Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
HIGHGATE — On Town Meeting Day, voters here cut $400,000 from the proposed General Fund budget, removing funds the selectboard requested to support a newly adopted capital improvement plan.
On Thursday night, the board discussed voters’ actions and how to proceed.
Outgoing chair, Jeff Towle, last night joined the board long enough to oversee the selection of a new chair, Chris Yates, and a new vice chair, Paulette Tatro.
As discussion of the voters’ decision on Town Meeting Day began, former selectboard member Richard Noel explained the history of a requirement that the town get voter approval for certain capital expenses.
Voters had been unhappy with the board in the 1960s when it purchased a truck without first getting residents’ approval, he said. At Town Meeting Day that year, voters approved a motion requiring that the selectboard bring any purchases of $5,000 or more before the voters.
Henry Rainville, a former longtime selectboard member and chair, added that it has been the habit of the town to ask before expending funds. “Historically, the voters have always had a say,” he said. “There would be an article to say ‘we want to purchase a truck this year.'”
Control over town spending “is the last bit of control they have,” Noel said of voters, noting they have less control over schools than in years past.
Yates speaking in regard to spending reserve funds, said voters already have approved setting the money aside for future equipment purchases. Asking to then spend the funds is asking twice, he noted. “If they want to vote to put the money into a reserve fund and then they want to vote to expend that money … I’m fine with that,” he said. “Tell us and we’ll put it into a policy.”
State law does allow town legislative bodies to spend funds once voters have approved their collection. Different towns have various traditions and expectations in this regard. St. Albans Town, for example, generally asks for permission to spend reserve funds, even when the purchase is for the very thing for which the reserve fund was created. In St. Albans City, the city council traditionally decides when to spend reserve funds.
Rainville also advised including town residents in the development of the capital improvement plan, getting input on which projects or equipment purchases should be in the plan. “I’m in favor of a capital plan,” he said. “But I think we need to engage the voters.”
Selectboard member Randy Connelly noted that not many people attended the meetings where the selectboard discussed the plan.
A capital improvement plan outlines a community’s anticipated capital needs over the next five years and spreads the raising of funds for those items over time. One of the reasons for the plan is to stabilize tax rates so that multiple capital needs don’t fall in the same year.
Yates pointed out that the town had known for years the Highgate Arena was going to need extensive maintenance. “Had we put $100,000 aside for 10 years, we’d have had $1 million,” he said of the arena. Instead, the town borrowed $900,000 to replace the ice at the arena last year.
“My main takeaway from Town Meeting was we need to find a way to communicate with people who aren’t on social media, aren’t tuned into the town,” said Yates.
Rainville advised that if the board had brought the capital plan to the town without price tags for the items, the townspeople might have had useful suggestions.
“It was our first swing at it,” said Yates. “It was a miss.”
Towle pointed out that Highgate has long had sources of revenue other towns do not, mainly the Highgate Springs dam, which provides electricity to Swanton Village’s utility company, and a transfer station leased by Casella Waste Services.
Revenue from the transfer station is declining as recycling increases, said Towle. The revenue is based on the tonnage handled by the station. The town, said Towle, will need to find other sources of revenue.
The board appointed incumbent Ben Lowell to a two-year position as town constable.
It also reappointed Noel as the town’s representative on the Northwest Regional Planning Commission and the Transportation Advisory Committee.
The board asked that those interested in serving on other open positions contact the town. Those positions include: town agent, tree warden, service officer, animal control officer, and deputy health officer. There are also two open seats on the development review board and town on the planning commission.
There may also be an open seat on the selectboard. No one ran for an open seat on the board, but town resident Mark “Zeb” Maskell received 20 write-in votes for the seat. However, Maskell has not responded to the town’s attempts to contact him, town officials said last night.
The board voted last night to sign a Memo of Agreement with Efficiency Vermont and Swanton Village to replace streetlights in Highgate in the village’s service area with LED fixtures. The cost of operating a single streetlight would drop from $14.48 per month to $4.49, said Yates.
Highgate’s upfront investment of $5,500 would be repaid in just over six months.
The town is considering a similar agreement with Vermont Electric Cooperative for the streetlights in its service area. However, the payback on that project was longer, nearly three years before the town would recoup its investment.