Between the Lines: Weighing coal weighers and consolidation

There are about 626,000 Vermonters — a number smaller than the population of Memphis, Tenn. Compared to the single government of that medium-sized city, Vermont has 237 towns, nine cities, five unincorporated areas and four gores.
“We confront the 21st-century challenges of delivering good government with a 19th-century governance structure,” says Bruce Hiland, who chairs the Cornwall selectboard. He featured the contrast between Vermont and Memphis governance in his remarks at the recent Cornwall town meeting.
“Finding ways to effectively and efficiently deliver government services at this small scale and with this extraordinary fragmentation is daunting,” said Hiland.
No one wants to melt Vermont’s diverse scramble of towns, cities, gores and school districts into one homogenous blob. We are enriched by our quirky diversity.
But we could also do with a healthy dose of cooperation and even (dare we say it) some consolidation of government services.
Taking one small step for Addison County-kind in that direction, the towns of Cornwall and Shoreham decided to jointly purchase an excavator.
A simple measure? “You have no idea,” Hiland said, “of the time and effort required to do things differently, even the most obvious and small ones.”
Another small alliance has been formed between Cornwall and Bridport. They have a mosquito control district with its own air force — totaling exactly one plane — to keep down the bugs every summer.
The process of paying for the air force generated the most interesting discussion at last week’s Cornwall town meeting. One citizen proposed withholding the town’s payment of $6,000 toward the much larger costs of mosquito control, until Cornwall had assurances that Bridport would also pay its $6,000 share.
The motion to hold payment in abeyance was easily defeated. But not before many of us in the room had the chance to recall that as much as we are looking forward to summer, we could do without the bugs.
The institution of town meeting is alive and well.
But outside of these annual gatherings, the tradition of citizen decision-making is burdened by the many other demands upon residents. It’s hard to get enough people to do the heavy lifting of the town’s business.
Cornwall, for example, is down to just 15 members of the volunteer fire department. The selectboard has been looking for more than six months for someone to chair the Capital Budget Planning Committee.
So far as I know, however, the town is not looking for a new Weigher of the Coal.
This year’s town report was dedicated to Ed and Cindy Peet, in a dedication that noted Ed served in 1974 as Weigher of the Coal. He’s also done lengthy stints on the planning commission, selectboard and fire department.
As for Cindy, she has served on the Cornwall school board since 1972 — a remarkable 40-year stint that must set some sort of record for cumulative number of hours spent sitting in meetings.
Another of the questions confronting Cornwall, as then-school board Chair Dave Donahue put it, is “whether we are becoming Middlebury South.”
Surely the town retains a distinct character despite its larger and far more famous neighbor. But the expanding presence of Middlebury College looms large in the town’s deliberations about its future.
This is in part because of the large gift of land, within Cornwall’s boundaries, given to the college late last year by Will Jackson.
This gift will essentially double the size of the campus. And it has potential financial complications for Cornwall, should that much property be taken off the town’s tax rolls.
“Middlebury College recognizes the significance of the Cornwall property that Will Jackson has donated to the college and takes the acquisition of this beautiful piece of land very seriously,” the college said in a message quoted by Hiland.
And here’s the key part of the statement: “The college will not allow the town of Cornwall to experience an economic disadvantage due to this donation, but it is premature to discuss future plans further at this time.”
Much to its credit, the college has a recent track record of working carefully and considerately with town governments — for example, following through on similar assurances about the tax base that were given to the town of Middlebury when the college acquired the Old Stone Mill.
While our towns no longer need coal weighers as they try to streamline services, school districts are seriously pondering much bigger strides.
That process could include the historic consolidation of schools across traditional town lines.
We already combine high school and middle school populations. But merging our small elementary schools into larger units has so far proven unpopular with the voters.
Nonetheless, the realities of higher taxes and a dwindling number of school-age children are forcing school boards and taxpayers to think seriously about how hard they want to hang on to local autonomy. Not to mention the costs that come with duplicating school staffs and paying for school-building maintenance from one town to the next.
As Donahue acknowledged, the mere process of considering consolidation gets arcane in a hurry.
I’d rather try to figure out the blitzing patterns of NFL defenses than make sense of what’s involved in trying to combine two schools with fewer than 10 kids in third grade.
While our towns have begun to share excavators and airplanes, it’s hard to imagine they will move toward consolidation. If we are going to address the challenges that come with fragmentation, most of that battle will be fought in the realm of public education.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at http://gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at GregDennisVt@ yahoo.com.

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