|Strafford Meeting House|
I named this post after a novel I am reading: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. Using the novel name for the name of this post isn't as far-fetched as you might think. The Shteyngart novel is set in a high-tech but miserable future. It is both a novel and a warning.
Similarly, this Super Sad True Town Meeting Story about Vernon is about the difficult Town Meetings in Vernon this year, and the difficult future of the town that is home to Vermont Yankee. (I write a little more about the Shteyngart book and Town Meetings at the end of this post.)
The Vernon Town Meeting, Round One
Vermont Yankee is located in Vernon Vermont, and pays approximately half the real-estate taxes paid in that town. With the plant closing at the end of this year, Vernon has had to cut back drastically on its budget for future years.
In most towns in Vermont, budgets are decided upon and voted upon in Town Meeting. Vermont towns have a certain level of choice about when they hold these meetings. For example, Hartford (my town) used to hold Town Meeting on Town Meeting Day, which is a Tuesday. However, many people can't get to a Tuesday meeting, and our town now holds its meeting on the Saturday before.
Vernon holds its Town Meeting in the evening. Apparently, the Vernon meeting usually goes for two evenings. This year, Vernon has held three meetings...and counting. Town Meeting in Vernon is not over yet.
Town and Gown Marathon
Budgets for the town are voted on separately from school budgets.
On the first two days of Vernon Town Meeting, there were discussions of cutting back on the town budget, with some focus on the costs of the police force. Within the police budget, discussions centered on eliminating positions and cutting overtime. Then, in a surprise move late on the second night, the people at Town Meeting voted to abolish the police force. (Vote was 118 to 112, by paper ballot.)
Instead of having town police, Vernon will contract for a small amount of police protection from other sources, such as state police. The new budget allows about $40,000 for this protection, instead of a local police budget of about $300,000.
Meanwhile, the voters simply couldn't pass a school budget. They turned down the proposed budget, and that whole thing is still in limbo.
After these two nights of town meetings, the voters held a third night of town meetings to deal with leftover stuff, such as changing pension plans and deciding what to do with the money that had been budgeted for new police cruisers.
I recommend some articles:
New York City, of course, not Vernon
The police chief's view of town safety: Mike Faher at the Brattleboro Reformer writes: After voters make cuts, Vernon chief speaks out
And, once again, Mike Faher at the Reformer on the third night of the meeting: Vernon town meeting wraps on third night.
But It's Not Over! A Fourth Town Meeting
First of all, the school budget remains in limbo, and something will have to be done about that in the future.
Second, abolishing the police force was a major action, and many people in the town are upset that it was done late at night by a narrow margin. Townspeople mounted a successful petition drive to reconsider the budget. In other words, there will be a fourth Town Meeting. As Faher of the Reformer writes: Vernon petitioners get new budget vote. Quoting the Town Clerk from that article: "The Selectboard will get it, and they have to set a date for a special Town Meeting."
Selectboard Chair Patty O'Donnell notes that the entire budget can be discussed and amended at the new meeting.
Meanwhile, plant opponents spread their joy
The town of Vernon is in fiscal disarray, and people are meeting night after night to determine their future choices.
In contrast, some Vermont Yankee opponents are gleeful. Here's an extensive quote from a letter to the editor in the Brattleboro Reformer. The Reformer had the good sense to label this letter Schadenfreude?
Editor of the Reformer:
I’d like to welcome the residents and Town of Vernon back to the regular (unsubsidized) status of the rest of the smaller towns in Windham County. We have no town police departments and use the Windham County Sheriff’s Department out of Newfane and the Vermont State Police who have a barracks in West Brattleboro. .... I realize you’ve felt like you "had it good " for over 40 years and have gotten used to the lowest costs of living in Windham County. But you have also born the burden of potentially highly toxic environment with Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in your backyard. We’ll all feel safer with it closed..... You can stop complaining about having to now pay your way instead of having Vermont Yankee paying it for you. Welcome to the real world.
The novel: A few words about Super Sad True Love Story. I'm reading it, but I probably won't finish it. I don't like to spend quite that much mental time in a miserable future. Great title, though.
Town Meetings: Town meetings are a New England staple, and if you live in a part of the country where there are no town meetings, they look pretty good. From my cynical perspective as someone who moved to New England, Town Meetings tend to put all town decisions into the hands of those who have the leisure to show up for these often-lengthy events.
Many towns (such as mine) are amending the meeting times to get more participation, or adding an Australian Ballot (pre-printed ballot) on a regular voting day for final approval of the budget.
Town meetings have great discussions, however, and I think New England has the best meeting moderators in the world. Our town moderators have skill, tact, and deep understanding of Robert's Rules of Order.