by Stefanie Miller
Harmony and speed were the marks of town meeting this year, as all budgets and articles passed with very little discussion.
The meeting, which was held as usual in the middle school gymnasium, wrapped up in about 75 minutes.
"I think it may have been a record time," said Town Clerk Sandy Grenier.
It would have wrapped up a few seconds earlier, even, had not Sen. Julius Canns, R-Caledonia, suggested that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited. The meeting commenced with the national anthem.
Town Meeting 1998
About 300 & shy; 6.6 percent & shy; of the town's 4,521 registered voters attended town meeting. This was less than last year, but Grenier noted that last year's turnout was especially good.
School District Meeting
Anyone looking for spirited debate at town meeting this year was disappointed; the $8,823,266 school budget, for example, was approved without any discussion. This reduces the school tax rate to $1.30 per $100 of property valuation.
Superintendent David Baker said that because of the income sensitivity portion of Act 60, 90 percent of Vermonters are eligible for rebates or "prebates," which would make the effective tax rate even lower.
He said that he thought the news was good Monday night for the people of St. Johnsbury.
"The future looks bright," he said, adding, "We've got some hard work ahead of us."
"You've been through some very stressful financial times," he told the gathering. But, he added, taxpayers are at a very different spot from where they were three or four years ago.
Voters passed an article without discussion authorizing the school board to sell property at 7 Cherry St. Proceeds shall be used to establish a reserve account for capital improvements that will be under the control of the school board.
The only discussion during the school district portion of the meeting was a motion by Ward Reed to amend Article 2, the budget article. He wanted the amendment, which was defeated by voice vote, to read that if general state aid for education falls below the budgeted $6,969,053 amount for fiscal year 1999, then school district expenditures must be reduced by the amount of the state aid shortfall.
"I believe that the budget was constructed very, very well," said Reed. However, he added, the school district cannot control state aid.
"Act 60 is fundamentally flawed at its base," he said, noting that it's based on the assumption that school districts will continue to spend at the same rate.
"Now we see that that's not the case," Reed noted. Stowe has decreased its education spending, he said, while other towns have increased expenditures.
He concluded that under Act 60, filling a deficit in the fiscal year following the shortfall would be very painful.
Chairman Michele Authier said that the board would like to respectfully disagree with Reed.
"It's a moot point," she said. "We will not do deficit spending in any way."
Baker said his understanding of Act 60 is that in the transition year of the legislation, the state has an obligation to come through with aid for approved expenditures.
If the state failed to come through on aid for a bunch of towns, he said, "You're going to have pure anarchy on your hands."
He doesn't want conditions on the budget when it is sent to Montpelier; he wants it to say that this is what St. Johnsbury needs to run their schools.
Baker recognized Perley Wright, who will retire this spring after 40 years as a teacher and coach. Wright received a standing ovation.
All of the town budgets passed without discussion; the general fund of $1,299,263; the highway fund of $1,464,550; and the special services budget of $686,762.
No dialogue was held about any of the articles which will be voted on today by Australian ballot, except for Articles 16, 22 and 29.
Article 16 asks for $1,800 to put toward maintaining and operating skating rinks in town.
Marlene Rock pointed out that the same amount was asked for last year, and that since only part of it was spent due to weather conditions, the fund still has about $900 in it.
"Please vote no on Article 16," she said.
Town Manager John Hall said that if someone reminds him in December when the budget for 1999 is drafted, the amount requested for skating rinks could be reduced. It's too late to adjust the figure this year, he noted.
Carroll Ruhlman thanked St. Johnsbury voters for supporting Umbrella, which is asking for $3,800 under Article 22 this year. "Every dollar is carefully spent," she said.
Lillian Schoenemann, site manager for Meals-on-Wheels, noted that Article 29, a request for $3,500 for Meals-on-Wheels, is a new appropriation this year. She said the organization serves between 400 and 600 meals a month.
"Some people can't get along without our meals," she said.