Orange, Vermont 2010 Town Meeting
We are taking pigs to butcher very early in the morning, about 3 or 4 am. This means we load them the night before with plenty of hay and they get to sleep in the comfort of the van. Usually this is fine, we just back the van up the the loading ramp, load the pigs in the evening and are then ready to drive away early the next morning.
Except, tonight is town meeting night. This annual operation of Democracy happens in the evening after dinner time. By then the pigs are already bedded down so there is no way to load them after we get back. Thus the pigs had to get loaded before town meeting and they went with us to observe. They are not allowed to vote since they are under age, or something like that. These field tripping pigs were about six months old. Even in pig years that only makes them about six years old, maybe ten years old. I don’t think this bothered them since they slept through the whole thing.
That’s okay though because as town meetings go this was a fairly quiet one. There was a huge turnout – I would estimate about 250 people. Quite unusual. The place was packed, standing room only and back into the foyer. The parking lot was full as well as out on side streets and over to the school lot. I suspect that this was due to the school budget and Article V on the agenda about school choice. Once those votes were cast the place emptied out considerably.
After many questions and discussion it became apparent that the school board had done an admirable job of keeping cost increases down despite the 11% increase in the budget caused by some unavoidable expenses. The biggest single one was that Orange sends its high school students to neighboring towns and those towns rebill us at the end of the year, called “back billing”, when they know what their final costs were. Thus we never know how much the tuition will be until a year later. This cost us an extra $63K this year in unexpected costs. When all was said and done and everyone had their chance to inject their comments and questions the school budget of about $2.48 million for 151 students passed 68 to 57, a narrow 11 vote spread. Interestingly, this meant there were not nearly as many people voting as I had counted as being there.
This comes to about $16K per student which seems rather excessive and is strongly up from the past. Digging through the budget I, and I think everyone, had a hard time finding what specifically to trim in the final budget. Ironically, the lower grades cost significantly more per pupil than the high school – the opposite of normal. There has long been the idea of closing the school and merging with a nearby town but that keeps getting voted down, by a close call.
The problem is one that faces many small towns, a shrinking and highly variable student population. This creates high fixed overhead costs and makes it hard to predict budgets well.
Another issue that the school board mentioned was that the special needs count had risen from 3% to 14%. Given unfunded federal mandates that creates a tremendous burden on the school budget and thus the small town. It wasn’t clear if this change in percent was a real change in students or change in definitions.
The biggest school budget, teacher and administrator pay, couldn’t be touched in the past because teachers had union contracts. These end this June and will be open to re-negotiation. The pay was set during high times. With hard economic times pay should be adjusted to match. State workers took a 3% across the board pay cut. Many people are unemployed. I would expect the teachers to show their solidarity with the people by taking a pay and benefits cut.
The voters agreed the school board should study the possibility of contracting with one high school to get a more predictable and better rate of tuition. This would give the town a cap rate. Students would still have the opportunity to go to other high schools if they wanted but they would have to pay the difference if it was more expensive than the designated school. That is generous. We homeschool, like about 15% of the families in Orange town and about 10% of the families state wide.
On the town budget there were no surprises. The town trucks were getting older and we have just finished paying for the big grader, most of our roads are dirt, so the voters authorized rolling the loan money over to buy a new larger dump truck. This will save time and money hauling gravel and sanding the roads and well as increasing reliability and reducing repair costs. It will also give a new winged plow truck which is critical during big storms. The selectmen were authorized to spend up to $160,000 for the new truck. This will be done as a five year loan with the first year down payment of about $35K.
About $6,700 was donated to a range of local charities such as the food shelf, diversion program, transit program and other things. One more such program was added, the Family Center of Washington County. We’re actually in Orange town in Orange county but we’re right on the county border so there is overlap.
A big thing was the town increased the homestead exemption for disabled veterans and widows of veterans from $10,000 (set in 1962) to $25,000 – times have changed after all. This comes out of the municipal fund increasing the taxes each year by about $3 per person on average across the town of slightly less than 1,000 people. That is a pretty nominal per capita and a well deserved thank you for those people who have served to defend our nation. Frankly this exemption should have been updated decades ago.
There were six deaths, eight marriages and eight births including one set of twins in 2009.
Our new moderator Adrian, broken in last year, did great and never needed Kermit’s help. This is a job done once a year so there isn’t a lot of time to practice. He projected his voice very well and did not even need to use the microphone while keeping the meeting in order, proceeding smoothly and recognizing everyone who wanted to speak. We are fortunate to have people like him, the select board, town clerk and others who make our bit of Democracy work so smoothly.
The pigs slept all the way, way, way home…
Outdoors: 35째F/20째F Spots of Sunshine
Tiny Cottage: 72째F/63째F