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Middlebury approves budget and police dog

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents passed everything on their town meeting agenda, including a proposed 2017-2018 municipal budget of $10,321,456 and a $30,620 plan to enlist a four-legged recruit for the community’s police department.
With the old municipal gym on South Main Street now a memory, more than 150 citizens instead gathered in the Middlebury Union High School auditorium for Monday’s annual meeting, moderated by a familiar face: former Vermont Gov. James Douglas. Douglas has presided over Middlebury’s town meeting for the past three decades.
This year’s warning was devoid of controversy: no town-gown deals, no proposed bond issues, and no contested local elections. Few questions and resounding voice votes followed town officials’ brief explanations of the two financial requests put to voters on Monday evening: The proposed town budget and a proposal to take out a five-year loan for up to $106,000 to replace two police cruisers and buy a new wood chipper for the Public Works Department.
The proposed budget of $10,321,456 reflects an increase of $198,791 — or 2 percent — in expenses, compared to the current year. It also reflects a bump of 2.2 percent ($155,879) in the tax affecting portion of the spending plan. Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay cited an increase of $55,833 in employee wages and benefits, and a $77,994 increase in the fiscal year 2018 capital improvement budget request, as being the main drivers behind the 2-percent increase.
But thanks to a 1.7-percent increase in Middlebury’s grand list and use of accumulated surplus funds, the budget passed by voters on Monday will result in a decrease of approximately half a penny on the municipal tax rate. The new tax rate will be 97.3 cents.
Officials said the newly voted municipal budget maintains current services and allows the town to catch up on some deferred maintenance.
“The theme was, ‘Taking care of what we have,’” Selectwoman Susan Shashok, chairwoman of Middlebury’s infrastructure committee, said of the capital improvements budget increase. She said the additional $77,994 would help pay for fixes to the municipal pool and sidewalks, along with an effort to make older town buildings more energy efficient. The money will also help Middlebury prepare for the anticipated emerald ash borer, a beetle that destroys ash trees.
The selectboard asked representatives of four local human services agencies to explain how they are spending the annual appropriation they receive from Middlebury taxpayers through the town budget. Jessica Danyow of Homeward Bound; Sherry Greifzu of Addison County Home Health & Hospice; Barbara Doyle-Wilch of the Counseling Service of Addison County; and Margaret Clerkin of Elderly Services, Inc., each gave brief presentations of what services their agencies deliver to Middlebury taxpayers. Citizens approved funding for those agencies within the town’s budget.
Local residents in Australian ballot voting on Tuesday agreed to add two new social service agencies to the list of agencies they give annual funding. They voted 637 to 114 in favor of Addison County Restorative Justice Services’ request for $2,500, and 626 to 127 in favor of the Addison County River Watch Collaborative’s request for $1,200.
In other Australian ballot voting on Tuesday, residents:
•  Agreed, by a tally of 476 to 256, to spend $30,620 to re-establish the town’s police canine program. Middlebury police Chief Tom Hanley said the new dog would provide “another set of eyes and ears” for officers on patrol. A dog would be able to assist in searches for missing persons and suspects, and could help defuse confrontations with potentially violent offenders without having to use pepper spray or Tasers, Hanley explained.
The initial outlay of $30,620 will help police acquire the dog and modify a cruiser to accommodate the animal — likely to be a Belgian Malinois. With the dog and cruiser space in hand, Hanley said the canine program request would likely drop to around $10,000 next year.
•  Decided, by a count of 530 to 211, to raise selectboard members’ annual stipend from the current $1,500 to $1,800, along with a bump from $2,500 to $3,200 for the board chairperson. Resident Ross Conrad petitioned the article. He said the increase would symbolically recognize the many hours board members spend on town business, away from their respective families and jobs.
•  Decided a series of uncontested local elections. Incumbent selectboard members Brian Carpenter and Laura Asermily were returned to three-year terms, as were incumbent ID-4 board members Amy Graham, Victoria Jette and Lorraine Morse for additional terms of 10 months. James Douglas was returned to another year as town moderator, as was Jacqueline Sullivan for town treasurer. Faith Gong won a three-year term as Ilsley Library trustee.
In a separate ballot, Middlebury residents Victoria Jette, James Malcolm and Mary Gill had no competition for at-large, three-year terms on the recently unified Addison Central School District (ACSD) board.
Residents of the ACSD-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge collectively voted in favor of a combined, K-12 budget for the 2017-2018 academic year (see related story). It calls for approximately $37.7 million in spending to cover the combined operating costs for all district schools. It reflects $30,428,802 in net, local education spending, which represents a 0.60-percent decrease compared to this year, according to ACSD officials.
As usual, town meeting provided a venue for town officials to discuss other issues not up for a vote. This included an update on a $52 million plan to replace the Merchants Row and Main Street rail bridges with a concrete tunnel. As recently reported by the Addison Independent, the estimated four-year project is on hold, pending an Environmental Assessment of the construction zone adjacent to the Otter Creek. Meanwhile, a local attorney has asked the town to immediately begin replacing the bridges in light of their deteriorating state. Workers this week placed steel plating over a section of the Merchants Row span on which a new hole was recently discovered.
Carpenter said he and his colleagues are hoping the Environmental Assessment doesn’t reveal any major concerns, which would allow construction to begin in 2018. He questioned project opponents’ assertion that the bridges could be replaced for $5.2 million. That figure, he said, only reflected materials. He argued the project — which he said wouldn’t remedy drainage problems on the track or meet height allowances requested by the state — would cost far more than $5.2 million, when one factors in labor, engineering and other related expenses.
Carpenter claimed the opponents’ preferred project could amount to “considerably more” than the Cross Street Bridge, which had a price tag of around $16 million.
One of the opponents of the current project is resident Bruce Hiland, a former owner of the Battell Block. He gave the following reaction to Carpenter’s comments:
“Replacing the bridges as soon as possible will not cost $16 million and, to state the obvious, it has to be done,” he said. “And even that number is dramatically less than VTrans’ last guess of $52 million. It is high time for the town and state to solve Middlebury’s problem.”
Meanwhile, Carpenter said the Vermont Agency of Transportation would conduct quarterly inspections of the two bridges and would move two temporary bridges into place if the current spans are deemed unsafe.
“The biggest concern right now is a chunk of concrete dropping into the exhaust (of a train) and taking out an engine,” Carpenter said.
He said the southern fascia of both bridges is showing the most deterioration, at this point.
“We are currently at a point where the railings are starting to rust off,” he said.
“We are focused on (the project),” he added. “We are actively engaged.”
Carpenter said he was confident Vermont Railway would strike a deal with its competitors that would allow for a 10-week train detour around Middlebury to facilitate the project.
“(VTrans) will put all the resources necessary into making this a reality,” he said.
Officials also confirmed an upcoming shift in Middlebury’s economic development strategy. The town will no longer raise a penny on its tax rate to help bankroll a Middlebury Business Development Fund. The program was approved by voters in 2012, but has not yet yielded the new business start-ups the selectboard had hoped for. Middlebury College and the business community have also helped fund the program, which will now sunset this June. A committee led by Selectwoman Heather Seeley will work on an alternative approach for creating jobs and supporting businesses in Middlebury.
Residents at the annual gathering also thanked outgoing Selectwoman Donna Donahue for her service; presented martial arts instructor Kellie Thomas with the Bob Collins Award for outstanding volunteerism in education; and dedicated the 2016 annual report to longtime civic volunteer Walter Richard Calhoun.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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