Rockingham Selectboard will ask voters to take town meeting survey

BELLOWS FALLS, Vt. – The Rockingham Selectboard held their bi-monthly meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 6 p.m., in the lower theater of the Bellows Falls Opera House. Chair Peter Golec called the meeting to order, and quickly began running down the agenda.

Rockingham, Vt.

Town manager Scott Pickup reported that two of the projects begun this past summer, paving Pine Street and repairing sidewalks, won’t be able to be completed until next Spring, but the budget for each will not increase. Pickup also gave an update on the removal of trees related to the Depot Street Bridge project, telling the board that the final design meeting is yet to be scheduled, but he expected the project would go out to bidders in late winter.

RHR Smith & Company Managing Partner Ron Smith was in attendance via Zoom to present the board with the audit of the fiscal year ending June 30, 2023. Smith began by telling the board the auditors were about a month ahead of schedule, but remarked, “If there was such a thing as a bad budget year for Rockingham, where you kind of got hit by many things, this [2023] audit was one of them. Public works being one, fuel costs, maintenance costs…”

Smith listed some of the items that negatively impacted the budget during 2023, including unexpected repairs and equipment purchases, and the rising cost of town salaries and benefits, but concluded the year, “could have been a lot worse.” His biggest concern was that the town fund balance had gone down from 60 to 45 days, the lowest it has been for several years.

“Back in 2021,” Smith commented, “the [Build Back Better Act] was passed and was just signed into law in August 2023. There is a lot of money [$2.5 billion] coming to the State of Vermont for infrastructure needs for local governments. Maybe we can inject some cash back into Rockingham’s pocket over the next 2-3 years,” Smith remarked.

Parks and recreation director Ryan Stoodley was at the meeting to discuss some issues his department had during the summer months finding qualified lifeguards and other staff to operate the town recreational program. Stoodley said they start looking for qualified applicants in January, to hire staff to start in May, and each year it’s gotten more difficult to fill the positions.

Pickup referred to the challenge as “the hunger games,” and expressed that Rockingham used to be able to work with neighboring communities, but the scarcity of prospective employees throughout the area has put a strain on that collaboration. The department is “thinking outside the box,” and “looking at non-traditional solutions.”

Stoodley presented how Vermont’s requirements for PCB levels in schools will affect the town’s winter recreation program. Reporting that the PCB test results from the high school should be back soon, and the middle school had an upcoming date set for testing, Stoodley said the hope is that the renovation of the high school nearly a decade ago eradicated the issue there. But if the numbers came back dangerously high, Stoodley mentioned he had a back-up plan to work out a shared schedule with Westminster.

The board confirmed the appointment of Ryan Gumbart and Gary Fox to the planning and zoning department, as zoning administrator, and acting administrator, respectively.

Board member Bonnie North was in attendance after suffering a stroke last month and temporarily stepping away from her duties. North and fellow board member Rick Cowan had been working together to collect community feedback regarding the importance of town meetings, how to improve them, increase attendance, and attract more voter participation. North and Cowan created a survey to send to all registered voters that “would get everybody’s attention.”

Cowan described the benefits of preserving the town meeting, stating, “It is a tradition that goes back to the founding of our town, and is a form of direct democracy, calling for citizen participation.” That active participation, Cowan explained, is vital, with folks able to talk and exchange views, hear others’ opinions, and get to know their neighbors. However, low attendance at the meetings has created concern among board members that the voice of the majority is not being heard.

The non-binding survey will be posted online on the town website, and postcards will be mailed to voters, and be made available at various locations around town.

The board approved North’s request of $2,000 to cover the costs of conducting the survey, including printing and mailing expenses, and the purchase of the online survey program SurveyMonkey.

The board discussed adding a hot-button issue to the town meeting’s agenda, an idea proven to generate an increase in the number of attendees. That topic might be an address of concerns regarding town EMS services, with Pickup stressing the urgency of working on a solution to the current emergency response management system.

The selectboard will meet next on Tuesday, Nov. 21.

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