For the second time in three years, Gov. Peter Shumlin dropped by Georgia Elementary and Middle School to take questions from voters before Town Meeting.
“This is what makes democracy great in Vermont, and obviously it doesn’t work if you don’t show up,” Shumlin said.
This year, many Georgians did show up – the whole gym was packed with voters who took turns at the mic, questioning the governor.
And this year, some might say the gov got off easy.
Despite discussion of education spending at a pre-Town Meeting forum attended by about a dozen taxpayers on Monday night, the governor fielded no questions on the topic during Town Meeting on Tuesday but touched on education briefly.
“We can’t grow jobs if we’re not educating kids for 21st century opportunities in Vermont,” he said.
Without addressing funding, Shumlin said his administration will continue to invest in higher education, preschool and technical programs.
The governor also said the state is making progress on his goal of bringing broadband internet access to all corners of Vermont. He reiterated his new focus, combatting opiate addiction, repeating the promises in his State of the State address to strengthen criminal penalties for dealers, treat addiction like a disease and get sufferers into recovery programs before entering the workforce.
Kent Henderson, vice-chairman of the Georgia Conservation Commission and chairman of the non-profit Friends of Northern Lake Champlain, asked Shumlin about House bill 586, which, based on new federal requirements, aims to improve water quality in Lake Champlain. He asked the governor to comment on the financial magnitude of this appreciated – but lofty – effort.
Shumlin said Vermont can’t foot the $150 million bill alone – he said Congress should help.
“We’re willing in Vermont to come up with a comprehensive plan,” he said. “We want to have incentives in place to target the biggest pollutants and have the resources to go after them.”
Carl Rosenquist asked if the state is encouraging Medicare patients and veterans who are happy with their healthcare coverage to move in to the new health exchange. Shumlin said no.
Norman Gosselin asked about Shumlin’s stance on gun control, based on concern over what the voter believes were reactive measures enacted by the Connecticut legislature after the Sandy Hook shooting.
“Vermont’s laws, right now, are exactly the laws we need,” Shumlin said. “Much to the chagrin of some in my own party, we’re on the same page.”
Shumlin swiftly exited – after taking a selfie with two young Georgia residents, showing even traditional Town Meeting can be trendy.
Many issues discussed
While the governor didn’t take too many education-related questions, Georgia voters in attendance peppered their school board members with queries about their schools as they had the night before during a pre-Town Meeting forum.
That night, the board presented data showing that local taxes funded 45 percent of Georgia’s $12.5 million FY14 budget, up from 42 percent the two previous years. Statewide education property taxes covered 43 percent last year, down from 46 percent in 2013 and 45 percent in 2012.
Superintendent Ned Kirsch said some state initiatives are digging into the education fund, including a high school for inmates formerly covered by the Department of Corrections and a dual-enrollment program at Vermont colleges for high school students.
Rep. Carolyn Branagan, also the town moderator, said school funding laws Acts 60 and 68 covered K-12 public education as designed, “I know for a fact we’d save 3 cents” off the state’s estimated 7-cent tax rate increase, which was set before school boards reported their budgets.
With many districts, including Georgia, requesting less from the education fund, the tax rate could be lower, she said.
“We don’t have, in Montpelier, enough people who are fiscally conservative thinkers,” Branagan said. “You should tell the governor.”
It’s heartbreaking, Branagan said, that her two children both earned doctorates in chemistry and neither has found work in Vermont: “We’re losing more than we’re gaining just raising tax,” she said.
On Tuesday night, after learning of the budget failure, Laroe suggested if voters attended more meetings, they’d learn the board can’t control the majority of school spending.
At Town Meeting, Ken Minck asked a more specific question also raised during the Monday forum: Why was $300,000 in special educator salaries moved from the Georgia budget to the Franklin West Supervisory Union spending plan?
The shift was in response to a state mandate, Laroe explained, which requires supervisory unions to consolidate those services. Branagan said the move could save money.
This conversation sparked more discussion about Georgia’s place in its supervisory union, which also includes Fletcher Elementary School and BFA-Fairfax. Matt Crawford wanted to know if SUs can reduce their budgets if their towns’ school budgets fail.
Laroe said theoretically, yes. Georgia is the largest district in FWSU with three representatives on the nine-person board.
Losing local control of schools is a topic of great interest in Georgia. Superintendent Ned Kirsch told attendees Monday night he’s keeping a close eye on legislation that could do away with existing supervisory unions by 2019.
To close the school portion of Town Meeting, parent, taxpayer and school employee Nancy Volatile-Wood thanked the School Board for its hard work and encouraged the public to “be part of the process.”
For the town discussion, Selectboard Chairman Paul Jansen enumerated drivers to this year’s town budget, a 6.5 percent increase to taxes.
They include sand, salt and other winter highway department necessities and payments for emergency dispatching, ambulance service, legal expenses and fuel, Jansen said.
Fred Grimm wondered about creating a “rainy day fund,” separate from five town reserve funds, for extreme weather events.
“I guess, yes,” Jansen answered, “but it was never suggested we do that. Up until this year, we never had many conversations on being over-budget on salt and sand.”
Article 5, which asked voters’ permission to abolish the serially underrepresented Lister Board and replace it with a contracted assessor, drew several questions. Jansen said he viewed the article as a formality.
For at least eight years, no one has stepped up to the board, which requires three volunteers to assess properties and set the grand list. The town contracts with Assessor Bill Hinman annually to do these tasks.
“It is a thankless job,” said Dian Duranleau, a former town lister. “Everyone blames you for taxes going up. I’m totally in support of this article.”
It passed by paper ballot with 88 yes votes to 14 nos.
In just over two hours, the annual Town Meeting wound down with several people taking a microphone to publicly acknowledge Georgia’s civil servants.
Colin Conger, a former selectman, recognized the late Arthur Carroll, who founded Georgia First Response, and Stanley Burton Webster, who served in several capacities during his lifetime. Fred Grimm also thanked Elwin Sweeney, a 14-year Georgia firefighter, who is moving out of town.
See more photos of Georgia’s Town Meeting here: