16 March 2008

Town Meeting

In true Yankee tradition our little town held it's annual Town Meeting. It is a day long awaited, sometimes hard fought but always time well invested. The new town employees are sworn in, we go over the budget, discuss and vote on warrant articles that have been brought before the board of selectmen throughout the year.
It started with our moderator going over the policies and procedures. Mostly warnings to play nice, no personal attacks. We have two distinct factions in town. Old working families that have been here for generations, and new money crowd that wants to lock our town in a box so they have their pastoral setting preserved (at any cost).
Then preacher Dave from our non-denominational church got up, reminded us to all remember that we live in the same town, are neighbors, have to live with each other... He suggested a snow-ball fight to ease the tension later which got a big laugh. Then a quick prayer asking us to all get along.
I won the election for Town Treasurer, so I, along with five others, went up to the front to get sworn in. We repeated (to the best of our memory's ability) the lengthy "I, do solemnly swear..."
Our first topic was the budget. Having seen the budget batted back and forth between the town administrators and the selectboard about a hundred times in the last couple of months, and seeing where the numbers were going (down- fast) I was shocked when selectman Ted called a motion to vote without reading it. 2/3 vote to read it. (Phew)
So off we stomped through the various budgets, with people asking about every increase. Except the police???? We have a joint venture with the local delinquent town to share police. This other town's pd quit about five years ago, which allowed the town to turn into a crack den overnight. Nonetheless, we now "share" police with them and both pay pretty much 50-50. I have never seen Jim (our cop) in his office at the town and other than when he is parked in his driveway I have not seen him about town. I've heard the average response time is two hours if you do call. (Five minutes is the average for the volunteer (unpaid) Fire and Rescue squads.) So when we were hit with a $30,000 increase and a new five year contract I thought surely someone would pipe up?! No.
But when it came to upgrading the computers in the office we had a half an hour discussion. We have three computers for six people. I do not have one at all. I come home or bring my laptop. They use Windows 98, non-networked, and ONE computer has dial-up to be able to link to the state for license plate registration. Two still use dot matrix printers and one with a Deskjet. They wanted to vote to upgrade the one computer that we have to meet state requirements, and get a $500 Dell for the rest of us. I spoke up on that one saying that the cost of a hardware/software person is where the money is and it will be pretty much the same per visit so it would be wise to have them come only once if we really wanted to save. Another lady stood up and said with her arms shrugged up in the air, "Only ONE of you has DIAL-UP????" A good laugh followed... The upgrade was approved and we moved on.
About a week ago I had been approached about saying something to the effect of vote all the warrant articles down because we can't afford them. The night before town meeting I got a call from another friend asking if I would say something about not spending money we don't have. I agreed. Then regretted it. I have long held the fine line of anonymity in town. Most people did not know which side of the fence I sat. If I start talking my cover is blown!
Well, after we approved the budget with minimal changes we moved on to the warrant articles. This is where the two factions really butt heads. The Friends of T Town Hall are one of the most extreme 'I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth' crowds. They have spent about $700,000 so far renovating our town hall. They have done beautiful work, a new cuppola, granite counters and stainless steel ovens in the kitchen they moved, crown moldings... One person got up and said, "...now we can all see how the other half lives..." They wanted another $150,000 from the town (from the town's savings account to be precise) to do wiring, turn a storage area into a balcony, rip up the floor (um, wouldn't you start with that???). They still have $300,000 in cash and a town full of contractors whose work is getting slim with the housing slow down... So the new guard begged for desperately needed funds (because $300,000 just isn't enough?!?), and the old guard offered their services, or asked if they could bid the jobs at a better price instead.
I prepared for my big moment, and wrote out a mini-speech. It was my turn. After stating my name I said," I would like everyone to consider this and the other warrant articles very carefully. If we don't keep a tight reign on our spending we'll be caught short. I was alarmed to see how quickly this town is going to be deficit spending if we don't change our path. Heading into a recession and leaner times I encourage you all to be more conservative, and save our Rainy Day funds for the storm that has yet to come." I was VERY nervous, but felt a little better as about ten heads were vigorously bobbing in agreement as I was talking.
We then had a ballot vote and break. Four people approached me, introduced themselves, and thanked me for speaking up. The warrant article failed :) One down four to go. All of the warrant articles failed, except the one for repairing a bridge. I think the idea was that our road agent was going to have a hard enough year, between all the snow, and the incredible damage the roads have sustained this year.
The last item on the agenda was snow-plowing. If you have followed me for a while you know my feelings on this. There is also incredible debate about whether it is legal. Certainly insurance is an issue. They may not pay if someone hits a kid, car, or house... The (new guard) selectman actually had the nerve to say we should table the article so we could "continue to fly under the radar" and have our driveways plowed. It brought one town employee to tears to think that we, as a town, were all agreeing to break the law just to have our driveways plowed. Before anyone else could speak someone moved to table. We did not agree, but were out voted and the article was tabled.
You win some you lose some.
We ended off the day at the town's pub. More people introduced themselves, and thanked me for speaking up which made me feel really good. I mostly talked with the town administrator, but also with the moderator, the new selectman, and some friends. It is a rare day that I am more social than Art, so I embraced it. Art was great. Just happy sitting at the bar chatting with the owner, joining our conversation from time to time, talking with friends, and entertaining some of our friends kids who were there.

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