion, Article 4 was voted on and passed, with a few opposed to the budget. Article 5 was then passed, approving the Capital Budget Reserve Fund of $452,074.84 for air paks and turnout gear for the Fire Department, signage for the town, grant matching funds for repairs to Route 35, payment on a backhoe loan in Article 2, a loader loan previously approved, repairs to Palmer Bridge to be financed over four years, and a transfer to the Bond Plan.
Articles 6, 7, and 8 allowed funds to begin in 2021 to purchase a dump truck no more than $140,000 over a term of five years, a police cruiser no more than $52,000 over a term of four years, and a loan for $100,000 to pave Sylvan Road, Peck Road, and Elm Street to be paid over a term of four years.
Articles 11 through 21 approved budgets for area organizations serving the town, including Visiting Nurse Association & Hospice, HCRS, SEVCA, Women’s Freedom Center, Senior Solutions, The Current, Windsor County Mentors, Green Mountain RSVP, Community Cares Network, Chester-Andover Family Center, and Neighborhood Connections.
At the end of the meeting, Jonynas announced the retirement of David Pisha, stating that Pisha has “worked long and hard on this community” on many projects. “He has been a strong leader and will be dearly missed.”
Jonynas reminded everyone of the Open House to celebrate Pisha to be held Friday, March 6 at 11 a.m. at the Chester Town Hall.
Pisha said that he and his wife love Chester, the people, and the community. They plan to stay in town with only a possibility of moving closer to their daughter in Washington, D.C.
Pisha received a standing ovation for his dedicated service to the town of Chester, closing the meeting with a reminder to vote March 3.