By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent
It was Wednesday, Aug. 27, and, while canoes, kayaks and small sailboats slipped through the serene waters of Silver Lake, several yards away Barnard’s local administrators, officials and a few residents were working valiantly to navigate their way through the many statutes and regulations that determine the rights, responsibilities and processes that guide Vermont’s municipal governments.
At 5:30 p.m. Richard and Anne Broderick appeared before the Barnard Board of Abatement (BOA) to appeal the $880.05 penalty levied on their 2013 real estate taxes when their “Homestead Declaration” was not filed by the April 15 deadline. Known as HS-122, a regulation provides a tax reduction for Vermont resident homeowners whose income is below $105,000.
Mr. Broderick suffered a serious illness beginning in late 2013, and had to leave tax-filing issues to his wife Anne for the first time.
“Anne was unfamiliar with the Homestead Declarations and didn’t realize extension of our other filing dates didn’t include it”, explained the appellant. The Brodericks have paid the penalty and were petitioning the BOA for a refund.
No one on the board doubted that the Brodericks have a legitimate case for refund of the penalty. Although there are three possibly conflicting (and certainly confusing) descriptions of the regulation in Vermont statutes, “serious illness” seems to be universally recognized as a valid consideration. The issue, also raised by readings of the various state statutes, is “Who has legal authority to grant the appeal?”
After considerable debate the issue came down to Select Board Chairman Tom Morse’s interpretation that the BOA was the appropriate place for the decision, and Town Clerk Dianne Rainey’s reading that authority was limited to a “legislative body,” namely the Select Board. To avoid re-swearing the appellants, the BOA meeting was adjourned temporarily, to reconvene on Sept. 17, giving the Board “time to clarify jurisdiction in the matter.”
The Vermont Open Meeting Law reared its seemingly ubiquitous head as Clerk Rainey suggested that the Internet is not an appropriate place to publicize individuals’ personal finances and other private information when they come to the Board of Abatement. While residents have to come to public posting places to see notices, if they are posted on the ListServe they are actively advertised to people who have not made the effort and to any party, even outside Barnard, who signs up to receive all postings. Unlike the Select Board, she proposed, the BOA notices and minutes might be posted in three locally public places, as required by the Open Meeting statute, other than the Barnard ListServe, which the Select Board substitutes for posting on a town website, something Barnard does not have.
“Knowing that details of their situations will be posted on the Internet for anyone to see might be a disincentive for residents to come to the Board for legitimate issues,” Rainey pointed out.
The Board passed a motion to omit ListServe postings of BOA minutes per Ms. Rainey’s suggestion.
When the Board of Civil Authority convened immediately following the Board of Abatement meeting, Clerk Rainey proposed the same Open Meeting law posting regime be adopted to protect residents from having their private real estate tax issues from becoming internet fodder for unrelated parties. A similar motion omitting ListServe postings of CBA minutes passed.
Resident Todd Shortlidge was sworn in as an appellant regarding listers’ assessment of his house and land.
“My home is mostly unfinished,” Shortlidge said, “and my two neighbors’ homes, each totally finished and having more land than mine, are assessed for less.”
After some discussion of the timing of Mr. Shortlidge’s appeal vis a vis the April 2013 evaluation of his property, the Board agreed to temporarily adjourn the meeting and three of the CBA members went with the appellant to inspect the subject house, land and neighborhood to consider his request. The CBA will convene again on Sept. 17 and render their decision.
Before adjourning the meeting Dianne Rainey pointed out that the Democratic Party had filed their candidate list for Justice of The Peace positions for November ballot printing, but Republicans had not. The deadline was Friday, Aug. 29.
A discussion ensued regarding what Selectman Tim Johnson referred to as “hocus-pocus voting” in the past. Rainey explained that election officials use a state voter checklist to validate voters as they arrive. “If a person isn’t on the checklist, they are allowed to vote if they sign an affidavit affirming they are registered with the state, which is supposed to be checked later at the state level.”
However, a few voters have been found registering at post offices in towns in which they don’t reside, for instance, and signing the affidavits in another, allowing them to cast votes in multiple local elections.
“This is not all that uncommon,” said Rainey.
First item for the Select Board meeting was the Barnard Cemetery Commission’s desire to address issues reported in the Aug. 21 edition of the Vermont Standard including the commissioners’ performing maintenance and repairs, encompassing alleged tree work, instead of hiring insured contractors, and the proper way for taxes and insurance to be handled regarding payments to the commissioners for this work.
Commissioner Rodney Croft explained that the cost of having Green Mountain Monument Co. service the cemeteries had become quite high, and, with some monument repair skills possessed by them and doing other property maintenance labor, the commissioners are saving the town considerable expense.
“Two or three of the guys work one or two days a week and we charge the town only $45 a day per man for drilling and epoxying marble stones and doing maintenance ourselves,” he said.
“As town officials our activities should be covered by the town’s liability insurance,” he said, citing Vermont statutes.
Select Board chairman Tom Morse thanked the commissioners sincerely “for your excellent work, for making remarkable progress in getting and keeping the cemeteries in commendable condition, and for your efforts to save the taxpayers money.” The town is facing an upcoming audit and, Morse explained, it is the Select Board’s duty to make sure the town “dances to state regulations regarding workers compensation and liability insurance, and tax withholding issues.”
He promised to check with Barnard’s insurance and legal resources and let the commissioners know the result and how things would have to be handled in the future.
Barnard Volunteer Fire Department Chief Scott Mills and several firemen also approached the Selectmen, wanting to discuss their proposed new firehouse project.
“We wanted to talk to you fellows,” Morse said. “We heard you’re spending money the fire department doesn’t have.”
The ensuing discussion cleared up several financial issues involving quarterly availability of funds from the town, other money raised independently by the fire department and what was going to be needed to raise construction funds for the proposed firehouse on land owned by the town and adjacent to the Town Hall on North Road. A key topic was a bill for $6,500 from engineer Mike Willis, who lives in town.
“Mike says he will do the Act 250 permitting, run-off and septic design for both buildings (including the Town Hall) and the foundation requirements for the $6,500 fee,” Mills said. “The fire department will raise whatever costs we might incur over and above what the town provides.”
One concern, Mills pointed out, is that a considerable amount of engineering and actual work will benefit both the town, vis a vis Town Hall septic and drainage issues, and the fire department.
“So we feel there should be some cost-sharing outside of our appropriation in the town budget,” Mills said.
Morse agreed, and Selectman Tim Johnson pointed out, “It’s important for both the town and the Fire Department that we find out exactly what the cost-sharing amounts will be.”
Financing a project that has been alleged to approach $1 million will require offering a public bond issue, Morse explained. Exact figures and detailed engineering and other plans will have to be available to make that work. Mills agreed, explaining that is why they want to pay Willis’ bill for $6,500.
“We are working towards having our proposal together in time for the next Town Meeting in March,” Mills said.
Morse promised to research what is involved and necessary regarding the bond issue, which, because the building will belong to the town and be leased to the fire department, will have to be done by the town.
Weather is a major issue regarding replacement of the temporary bridge accessing the home of Wanaka Garber, who appeared before the Select Board for a follow-up report on progress.
“The two issues, said Morse, “are providing enough room at the end of the bridge on Old Route 12 for pile-drivers to do their work, which may require an easement from the property across the road, and how residents on either side of the work can access State Highway 12 if the work is done during winter months. Any temporary road making up for the abandoned bridge on the Bethel side would be impossible to plow and keep open and passible.”
Morse advised he will ask the engineers to forego trying to complete the project until the possibility of snow is past.
BarnArts, reported Morse, has agreed to pay $250 rent to the town to cover wear and tear on the Town Hall caused by their popular play productions during the year.
Selectman Tim Johnson promised to “take care of” dead trees around the Town Hall parking area, “as part of his tree project” in response to complaints that debris is falling on parked cars.
Tom Morse confessed that he was the culprit who inspired a memo from the tax collector prohibiting other people from accepting tax payments from residents.
“Apparently I told someone who gave me a check for their taxes after the tax office was closed that it would be considered timely payment, and it wasn’t,” he said. “No one can accept tax payments except the tax collector.”
Resident Wendy Tudor requested definition of the exact location of Class IV Town Highway 105, as it is referenced in a deed as a land boundary and it “disappears” after going through an opening in a stone wall.
“We researched it,” said Morse, “but historical references are vague.”
The Board decided to advise her to consider it “straight ahead after it goes through the walls.”
In a final note, Morse reported that AOT representative Patrick Ross had sent an email confirming permission for the Central Vermont Quad Runners ATV club to install a culvert on state land as part of their trail system maintenance on Town Highway 89.