2007: A year of loose ends

Ongoing and undecided issues dominate news

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The year just passed was marked by issues that generated lots of debate but were ultimately left in limbo.

Alternatives to the long-delayed Circumferential Highway were studied but no design was selected. A decision is expected this year.

Dozens of people attended public meetings to discuss an ordinance change that would have allowed hunting on public lands. But in the end the Selectboard delayed a decision.

Voters rejected a much-debated proposal to add ambulance service. But the issue is bound to come up again as Williston grows and its population ages.

Other developments pointed to fiscal belt-tightening this year for both the municipal government and the school system. Williston voters rejected a school budget that boosted spending by nearly 7 percent, then approved a scaled-back spending plan. And proceeds from the local sales tax that funds much of the municipal budget dropped for the first time since the levy was enacted five years ago.

The year did have a happy ending of sorts. The Old Brick Church, one of Williston's beloved historical buildings, was hit by lightning in the spring, igniting a blaze that damaged but didn't destroy the structure. Just before Christmas a new bell tower was lowered into place, restoring the church to its former glory.

Here is a recap of the five most significant stories of 2007:

1) Circ study inconclusive

The decades-long saga of the Circumferential Highway continued with the release of a massive study that looked at different ways to reduce congestion in and around Williston.

The study, which ran thousands of pages, considered a total of 10 options, which are variations on three major alternatives: build the Circ as originally designed, a limited access highway between Interstate 89 and Vermont 117; widen Vermont 2A and add roundabouts; or build a hybrid that combines parts of each approach.

But the study didn't pick a preferred alternative, which critics derided as an attempt to delay the inevitable controversy that a decision would bring. State highway officials said they were being especially careful to get public input during every step of the process so they could defend the decision should environmental groups again sue to stop construction.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office weighed in, saying it wanted one of the 2A alternatives selected because they would have the least impact on wetlands. EPA headquarters has yet to make a final ruling on the wetlands issue.

The selection of a preferred alternative is expected early this year.

2) School budget, ambulance service rejected

Voters in March sent a message of fiscal restraint to their local government, resoundingly rejecting a $15.9 million Williston school budget and funding for an ambulance service.

Fifty-six percent of voters were against the school budget; 62 percent opposed the ambulance service. Williston's municipal budget passed, albeit by a narrow margin.

The ambulance measure would have paid for six new town employees to staff the service as well as one new and one used ambulance. The service's annual budget, including debt payments on the vehicles, would have been $447,884.

Voters also didn't like the proposed budget for Williston Central and Allen Brook schools, which represented a 7 percent spending increase. When it was pared by $300,000, the budget passed by a 73-vote margin.

The defeat marked the second time in the past four years that voters have rejected a school budget. In 2003, voters twice turned down budgets before finally approving a much-reduced spending plan.

The Williston School Board is now discussing the coming fiscal year's budget. The initial proposal calls for a $16.3 million budget, a 3.9 percent spending increase.

3) Sales tax revenue dropping

A change in the law governing sales tax collections did not seem to hurt a major source of state revenue. But when it came to municipalities like Williston that tack on a 1 percent local sales tax, the change seemed to have a big impact.

The town saw same-quarter revenue fall in each of 2007's first three quarters even while the state was reporting modest revenue increases from its 6 percent sales tax. Third-quarter revenue from Williston's local option sales tax dropped by 17 percent over the same quarter in 2006.

Those figures represented a stark reversal for the town, which had seen revenue rise each year since the tax was enacted in 2002. The levy funds about 40 percent of the municipal budget and has allowed the town to greatly reduce its municipal property tax rate.

On Jan. 1, 2007 the state changed rules governing what and who was subject to the sales tax. Taxes are now levied based on a purchase's destination, so items bought here but delivered elsewhere are no longer subject to Williston's local sales tax. That may account for much of the drop in revenue.

The town boosted property taxes to cope with the loss of sales tax revenue. More property tax increases could be in the offing for the coming fiscal year.

The revenue picture will become clearer in February, when sales tax figures for 2007's final quarter are released. Those numbers are critical because the fourth quarter, which includes the holiday shopping season, usually accounts for more than a third of Williston's annual sales tax revenue.

4) Firearm ordinance creates controversy

Hunters, hikers and property owners engaged in a sometimes heated debate over rules regulating firearm use in Williston last year. But in the end the ordinance remained unchanged.

The current ordinance bans firearm discharges north of Interstate 89 and allows guns to be fired south of the highway. There are exceptions: firearm use is permitted in a small section of North Williston, while guns are forbidden in recreation areas south of I-89.

A proposal to change that later provision so that hunters could use some town-owned land generated vocal opposition from many who live near or hike in those areas, particularly around Brownell Mountain.

The debate drew sizeable crowds during hearings on the proposal. At the Selectboard's direction, the original proposal was revised with rules that further restricted firearms and banned their use altogether on town-owned land.

But the board delayed action after hunters complained that the new rules would forbid hunting on their own land and conflict with state law. Board members suggested they may revisit the issue this year.

5) Church hit by lightning

Lightning struck the Old Brick Church in June, sparking a fire that damaged the church's bell tower. But a quick response by the Williston Fire Department spared the rest of the 175-year-old building.

Some good luck helped firefighters extinguish the blaze before it destroyed the entire church. Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton was on his way to a mutual aid call in another town when he spotted the fire. The subsequent quick response from firefighters from Williston and surrounding towns helped put out the fire within eight minutes.

Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden led the subsequent effort to construct a new bell tower and repair other damage. The total cost, which includes electrical problems not caused by the fire, exceeded $200,000, but much of it will be covered by insurance, Boyden said.

On Dec. 20, a crane lowered the new bell tower into place. Exterior painting will be done this spring.