Hardwick Eyes Upcoming Town Meeting

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – With Town Meeting less than two months away, and Hardwick joining with other towns to oppose moving the date, several questions lingered over the select board meeting. Some questions depend on legislative actions yet to be taken, as the new legislature was just sworn in the day prior.

The board signed off on a budget to bring before voters, discussed finalizing several warning items, heard from resident Emily Lanxner about a proposed new warning item, and discussed the mechanics necessitated by using purely Australian ballot voting.

Business Manager Casey Rowell made adjustments and clarified changes that put the FY22 budget at $3,525,629, a 1.75% increase over the FY21 budget approved last year. Projected revenues took a significant hit, falling $33,770 to $1,055,909, and the resulting property tax was expected at $2,469,720, a 3.97% increase.

Changes were also made based on the receipt of final numbers, such as the cost of using Lamoille County Sheriff’s Department for dispatching, which had dropped 22% to $8,157. The COPS grant officer’s $80,638 was isolated from regular police department base pay to avoid confusion that occurred in earlier discussions.

Appropriations were not changed from the FY21 budget. Before appropriations, the estimated property tax rate for FY22 stands at $1.31 per $100 without appropriations and $1.34 per $100 with appropriations. Select Board Chair Eric Remick described the budget as “as good a budget as we could come up with, all things considered.”

A warning item regarding cannabis businesses was considered. New legislation legalizing recreational cannabis requires towns to opt into the businesses. A template was supplied for the town’s consideration containing three questions for voters asking whether they supported retail operations, integrated licenses, or both. Integrated licenses are combined licenses allowing cultivation, manufacturing, wholesale, retail, and testing.

All agreed the warning should include a fourth question asking if voters did not want cannabis businesses in Hardwick. Hardwick Police Department Chief Aaron Cochran stated he opposed cannabis businesses operating in Hardwick. “Do residents really want that on a South Main Street storefront?” Chief Cochran asked.

The board wanted to mull over the warning language for the next select board meeting when the items must be finalized to meet deadlines.

Another warning item will be bonding for the Wastewater Treatment Facility’s capital improvements. The original estimated cost of the project was $1.6M not including additional recommended fixes. At that time, it was estimated the impact on water/sewer bills for customers would be $8-10 per quarter.

The board had since decided to go forward with the recommended items since the work would be subsidized by 40%. The current cost estimate stands at $2.2M. Fifty percent of design fees and 40% of construction would be offset by state grants. The board recognized putting those figures before voters might be a tough sell given the current financial situation but noted those subsidies might not always be available to complete necessary work. Town Manager Shaun Fielder said he would pin down the expected rate increase the bond would create for water and sewer customers.

The language of the warning needed re-working in part because it was written with the expectation of a floor vote. The absence of a floor vote was one of the more challenging aspects to address, said Town Clerk Alberta Miller. She said she was “a little leery” of the process since many items typically handled in floor vote would now have to be dealt with as write-ins on a ballot. “My fear is that we’re just going to get so many names [written in],” she said. It was proposed that people looking for positions consider filling out the consent form to offset the number of write-ins.

Miller said, “my concern is with the number of articles on the ballot, the number of ballots, the schools [budgets], that could very much increase our numbers for voter participation. But that’s a lot of ballots to scan.”

The town will obtain a tabulator for voting but handling the write-in aspect was still not clarified by the secretary of state, Miller said. Australian ballot voting will also introduce significant costs in postage. Miller said Fielder indicated the legislature might help offset those costs, but the specifics were not yet available.

Resident Emily Lanxner requested to add the warning question, “Shall the Town of Hardwick be required to inform its residents when sources of radiation, such as that from cell towers and 5G antennas, are being proposed for installation within its town limits?”

The board took issue with the wording of the question and suggested Lanxner find more specific language. Remick noted the onus of informing residents about sources of radiation was not workable as phrased. He asked, “The biggest source of radiation we have is the sun, so if the sun’s going to be out do we have to notify everyone?”

Board member Ceilidh Galloway-Kane expressed concern about the language “informs its residents” and asked what that would mean in practice. It was noted that the subject in question is the purview of the state Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Public Service, not the town.

Without a floor vote, it was noted residents might be coming to the ballot box without sufficient information about what they were being asked to vote on. For example, organizations asking for appropriations sometimes make their case to voters at town meeting prior to a vote. The board decided the best way to work around the loss of communication is to hold an informational session where such items could be expounded upon. The informational session is tentatively set for February 23.