“We all come here uninterrupted and sit here and vote as we please,” said Leighton Detora, the moderator of Stowe’s town meeting, as he began the annual proceedings.
It was a somber reminder that not every community enjoys access to democracy, unimpeded.
Town meeting is a 221-year-old tradition in Stowe, Detora reminded the crowd. Stowe’s first town meeting, in 1797, took place at a resident’s home, according to its warning, which Detora read aloud.
In conducting the public’s business, Stowe voters:
• Approved a $12 million school budget by ballot vote.
• Elected Lindsey Neilson Lamb and Leigh Pelletier to the Stowe School Board.
• Approved the $11.8 million municipal budget.
• Raised serious questions about Stowe Arena’s financial performance.
• Decided to keep Stowe school buildings available for public use.
• Deplored the current state of the roads, and pushed for better maintenance.
• Supported a commitment to renewable energy.
• Refused to give more money to private groups that serve Stowe residents.
One hundred seventy-four registered voters, at the meeting’s peak, took advantage of their annual opportunity to gather with the Stowe Select Board, the Stowe School Board and many members of Stowe’s municipal government to share their opinions.
By the end of the meeting, the crowd in the Stowe High School auditorium had dwindled to about 75.
Turnout was small, Detora acknowledged; smaller than he expected, but “it’s always good to see young people get involved, bringing things up that are often difficult” to talk about.
Detora was referring to Cody Lilly, 11, and Jack Levine,
10, fifth-graders at Stowe Elementary School, who stood up during the “other business” section of the meeting to champion the Polo Field shelter, which has been eyed by the town for more than a decade. Its construction was rejected at last year’s meeting due to cost — the proposal was for $109,000, and included lightning-proofing.
Right now, there’s “nothing to protect you from the storm that happens to be strolling along,” Cody said. “I know it will take a lot of money and construction workers to do this task,” but he thinks it’s worth it.
Both boys said they were a little nervous about speaking in front of the crowd, but it was important to them, so they took their chance to talk.
That’s what town meeting is all about, said Detora — everyone gets a turn.
Other Stowe residents also took their chance.
The meeting started with a discussion of the Stowe School Board’s annual business. The $12 million budget was approved 567-124 by Australian ballot, so it wasn’t discussed during the board’s meeting.
Lindsey Neilson Lamb beat Cindy Jackman 394-270 to win a two-year term on the Stowe School Board; Leigh Pelletier, who was unopposed, was elected to a three-year term.
Voters approved the school board’s plan to use $300,000 from surplus funds to reduce property taxes, and to put $300,000 more into capital projects, such as boiler equipment replacement, additional key card access points and bleacher replacements.
The school board also asked voters whether they wanted to revise the policy governing use of school facilities, making them accessible only for school and municipal events.
The question was raised after a controversial autism summit last year at Stowe High School, including speakers who think vaccines can cause autism.
“School districts are municipalities,” and therefore can’t exclude individual groups based on their views due to freedom-of-speech rights, said school board chair Cara Zimmerman. “We can limit use to school and municipal uses only,” but “we don’t get to be the gatekeepers.”
That would cut off organizations such as Stowe Performing Arts, which uses Stowe High School as a rain location for its summer concerts, Winter Rendezvous and private sports camps.
Stowe residents spoke against changing the policy.
“There are times when we as a community need to have a discussion,” said Helene Martin, and she thinks the Stowe High School auditorium is the perfect place to do it.
Walt Levering, chair of Stowe Performing Arts, had just one question: “Why?”
His organization still has to pay acts when a concert is rained out, and it needs a rain location.
“This organization has been going for over 40 years in Stowe,” Levering said. “It would be out of business” if it was no longer allowed to use Stowe High School.
Voters agreed to keep Stowe High School open to all organizations and events.
Before voters took on the $11.8 million municipal budget proposal — they ultimately approved it — they had some questions about Stowe Arena’s financial performance.
“I’ve remained silent about the arena for a number of years,” said David Jaqua, but he demanded to know why the ice rink has requested almost $30,000 more in the budget this fiscal year than last, and yet has brought in $30,000 less in revenue — an 8.2 percent drop from last fiscal year.
“This was at least supposed to pay for itself operationally,” Jaqua said; now, the arena is “a sinkhole” for taxpayers’ money.
Every year, $350,000 from the capital fund goes toward payments on a 20-year loan for the arena, which was built in 2013 for $6.5 million.
Lisa Hagerty, chair of the Stowe Select Board, was a major proponent of Stowe Arena, and says the arena isn’t turning the profits it was projected to is because it “really is there to serve the community.
“We have made a community judgment to make this rink available to students” free of charge, and because of that, time that could be sold is going for free, Hagerty said.
She also pointed to declining participation numbers at Stowe Youth Hockey, which has rented the bulk of the ice time at the arena, but said its Learn to Skate program is growing.
“It’s going to take some years, but those numbers are growing,” Hagerty said. “Revenues for this rink are sort of hitting rock bottom,” but “we believe this year is going to represent as large an operating deficit as we will see.”
Charles Safford, Stowe town manager, said 211.25 hours had been rented so far by students, which would have accounted for $39,000 in revenues, and 56 hours of turf time had already been claimed by the same groups, accounting for $8,000 that could have been.
More for roads, please
Taxpayers also zeroed in on the almost $2.3 million highway budget — because they wanted it to be higher.
Bob diMario of Stowe said the condition of the roads and sidewalks is deplorable, and “I’d be willing to pay more taxes for that.”
The highway budget has increased by about $140,000, but diMario thought it should be higher.
“I think our approach was to keep the same level of service we have been providing across the board,” Hagerty said. “We do live in a very, very challenging place to have paved roads,” since the weather, combined with a short paving cycle, means it’s slow going.
“The streets in Stowe only get worse,” said Scott Noble. He’s concerned the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s 2020 date for repaving Main Street is too far away, and that Route 108 hasn’t yet been scheduled for maintenance.
Helene Martin said Mountain Road is “a total disaster.”
“I’ve become very good at slaloming” down Stowe roads, said Lyndall Heyer. “It’s a good thing I was a ski racer.”
“This is a case of ‘It gets worse before it gets better,’” Safford said. “We have a lot of work to do in the next couple of years,” including resurfacing Route 100 between Pucker Street and Morrisville in 2022.
“The select board did increase paving over the last several years,” Safford said.
No on social services
Stowe resident Josi Kytle also took a stab at the social services budget, which clocked in at about $50,000.
To Kytle and a few other Stowe residents, that’s not enough.
Jo Sabel Courtney of Stowe made a motion to increase the appropriation to Home Share Now, an organization that connects senior citizens with people who need housing, from $500 to $1,000, but the motion failed.
Sarah Williams made a motion to increase an appropriation to Lamoille County Mental Health from $5,000 to $6,000, but that motion, too, failed.
The municipal budget passed without any changes.
So did the capital budget of $590,000, which set aside money for a final design of proposed village sidewalk reconstruction, a scoping study for redirecting the Stowe Recreation Path under the Gables Bridge, and reconstruction of the tennis courts at Memorial Park, as well as fencing and lighting there.
That money comes from the 1 percent local option tax levied on meals and rooms in Stowe.
Some people were concerned $175,000 was high for tennis court replacement, but the courts need to be completely redone, said
Harry Shepard, Stowe’s public works director.
After passing the budget and the capital projects, voters turned to a nonbinding renewable energy resolution proposed by Marina Meerburg, former chair of the Stowe Conservation Commission.
“Now that the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Accord, it’s up to states and municipalities” to work toward conserving natural resources, she said.
Vermont has a statewide goal to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
“We are not on target to meet those goals,” Meerburg said.
The resolution would urge the state not to build new fossil fuel infrastructure and “firmly” commit to its goals.
It would encourage Stowe residents to consider weatherizing town and school buildings, where possible; identifying sites for solar panels, including town-owned rooftops; reducing emissions; and supporting initiatives for reducing personal energy consumption.
After amending it to acknowledge that the goal should also be to decrease carbon emissions to up to 45 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, voters adopted the resolution.
Next came “other business,” the part of the meeting where folks can bring up what’s on their minds, even if it wasn’t on their warnings.
Cody and Jack took a few minutes to talk about the Polo Field shelter, and a few people thought Stowe Arena’s name should be changed to Jackson Arena, to acknowledge the old rink it replaced.
Nick Donza called the name ‘Stowe Arena’ “a little sterile.”
No decisions were reached.
In ballot voting, Hagerty was elected to another three-year term on the Stowe Select Board and Neil Van Dyke was re-elected to a two-year term. Neither was opposed.
Ellen Thorndike was elected lister, and Leighton Detora was again elected to moderate the school and town meetings next year.
All told, 709 ballots were cast this year — about 16 percent of Stowe’s registered voters.
All in all, town meeting went well, said Morgan Nichols, the newest member of the Stowe Select Board. It was her first meeting in front of the crowd.
“I appreciated the high level of respect and decorum amongst our constituency,” Nichols said. “I appreciate what was put forward” for discussion.
It was a “perfect day,” said Lisa Hagerty, holding up a coffee cup she’d brought, bearing the phrase.