Middlebury selectmen re-elected

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents at their town meeting returned three of their incumbent selectmen to office and voted in favor of all the money requests on their ballot.
Incumbents Nick Artim, Gary Baker and Travis Forbes each won another three-year term on the board. Artim garnered the most votes with 437, followed by Baker with 434 and Forbes with 364. Finishing out of the running were challengers Ted Davis with 321 tallies and Eric Murray, who logged 224 votes.
Also earning support at the polls on Tuesday were a request for $7,000 to support a scholarship program for the non-profit Otter Creek Child Center, and an advisory referendum opposing the proposed tar sands oil pipeline from Canada through the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to Portland, Maine.
The child center request passed, 468-235, while the tar sands referendum — forced by a citizens’ petition — earned support, 493-212.
The approximately 150 attendees at Monday’s annual meeting approved a proposed 2013-2014 municipal budget of $8,951,760 by a resounding voice vote. That approval came after more than an hour of discussion that included a selectboard overview of the main budget drivers and questions from the audience.
Officials explained the proposed increase in Middlebury’s municipal budget was largely being driven by fixed personnel costs and debt service on the already approved $4.625 million bond to substantially renovate and expand the fire department’s Seymour Street headquarters and replace the East Middlebury station.
The first payment alone on that station will translate into 3.5 cents on next year’s municipal tax rate. The $8.9 million budget would have meant a 5.5-cent increase in the 86.2-cent municipal tax rate, but the Middlebury Fire Department agreed to forego a penny of the 2 cents on the tax rate that is annually used to sweeten the department’s fire equipment replacement fund. Town meeting participants gratefully backed what amounted to a $72,000 equipment fund reduction by a voice vote.
Many of the budget questions related to an issue discussed at length at last year’s town meeting: The newly created position of Middlebury Business Development Director. Residents last year agreed to earmark a penny on the tax rate (which currently raises $72,000) annually for each of the next five years to help fund the position, charged with recruiting new businesses to Middlebury and helping existing enterprises expand.
Middlebury College has agreed to match the town’s contribution, and the local business community will chip in $36,000 for a total of $180,000. Around $80,000 of that sum will be used to pay the salary of the business development director, Jamie Gaucher, who introduced himself to voters Monday night.
“Without reservation, we are confident we have the right person for the job,” Business Development Fund Advisory Board member John Tenny said of Gaucher.
Some residents voiced concern on Monday about how Gaucher’s success will be measured and what will happen to the position when its funding sources sunset in five years. The business community as of Monday had contributed 95 percent of its commitment of $36,000. Officials expect that remaining 5 percent to come in soon.
“It’s going to take a number of years to make this happen, because it is not going to happen overnight,” resident Dick Terk said. “What is the long-term commitment on the part of all of the stakeholders in this?”
Terk also asked if the town is at risk of having to fund the entire position if the college and businesses stop contributing after five years.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay confirmed the college and businesses are committed through five years. Artim, a member of the advisory board that designed the position, said the business development director post should be self-sustaining after five years.
“The expectation is that this position will increase the grand list to a point where it is covering its costs,” Artim said. “It has to stand on its own.”
If that doesn’t happen, Artim said the town will have to re-examine the future of the job.
Some residents, such as John Freidin, voiced skepticism that the position will be able to pay for itself. Freidin said the town’s grand list would have to grow by $7.2 million annually just to raise the town’s $72,000 share of the costs of the development director. And that is an expense that he said would have to compete against other municipal needs.
“It seems unlikely to me that’s going to happen,” Freidin said, adding, “At some point the pockets at Middlebury College run dry, and so is this the best way to ask them to improve the quality of life for all of us who live in Middlebury and nearby? … I am very skeptical that it’s going to pay for itself and I am very skeptical that it’s necessarily going to do as much for the quality of life of people who live in Middlebury as the expenditure of comparable amounts on lots of other things.”
Resident Ed Barna argued townspeople shouldn’t dwell on the cost of the position.
“I would say it is extremely shortsighted to think of the development director position simply in terms of getting back more taxes on the grand list,” Barna said.. “It is very hard to assign a value for providing jobs which bring children back to the community. It is impossible to estimate the value to the community of the volunteerism that people will bring to Middlebury as a result of having new enterprises.”
Rep. Paul Ralston, owner and founder of Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee, is among the business contributors to the development director position.
“The reason (I contributed) was not that I thought I was going to get some kind of return on my investment,” Ralston, a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, said. “The reason I did was because I personally have seen some of my friends and neighbors feel the result of this ‘great recession’ we have been in. It’s not enough just to hope it gets better. We need to do things to try to make it better.”
Town officials have drawn up a list of first-year expectations for the business development director that include conducting 55 visits to business leaders/employers and 10 visits to business/civic groups; sending 650 letters or e-mails to the target audience and followed up personally with each contact, visiting 12 business owners/prospects at their business or residence; and closing with one business owner/prospect.
In other action at their town meeting, Middlebury voters:
•  Joined residents in the other six Addison Central Supervisory Union member-towns of Bridport, Ripton, Cornwall, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge in voting, 1,294-660, for a 2013-2014 UD-3 school spending plan of $16,585,518, representing a 3-percent increase. The UD-3 budget covers expenses for Middlebury Union High and Middle Schools.
•  Agreed to replace two police cruisers, one utility/sign truck and related equipment, a truck with a utility truck bed and related equipment, a backhoe, a roller attachment for a grader, and a laser grinder. Those equipment purchases will be made in accordance with the town’s replacement schedule, to be financed through a five-year loan of up to $330,000.
•  Selected, in a series of uncontested elections, Ruth Hardy, Billy Connelly and Jason Duquette-Hoffman, for three-year terms on the Mary Hogan Elementary School board; Lorraine Gonzalez Morse for another three-year term on the UD-3 board; Freidin for a five-year term on the Ilsley Library Board of Trustees; and former Gov. James Douglas for another year as town moderator.
•  Applauded several veteran town workers who have, or soon will be, retiring.
Those honored included Fred Dunnington, who will step down in as town planner this July after 32 years; Ilsley Library Director David Clark, who will retire this month after 16 years; and former Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger, who retired last year after 12 years. At the same time, residents welcomed new Ramsay, new Ilsley Library Director Kevin Unrath; and new Parks and Recreation Director Terri Arnold.
•  Honored youth soccer coach John Anderson as recipient of the annual Robert Collins Award, given to a local resident who has made stellar contributions to Middlebury recreation programs during the past year.
Middlebury will not vote on its elementary school budget until April 10. The proposed 2013-2014 Mary Hogan Elementary School budget of $6,418,788 reflects a 4.46-percent increase in spending that would preserve current programs and beef up science, technology, engineering and math instruction.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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