Op/Ed

Editorial: Town meeting is more than just budgets

By all measures, Vermonters should turn out in record numbers this Town Meeting Day, March 3. That’s because declining student enrollment throughout much of the state has forced schools to curb spending while taxes are up; it’s because routine costs on grand lists that aren’t growing fast enough mean higher taxes for many; and it’s also because towns are facing school consolidation choices that pose significant changes in the meaning of community.
These aren’t issues that are necessarily dire and foreboding, but rather ones that are of utmost importance to each town’s future.
There are also hopeful developments. Outdoor trails and recreational opportunities abound and there’s a growing understanding that such in-town recreational opportunities are valuable assets waiting to be tapped. Consolidation of schools and town services might be viewed as opportunity, rather than as a loss. Other communities that feel strongly about keeping their town schools intact, should use Town Meeting to jump-start the conversation that will stimulate that possibility.
Ideas about how to grow our local economies — perhaps through changes in local zoning that allows for denser housing in some zones and other measures that could possibly lower housing costs, or other ways to attract new jobs — might gain purchase and spark innovative ideas and action on a community-by-community basis. The arts continue to be a driving force in thriving towns, and attracting tourism in more of our towns should be embraced as a way to strengthen retail, dining, lodging and entertainment — all part of what adds value to our already high quality of life.
These topics won’t be part of the item-by-item review in the town budget, but they serve as the backdrop of bigger questions about the viability of our small towns. Call it the vision thing, and find time to bring it up.
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In deciding to place two non-binding questions on the ballot in Cornwall referring to proposed changes to the Addison Central School District’s articles of agreement, selectboard Chairman Ben Marks had the right approach: “… If people want to have a public debate about this, that’s what town meeting is for… My bias in general is for more open discussion, involvement and debate — and it doesn’t mean I’m always going to agree with the substantive positions. If you’re a town that has a public voice on behalf of your citizens, you should know what your citizens think about issues of public moment and be prepared to discuss them.”
That’s an attitude that uses town meeting not only to discuss the day-to-day operations of town and school government, and confront the important issues of our times, but also to imagine new ways to make our communities more vibrant.
Residents should surely know they can’t wait for state government or the private market to come save the day. If Vermont’s small rural towns are going to survive, and some thrive, it will be because savvy residents put in the effort to create something special enough to draw new residents who will build homes, attend schools and settle in.
The towns that foster such conversations will likely be those places that realize gains in the years ahead, simply because having an optimistic vision is more appealing than having none. That alone is reason enough to attend town meeting and add your voice to the conversation.
Angelo Lynn

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