OFFICE OF THE SELECTBOARD
Town of Halifax, Vermont
SELECTBOARD REGULAR MEETING MINUTES
November 19, 2019
Call to Order
The meeting was called to order at 7:00 p.m. Selectboard members Lewis Sumner, Mitchell Green, and Bradley Rafus were present, as were Stephan Chait, Ray Combs, Peggy Rafus, Homer (Chum) Sumner, Paul Blais, and Robbin Gabriel.
Changes and/or Additions to Agenda
Approval of Previous Meeting Minutes
Mitch Green made a motion to approve the 11/5/19 regular meeting minutes as written. Brad Rafus seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.
Board members agreed to change the order of business on the first two agenda items, and hear the School petition discussion first.
Petition for School
Lewis Sumner advised that the Board has received a petition with the following wording; “Shall the Town of Halifax vote to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District at a Special Town Meeting.” The petition was signed by the required number of voters, and certified by the Town Clerk. Green asked why this request could not be addressed at the March 2020 Town Meeting. as we seldom get much attendance at a special meeting. Chum Sumner said that due to vagaries in the law as written, preparing proper wording for the petition was a lengthy process. During that period, Readsboro began discussing withdrawal, also. The unification was a marriage forced on us by the State, said Chum. It’s not helping the education, it is more expensive to have that school; that school (Readsboro) is looking at $1.6 million in renovations in the next few years, which will not benefit Halifax, and Readsboro parents do not want their students to go to Halifax School because of the road. It would be much easier to send those students to Stamford; the route is a pretty straight, level, good road, as opposed to the hilly, winding roads from Readsboro to Halifax. Chum explained the withdrawal process: The first town to petition holds a special meeting with a floor vote. If the vote is affirmative, the Town Clerk notifies the Secretary of State, who in turn notifies the other towns in the union. Those other towns must then vote on the question of withdrawal. If voting results affirm withdrawal, the withdrawal still needs to be approved by Agency of Education and the Secretary of Education. The withdrawal can only be approved at the start of a fiscal year, July first. If we wait until March to vote, then wait for the other town to go through their warning/meeting/vote, we won’t make that July first deadline; thus the importance of holding a special meeting as soon as possible. Paul Blais said that if Halifax acts promptly they will be able to vote from the floor at a special meeting. If Readsboro acts on a petition first, then Halifax would subsequently need to vote by Australian ballot. Voting by Australian ballot is a more expensive process, as it requires paying for polling attendants all day, and ballot counters.
Green recalled talk about the possibility of towns losing small schools grants back when the schools were merging. Yes, said Chum; when we were forced to merge under Act 46, we were told if we did not merge we would lose our small schools grant. That’s about $70,000 for Halifax. We were also told that if we did not meet the merger deadline we could be forced to merge with other schools not of our choice. But some towns did not merge, and at this point the State is saying those schools will not be forced to do so, as Act 46 is kind of off the books. We have also learned that we would not necessarily lose our small schools grant without a merger. As long as our test scores are up to the mark we could still get it; we would simply have to reapply each year, and while the amount of the grant changes from year to year, we could expect it to remain at approximately the same level as in the past. The only thing we would lose is the two cent tax rate reduction; we would not have to pay penalties on reductions already received. Rafus asked how much Halifax would have to pay toward Readsboro’s $1.6 million in renovations. Approximately half, responded. Chum; it would not be exact, but there is not much difference between Readsboro and Halifax grand lists. We would have to take out a bond; it would be a Southern Valley Unified Union School District bond paid for by both towns, with no benefit to Halifax.
Blais said Readsboro School is in the bottom five percent State-wide for educational test scores. Chum explained that for the last three years, the State has given Readsboro $78,000 a year for the purpose of correcting that deficiency, and in return for those dollars administration must expend a lot of time and energy creating plans for improvement and monitoring teachers. Readsboro is thus receiving most of administration’s time and attention. Lewis Sumner said he understood Readsboro also has a petition to withdraw. I have not yet talked to the (Readsboro) Selectboard, said Chum, but I’ve heard unofficially they kicked the petition back to the School Board. Blais said there was some misunderstanding; according to the way the law is written, the withdrawal question is not a school process, it is a town process. Also the Readsboro petition is not legally correct; it asks that the unified district be dissolved, rather than requesting withdrawal. A town cannot vote to dissolve a district. Both towns would have to pass it (withdrawal)?, asked Lewis Sumner. Yes, answered Chum; the towns would vote to approve, the Secretary of Education and Agency of Education would have to approve, and then the school would have to put together a presentation similar to the one we created during the merger process, only we would be asking for a divorce instead of a marriage. Our unified union district has only two towns, and if both are in favor of withdrawal, that first step should be fairly simple. Chum said he could not predict the reactions of the Secretary of Education and Agency of Education, as they are probably not going to be happy about unified districts dissolving. Ray Combs asked if there were other schools doing the same thing. There are other schools in the State pursuing withdrawal, responded Chum, but not in our district. Stephan Chait asked how many signatures were on the petition. 41, answered Lewis Sumner; a petition needs five percent of the voters, or about 28 in Halifax. Combs asked who started the petition; Sumner said he didn’t know.
Discussion turned to the logistics of scheduling a special town meeting as promptly as possible, while meeting statutory requirements and considering the upcoming holidays. Green made a motion to schedule and warn a special town meeting on Monday, December 30, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. in the Halifax School Multi-purpose room, to vote on a citizen’s petition worded thus: “Shall the Town of Halifax vote to withdraw from the Southern Valley Unified Union School District.” Rafus seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.
Prior to the vote, Sumner said past Town Meeting minutes will be researched to determine the wording on a vote related to mailing of notification postcards. Green said he wanted to notify as many people as possible but would prefer not to spend the money for special meeting postcards if it is not legally necessary. Lewis Sumner advised that warning notices would be posted on the Town web site, in the newspaper, and on bulletin boards. He read the statutory requirement for notices to be posted five to seven days prior to the meeting. Notices will be posted earlier than that in order to reach as many voters as possible. Sumner told Combs Halifax has about 540-550 registered voters. If cards are mailed one per household, he estimated the cost at $250-$300. Stephan Chait thought that noticing only on the web site and bulletin boards would not result in a large turnout; sending cards might increase attendance.
Attendees also discussed dates for an Informational Meeting prior to the Special Meeting. Green made a motion to schedule an Informational Meeting on Friday, December 20, 2019 at 7:00 p.m. in the Halifax School Multi-purpose room. Sumner seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0.
Discuss Voter-Funded Charities
Green said he thought the list of tax-funded charities was growing. People shouldn’t be forced to pay it (the charities) through their taxes, he said; if they want to they can give personal donations. Sumner believes the list has remained about the same in the last ten or twelve years. Voters can always make an amendment to the article, he added. (Note: The special funds article is the next to last article in each year’s Town Warning, found in the Town Report.) Green clarified, in response to a remark from Chait, that he was not opposed to the organizations themselves, just the practice of funding them with Town tax dollars. Green proposed requiring charities to file a petition every year. Currently, an organization can make a yearly request for a level-funded amount without a new petition. Anyone requesting a larger sum, or anyone not presently on the list, must submit a petition to the Selectboard. Sumner said he was opposed to yearly petitions. It makes more work for the Town Clerk, who has a verify every signature on each petition before it can be considered. If signatures don’t pass inspection, the petition must be returned and, by law, requesters have 48 hours to correct and resubmit. You want to eliminate the charities?, asked Combs. No, answered Green, I want them to be supported by private funding. I want them to have to work a little harder to get the money. While the voters are can choose not to fund any of the organizations on the list, Green said not all voters show up at Town Meeting. That’s the voters’ responsibility, said Rafus; if you don’t show up and vote, you have no room to complain about anything.
There was discussion about the fact that special funds requesters are listed in a single article in the Town Warning; perhaps each organization should have its own article. Peggy Rafus asked how much the Town gave to the Community Club each year. Last year the amount was $2,000. Green thought if the Town was supporting the Community Club they should be able to use it free. Sumner started a motion to leave the special funding article as it has been, but then agreed with Green that separating the list into individual articles would make it easier to amend each one. Rafus was in agreement. Sumner confirmed for Rafus that without a petition each organization gets the same amount every year. They simply send a letter asking for level funding. We can do that when we prepare the warning, said Sumner. You’ll put each one to an individual vote?, asked Combs. Yes, answered Green and Sumner. Each one will be voted on separately, and voters can propose an amendment to any single article, or ask that it be passed over. If seven people stand up, the vote can go to a paper ballot.
Set Schedule for Budget Preparation Meetings
Board members consulted the calendar and set Saturday, December 7, 2019, at 8:00 a.m. and Saturday, December 28, 2019, at 8:00 a.m. for Selectboard meetings to prepare the FY21 proposed budget.
Hearing of Visitors
Stephan Chait had several items to share. The Conservation Commission has been discussing signage at the recycling bin lot. WSWMD’s Athena Lee Bradley has provided flyers which could be enlarged and laminated, and Chait said it would also be useful to have a weatherized notice board at the recycling location which could be used for recycling information and for general Town notices. Before proceeding, the Conservation Commission would like to know if the Selectboard would agree to the project. Board members indicated they were in favor, and Green thought a stand-alone box should be constructed. Chait said the Conservation Commission would present some design ideas to the Selectboard. The construction would also need funding, or perhaps volunteer labor. Green suggested the Town might pay for materials and volunteers could be solicited to do the work. Combs said position of a board should be discussed, as the lot needs to be plowed.
Chait asked about the schedule for preparing the March 2020 Town Report, as the new Conservation Commission would be writing a report for inclusion in that document. Sumner told him the auditors create the Town Report and set deadlines for submission. Patty Dow will know those dates.
Chait also spoke about the Staying Connected Initiative, which is concerned with maintaining wildlife corridors and connectors between forest blocks. Halifax has large forest blocks and the Initiative would like to talk to local people about their work, which extends across a multi-state area and into Canada. Chait said he would prepare a presentation for the December 3rd Selectboard meeting; he recommended a future joint meeting of the Selectboard, Conservation Commission, and Planning Commission, with guest speakers from the State discussing impacts on wildlife, environment, development, and economic activities. Board members were agreeable, and Chait said he would proceed with the planning process, perhaps shortly before or after 2020 Town Meeting.
Returning to the subject of recycling, Combs said there should be a way to differentiate between the paper and metal/glass/plastic bins. People get confused as the bins are not always clearly marked.
EMD Peggy Rafus, who has been pursuing Red Cross accreditation for the School as an emergency shelter, said she had attended a training session and has also spoken to Chum Sumner about the process. We do not necessarily have to have Red Cross approval to have a shelter, she said, but if we are accredited we can get them to come and run it. Peggy will be filling out some survey paperwork, and the Red Cross will come down and do an inspection. We would need a small trailer for storage of items like cots and blankets; the Red Cross wants towns to be equipped to be self-sufficient for the first 72 hours of an emergency. We don’t need to store perishables, she told Combs; the Red Cross will bring those things in if they can get here. We also need to plan for an alternate location for a warming shelter, as we could not use the school if it was in session with students present. There was discussion about acquiring a water-tight shipping container and finding a location close to the shelter, possibly on School property or behind the Firehouse. Brad Rafus suggested talking to other towns to learn what they have done about acquiring a shipping container or trailer.
Selectboard’s Order to Treasurer for Payment
The Selectboard’s Order to the Treasurer was reviewed and signed.
Correspondence was reviewed.
Sumner made a motion to enter executive session, including Peggy Rafus and Gabriel, to discuss land acquisition. Green seconded the motion, which passed, 3-0. The Board entered executive session at 8:23 p.m., and exited at 8:38 p.m. The Board signed a land agreement for a ten-acre gravel bank.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:38 p.m.