By Eric Francis
QUECHEE – A “Community Meeting” to discuss the bond for the proposed repairs to the Quechee Covered Bridge, the slate of candidates for town offices, and the other agenda items set for votes at next week’s upcoming Annual Hartford Town Meeting is going to be held Saturday in the gym at Hartford High School from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
This will be the last “pre-town meeting,” with lunch being sold by the PTOs, following on the heels of Monday night’s remarkably successful ‘Candidate Night’ which packed the high school auditorium with local residents and at times seemed like an especially warm and fuzzy paean to participatory democracy.
Fixing Quechee’s badly damaged centerpiece bridge was at the forefront of several discussions as Quechee residents nervously wait to see if the voters in the other four villages of Hartford will agree to help float a $1,132,225 bond in order to fast-track the complete renovation of the 80-year old structure this year.
Normally such routine long-term infrastructure work would be folded into the town-wide highway budget and not singled out where it could be picked off in an up-or-down vote, but the selectboard is in a hurry to seize upon federal funding while it is still available in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene.
The plan that a positive bond vote would support calls for the complete renovation of the antique field stone abutments under the bridge, replacement of the 80-year-old steel beams, and the restoration of a lengthened decorative wooden canopy so that the village ends up with a longer bridge that would let much more water pass underneath in the event of similar catastrophic flooding in the future, all at face pace which would save several million dollars over the course of the next decade if it were to be done piecemeal.
Although the selectboard has expressed strong support for the bridge repair bond the worry is that in bad economic times even clear bargain in the long run may look like too much of an expense in the short term for voters who don’t actually use the bridge to drive from one place to another. Addressing that concern, several candidates on Monday night stressed the broader economic impact that the bridge has on business in Quechee and thus on the town of Hartford as a whole, where Quechee kicks in about four-tenths of the total tax base despite having many second homeowners who nonetheless can vote at town meeting because of their nonresident status.
That point was made by selectboard candidate Darrek Daoust who urged the board to simply “tar it over” and reopen the damaged bridge if necessary in order to get downtown Quechee back on it’s feet. “The Quechee Green is gone, Quechee’s bridge is gone, and the Club is hurting,” Daoust, a local contractor and balloon pilot said, warning that ten percent of the homes in Quechee are currently for sale and a downward spiral could take hold if something isn’t done.
F. X. Flinn, another outspoken Quechee resident who is running for a different seat on the selectboard, urged voters to pass the bridge bond saying that the “certainty” of getting a real bridge now would be cheaper in both the short and medium terms for residents because of the stabilizing effect it would have on home sales and other business activity in Quechee.
“The biggest challenge we face is the shrinking Grand List,” Flinn said, referring to the total value of Hartford’s real estate which provides the literal tax base for the town. “We could level fund (the town and school budgets) and our tax rate would still go up” if the Grand List contracts, Flinn said.
It’s a real concern, said Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg, who told the crowd, “This is the first time in my career that I’ve seen a grand list actually shrink.”
On the school side, Hartford’s school board has decided to put off the perennial discussions about how to potentially reshuffle students or entire grades amongst it’s collection of three elementary schools for at least the next five years and concentrate instead on raising the enrollment at Hartford High School where the declining student population is being most acutely felt. To that end, explained Hartford State Representative Kevin “Coach” Christie, the Annual School Meeting will ask Hartford voters to approve a bond for $4.5 million for immediate maintenance at HHS. This will not actually amount to an increase on the tax rate because a similar bond approved in the past is expiring this year, Christie explained.