Rockingham holds hybrid Town Meeting in person and online

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – On Monday, March 1 the Rockingham Town Meeting was held at the Bellows Falls Opera House with limited attendance as well as virtually on Zoom. Sixty-seven residents participated via Zoom and about 20 were in attendance. The 2020-2021 Town Report was dedicated to Steve James, a resident, business owner, philanthropist of Bellows Falls since 1965.

Resident Doug McPhee had questions on Article 2, “to receive and act upon the reports of the Town Officers for the past year,” regarding Town Hall building expenses of $91,000 and the Revolving Loan Fund. McPhee questioned whether the allotted $45,000 in the next fiscal year was sufficient.

Municipal Manager Scott Pickup explained that outside of the capital repairs to the roof, clock, and heating and cooling systems, “the $45,000 was a good number going forward.”

McPhee asked about outstanding loans and if they were paid back in a timely manner. Board member Peter Golec explained that he and Gaetano Putignano were on the Revolving Loan Fund Committee and with the exception of maybe one or two in litigation, all were paying on their loans.

McPhee cautioned the manager and board to watch the delinquencies, pointing out that three companies on the list had closed. He also complimented everyone on “a very good budget.”

During discussion on Article 5, regarding a fiscal year 2022 budget of $6,021,089 with $5,122,944 to be raised by taxes, Village President Deborah Wright said they had waited to get the full audit in the Town Report and only received a few pages that night. She was “hoping to have the entire audit here.”

Pickup explained that last year the auditors had requested updates resulting in a large number of adjustments from previous years. He said, “It was an accounting activity that required a tremendous amount of updates.” Pickup added that the difficulties of remote auditing made the town miss the deadline for publication but explained that this “did not impact our overall financial performance.”

Trustee James McAuliffe asked, “What is the impact of this budget on the tax rate versus the previous year?”

Finance Director Shannon Burbela explained that “this budget was level-funded and because our grand list increased slightly…it was a negative impact.”

Wright clarified that on Article 7, the appropriation of funds to area social service agencies, that the Bellows Falls Community Bike Project was supposed to receive $5,000, not the posted $2,500. Voters had approved $5,000 at last year’s Town Meeting with the same amount to be promised going forward. Pickup agreed the actual funds were $5,000 and that the Community Bike Project would receive that amount.

Laurel Green wanted to clarify that The Current had merged with the MOOver, and they were the ones receiving funds. She gave her support and said, “[I] look forward to being post-Covid so we can make better use of the bus system.”

McAuliffe wondered if Meeting Waters YMCA had any current activities in Bellows Falls. Development Director Gary Fox said the YMCA found a space in the Greater Rockingham Area Services Building at the health center and held after-school and summer activities.

Amy Howlett commended the Selectboard and municipal officers on the detailed Town Report and said it was “great to read what the money was used for and how many Rockingham residents benefited” and appreciated “a well-written report.”

On Article 10 regarding the vote on tax-exempt properties, McPhee asked if the town paid for the school tax on tax-exempt properties? Lister Paul Obuchowski replied that the town does absorb that tax.

Article 12 addressed whether Rockingham voters should adopt the town budget by Australian ballot, commencing with the 2022 town annual meeting. Town moderator L. Raymond Massucco clarified that due to Covid-19 the Selectboard was able to move for an Australian ballot this year specifically. This article would address future town meetings.

David Lambert commented, “If we make the vote on the town budget by Australian ballot permanently, it spells the end of Town Meeting as traditionally held in Rockingham.” He added that last year taxpayers amended the budget on the floor, but “if the budget goes to only [Australian ballot], then we won’t have an option of changing the budget… For those reasons, I will vote against that article tomorrow.”

Susan Brace agreed with Lambert. “It would seem to end town meeting as a real useful exercise in local democracy,” she said.

Jonathan Wright supported Australian ballot as it “allows more people to have the opportunity to vote on the budget.” He pointed out that average participation at the Town Meeting was about 100 people, while average numbers at the poll were closer to 700.

At the end of the meeting, board member Susan Hammond wanted to thank all previous staff who are longer employed with the town and “who dedicated many years to the town of Rockingham.”

Deborah Wright acknowledged the service of Putignano, Ben Masure, and Stefan Golec for their “due diligence on the budgets.”

On Tuesday, March 2, the majority of about 550 Rockingham voters passed all budgets as well as the Article 12 for voting by Australian ballot in 2022. On Tuesday at 7:45 p.m., new Selectboard members Bonnie North, Rick Cowan, and Elijah Zimmer were sworn in.

Selectboard meetings were set for the first Wednesday and third Tuesdays of the month at 6 p.m. with the next meeting scheduled for March 16 in the Lower Theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

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