Ferrisburgh voters face budget issues on Town Meeting Day

FERRISBURGH — Ferrisburgh residents on Town Meeting Day will make a series of budget decisions that could have major impacts on town employees, who disagree with the selectboard on some issues, and also must decide to support school spending that would dramatically increase school tax rates.
They will also make decisions on races for town clerk and treasurer now that a write-in candidate has emerged to challenge the candidates who will be on the ballot, all of whom will be seeking to replace retiring Town Clerk and Treasurer Chet Hawkins.
Australian balloting will be held on March 4 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the Ferrisburgh Central School gymnasium on the Ferrisburgh Central and Vergennes Union High school budgets and the races for town offices.
Many articles — including the Ferrisburgh selectboard’s $1,660,779 budget proposal that will not add staff hours at town offices and will make a major cut to Hawkins’ pay as delinquent tax collector, one that he believes is personal — will be decided at the central school gym beginning at 10 a.m. on that Tuesday.
That spending proposal, not including $30,840 for charitable contributions, would represent a 1.3 percent spending increase, according to town officials, while triggering an increase in the municipal tax rate of less than a penny.
Selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said the board is happy with its proposal.
“I think we chipped it right down, and it meets the needs,” Lawrence said. “We’re conscious of the tax bills, and we can survive with this budget, and there are no frills in it.”
But Hawkins is unsure about the cut in the pay for delinquent tax collector, for which he is running unopposed, and he and assistant town clerk Pam Cousino are not fully convinced the budget will meet the town’s needs.
Hawkins has been earning about $17,000 as the tax collector. At the January meeting when Hawkins surprised the board by announcing he was retiring from his clerk and treasurer posts — an announcement that many agree upset board members because of its timing, which did not allow others to file for the posts — the selectboard cut that pay to $3,000.
Hawkins said he offered to stay and discuss budget issues, but was told he could leave. Only then was the decision made on the position’s pay, he said.
“Unfortunately the selectboard doesn’t like to discuss things,” Hawkins said. “Why couldn’t they discuss it with the person being affected, to find out the pros and cons of doing it that way, explain to the person why they were doing it, what their plans were? We have a failure to communicate.”
Earlier this week, he remained suspicious.
“It certainly would appear they would have some ulterior motive in doing this because it happened immediately after I said I wasn’t going to run” for the other posts, Hawkins said, adding that he would do the job for the smaller amount if Ferrisburgh picked up related expenses.
Hawkins defended his position of not informing the selectboard, saying he did not make up his mind until the Saturday before the Monday deadline for nomination papers and the Tuesday budget meeting — and that the selectboard had last fall asked him to step down as treasurer.
“They told me at a meeting I should resign because I’m incompetent. So I assumed they should know I wasn’t going to run,” Hawkins said. “They never asked me what my plans were. So I didn’t think they were interested.”
Lawrence was asked if Hawkins’ announcement was a factor.
“It’s a great time to start something new, new beginnings. We wish Chet the very best. He deserves his retirement,” Lawrence said in answer to the question. “A lot of people were asking why do we pay a salary (for the delinquent tax collector) when we can collect the money ourselves. A lot of it was being handled through the office, anyway.”
She said the board was just doing its job.
“We’d be remiss in not trying to bring new revenue into the town when we can,” Lawrence said.
The selectboard’s budget includes enough for $15 an hour for a 20-hour work week each for the treasurer and clerk, plus enough for 40 hours a week for Cousino, who is appointed.
The board last year said the office workers needed more help, and moved to hire an assistant treasurer. All parties acknowledged Hawkins is treasurer in name only, with Cousino doing most of the work.
Lawrence said the board’s position in making the budget without adding hours — but including a $24,000 contingency fund in case more help is needed — was that replacing Hawkins with a more qualified treasurer would solve the problem.
“He couldn’t do the job, so we were trying to find more time to accommodate them in the office,” Lawrence said. “Now that Chet will be retiring, we feel that two people can do the job, or 80 hours per week.”
The contingency will provide a safety net, she said.
“We put extra in the contingency fund should the need arise if things do not work out. But I think with the right people, new people, in the office, it could work out. The office does need to be more efficient,” she said.
Cousino said she has doubts. She cited an increasing workload, the need to train a new clerk and treasurer, and possible problems keeping the office open with two part-time employees.
“Is the clerk going to work in the morning and the treasurer going to work in the afternoon?” Cousino said. “Yes, I’m here most of the time, but I’m not here all the time, so does that mean the office is going to be closed some?”
Ultimately, she said she expects the county’s third-largest town will need a third office employee.
“It just seems like we’re going backward a little,” she said. “At some point you’re going to have to increase the hours.”
Again, Lawrence said, “We’ll see what the people want to do,” and that the selectboard wanted to be mindful of taxpayers.
“We worked hard at this budget,” she said. “I just think this is the year to just live what we can live with.”
On the January deadline for nomination papers, residents Garrit Smits, who Chet Hawkins said has an accounting degree, filed for the treasurer’s job, and David Hawkins, an Army National Guard sergeant who Chet Hawkins said has extensive computer experience, filed for the clerk’s post.
David Hawkins is Chet Hawkins’ grandson, and some in Ferrisburgh have been suspicious of the timing of Hawkins’ retirement announcement. He denies anything underhanded.
“At the last minute I was kind of waffling, should I run or should I not run. Then my wife kind of gets after me. ‘Jeez, they told you they don’t want you. Why in the world do you want to run?’” Hawkins said. “And then my grandson was saying, because I talk with him a lot, and that Saturday he said if you’re not going to run I’d like to.”
Mounting the write-in campaign against Smits and David Hawkins is Gloria Warden, wife of longtime Selectman Jim Warden.
A press release Gloria Warden sent to the Independent indicates skepticism on Chet Hawkins’ position.
“The current town clerk and treasurer, having not announced he was stepping down until after the deadline for submitting petitions, has created a challenging opportunity for our community,” she wrote.
Warden said she has 26 years of experience in town government, has worked in the town of Charlotte’s treasurer’s and planning and zoning offices, and her “days are spent multi-tasking and working with the public.”
Warden said in her release that Jim Warden would resign his post as selectman if she won her race.
Also to be decided from the floor of town meeting is an article proposed by the selectboard to cut Bixby Library funding back from $52,559 to $39,000. That recommendation came despite residents’ decision at 2013’s town meeting to increase the Bixby’s support from $39,000 to $52,559.
The selectboard is also proposing to change town meeting from Tuesday to Saturday, at the request of the central school board. The school board is concerned that town meeting poses security problems at the school and also disrupts the school day.
The FCS board in January adopted a budget proposal for the 2014-2015 school year that calls for an increase of almost 11 percent to $3.62 million. It adds a teacher and a modular classroom to help handle a large blended 5th- and 6th-grade class. Part of the FCS increase also comes from an accounting shift in the cost of special education within ANwSU that had the effect of raising elementary school costs.
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials and the FCS administration did not recommend the addition of the teacher and the classroom.
The VUHS board proposed a spending hike of almost 3 percent to about $9.78 million, including a separate $50,000 capital investment fund. VUHS must also retire a major deficit due to unanticipated special education costs, and its declining enrollment is pushing per-pupil spending higher.
A projected 7-cent increase in the state property-tax rate is driving school taxes higher in all Vermont towns.
According to ANwSU estimates, Ferrisburgh’s residential school tax rate could rise by about 23 cents, or 16 percent, to fund both the proposed FCS and VUHS budgets.
If both budgets are approved in March, Ferrisburgh homeowners not eligible for prebates would be facing an increase of about $230 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
According to the Vermont Department of Taxes more than 60 percent of town property taxpayers typically receive prebates.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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