By Jason Starr
The question of whether to keep Williston a member of the Winooski Valley Park District split the selectboard Tuesday when it finalized the agenda for Town Meeting Day. But ultimately, it will be up to the town’s voters to decide on the March 6 ballot.
Board members Jeff Fehrs and Terri Zittritsch voted against the Town Meeting Day agenda, preferring to rescind the question that asks voters to authorize Williston’s withdrawal from the park district. Last year at this time, the board had agreed to put the question to voters if the district did not reduce the town’s $32,000 annual cost of membership by changing the way it charges its seven member municipalities.
Board members Terry Macaig, Joy Limoge and Ted Kenney formed a majority approving the Town Meeting agenda with the park district membership question included. The Williston Conservation Commission recommends the town retain its membership.
The agenda for Town Meeting Day also includes a ballot question asking for voter approval for the town to purchase the solar panel array behind town hall for $345,000, a question whether to join a new regional district to consolidate the dispatch of police and emergency services in Chittenden County and for voter approval of an $11.1 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The budget represents a roughly 5 percent increase in spending (approximately $500,000) over the current year and an estimated 2 percent increase in the tax rate, which amounts to a half-cent increase per $100 of assessed property value.
The board’s endorsement of the budget, dispatch and solar questions was unanimous. But, as it was on the park district question, the board was also split regarding the agenda for the Annual Town Meeting on March 5, the night before ballot voting in the Williston Central School auditorium.
A group of local environmental activists had submitted a petition requesting the board include on the agenda a non-binding resolution of support for the State of Vermont’s renewable energy goals. Board members Macaig, Fehrs and Zittritsch voted to include the question, while Kenney and Limoge voted against it.
Here is a deeper look at the issues the board wrestled with while determining what voters will consider at Town Meeting Day.
Leaving the Winooski Valley Park District
The Winooski Valley Park District (WVPD) owns and manages 18 public parks in Chittenden County, but none are accessible from Williston. In a formula based 50 percent on population and 50 percent on property values, Williston is the fifth-highest contributor of the seven member municipalities.
Town Manager Rick McGuire has pushed over the past year for the town to exit the district. Without a change to the funding formula — he proposed basing it on population alone, reducing the town’s cost to $25,000 annually — the town is not receiving enough value for its contribution, he argues.
According to WVPD Executive Director Nick Warner, the district’s board of directors discussed changing the formula at several meetings last year but could not muster the political will to make a change that would affect all of its member towns.
Warner instead proposed that the district increase its role in Williston by taking over the management and improvement of one of the town’s public parks. In October, he identified the town-owned Mud Pond Conservation Area as a possibility. Then, in a surprise donation from land owner Peter Jacob, the town acquired 29 acres along the Winooski River off Route 2A in December.
According to Williston Conservation Commission members, the Jacob parcel is a perfect fit for the park district, partly because it is along the river like the majority of WVPD properties. Warner has proposed creating a parking area on the Jacob parcel and trails to access the river.
“We are on the verge of getting what we always wanted from the district, and it would be a shame to stop our membership at this point,” conservation commissioner Carl Runge said Tuesday.
Commissioner Eric Howe noted that, about five years ago, the commission had advocated for the town to withdraw from the district. But the relationship has improved since Warner took over three years ago, he said. And with the town’s conservation efforts focused on the expected acquisition of the 370-acre Catamount Community Forest later this year, the support of the WVPD “is more important now than ever,” Howe said.
“We have reversed our opinion,” he said. “It is a good use of town funds now.”
McGuire advocates contracting out for conservation and land management services to the district on an as-needed basis. But if Williston withdraws, it could jeopardize the district’s existence, Runge countered.
Voters will be presented with a yes/no question authorizing the town to withdraw from the district on the March 6 ballot.
Supporting the state’s renewable energy goals
The State of Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan puts Vermont on a path to source 90 percent of its energy needs from renewables by 2050. A group of Williston environmentalists attempted to collect signatures from 5 percent of the electorate (450 voters) to raise the question of local support of that goal at Town Meeting Day. The group proposed a non-binding resolution crafted by environmental non-profit 350.org for use at Town Meetings statewide.
Despite the fact that the group collected only 274 signatures, below the 5 percent threshold, a majority of selectboard members agreed to put the question to voters at the March 5 meeting in the WCS auditorium.
“I feel like people should be allowed to have their say,” Zittritsch said. “That is kind of the purpose of Town Meeting, to hear from residents … It affects the way we spend money, so I think it is a valuable topic.”
Kenney and Limoge disagreed, saying discussion on the non-binding resolution would be out of place at Town Meeting.
“I support what they are trying to say. I am passionate about it. But I’m not inclined to put this on Town Meeting because it’s not directly related (to Williston),” Kenney said.
“I’m afraid it will be a free-for-all that takes up an enormous amount of time,” Limoge added.
In addition to lending support for the state’s renewable goals, the resolution also encourages “the town’s continuing efforts to implement energy efficiency measures and preserving town lands for future generations.”
Purchasing the solar array behind town hall
In 2012, the town worked with a Waterbury-based renewable energy developer, Green Lantern Capital, to install a solar array on town-owned land behind town hall. Their contract gives the town the option to take ownership of the panels this year.
The array is appraised at $345,000. Town Finance Director Jennifer Kennelly recommends the purchase, identifying $200,000 of surplus funds available and $125,000 left over from a public works building improvement project to fund most of the purchase.
Renewable energy consultant Jeff Forward said the town would save about $40,000 on electricity costs if it buys the panels.
“You will be getting something for the money you put in,” he said. “It is rare that a municipality has that opportunity.”
Joining a regional dispatch district
Several municipalities in Chittenden County have been working for about two years on a plan to consolidate the dispatch of police and emergency services into what is being called the Chittenden County Public Safety Authority. Williston will be one of seven cities and towns that will have a question on their Town Meeting Day ballots asking for voter authorization to join the group.
McGuire said the town won’t immediately need the group’s services, but he advised joining it in case Williston’s current dispatch arrangements end.
Currently, the Town of Shelburne dispatches Williston’s fire and ambulance service, and the Vermont State Police provide after-hours dispatch for the Williston Police Department.
“They may pull the plug on that, and we’ll be in a position to move to the regional (authority),” he said.
“In the end, Williston has little to lose and much to gain by participating in the formation of this regional authority for dispatch services,” McGuire wrote in a December memo to the board.