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Vergennes to mail ballots on request

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents will not automatically receive their city and school ballots in the mail before March 2 voting. Instead, residents will be informed of how to request mail-in ballots in newspaper ads, on the city’s website, and through social media.
At the city council’s Jan. 26 meeting Vergennes officials said they’ll heavily promote the availability of all-in-one mail-in envelopes that will include ballots for the city, the Addison Northwest School District, and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center elections that will be held on Town Meeting Day.
Councilors at their Tuesday meeting backed that approach at the recommendation of City Clerk Britney Aube. Aube told the council she had researched both options, ruled to be legal by the secretary of state’s office during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The central problems with mailing out ballots to all residents were the cost, because an outside firm would have to be hired; the timing, because deadlines were looming; and the fact the city couldn’t legally include the school district ballots in its mailing, meaning voters would have to come to the polls anyway.
Aube also noted that despite the fact the state mailed ballots to all residents before the November election, 411 voters on the city checklist opted to nonetheless show up at the polling station.
Aube said she felt she had to loop the council into the process.
“I just wanted to make sure the decision was up to you,” she said.
The council then decided it didn’t need to act, and supported that process by default.
Councilors also discussed the city’s annual meeting. One thing is certain: It will be held via Zoom on Monday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. Log-on instructions will be on the city warning, which will be posted at vergennes.org.
Officials had discussed meeting in person at the city’s Green Street firehouse, but at the suggestion of resident Allison Rimmer, councilors will now also consider the Vergennes Opera House. Rimmer pointed out the theater would allow for better social distancing.
Mayor Lynn Donnelly said the council had planned to use the firehouse’s large-screen television to interact with residents, but Rimmer said the opera house can offer a projection screen to do that job.
Councilor Jill Murray-Killon offered to meet with opera house representatives to see if the suggestion is workable, and the council will make its choice at an upcoming meeting.

CLA APPEAL
At Councilor Mel Hawley’s recommendation, the council on Jan. 26 also signed off on an appeal of the latest Vergennes Common Level of Appraisal (CLA).
Calculated by the Vermont Department of Taxes, CLAs are used to compare towns’ assessed property values to actual real estate sales for the purpose of creating a level playing field among Vermont towns for paying school taxes.
When a community’s CLA is lowered — because its property values have increased — its property taxes rise. And Vergennes’ CLA, like that in four of five Addison Northwest School District towns, has dropped. In Vergennes the CLA says city property is assessed at 91% of market rate.
Hawley — a longtime former city lister as well as former city manager — said he uncovered an error in the way state officials handled evaluating utilities that should ease the decrease in the Vergennes CLA.
“It’s not going to move the numbers a lot, but it’s certainly worth the effort to file the appeal,” he said.
Hawley also pointed noted state law basically requires communities to re-assess its real estate when its CLA drops to 85% or below, and that the council should start looking at something Vergennes hasn’t done since 2007.
At a meeting attended by about four dozen residents, new City Manager Ron Redmond also spoke about his first week on the job.
Among other things, Redmond said he’s been impressed by the city’s department heads and city hall staff, that a behind-schedule audit should be complete by the end of the month, and that he believes by working with the department heads he should be able to achieve his goal of no increase in the city’s municipal tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year.
He also said he’s setting up a system in which any resident who wants to meet him can schedule a 15-minute appointment and has published an email address for that purpose on the city website.
Redmond summed up: “I just want to say how excited I am to be here.”

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