Yesterday was Town Meeting in Vermont, one of the few remaining expressions of direct democracy left in the world.
Town Meeting takes place on the first Tuesday in March. In my town, we meet in one of our old halls starting at nine o’clock to consider the business that comes before the town.
Yesterday, we voted on renewing tax exemptions on real estate for the two volunteer fire departments, a community center, and the building that houses the preschool. We agreed to pay our property taxes in four installments, in August, October, January and April, and then we discussed how those property taxes would be spent.
A portion of our taxes pays for the administration of the town: We have a Town Clerk and assistant, a Town Treasurer and assistant, an Administrative Assistant, a zoning administrator, and three listers. Everyone else is a volunteer. We have a lot of volunteers.
The majority of our taxes funds the highway department: the trucks, snowplows and other machines that keep our roads and bridges in order as well as the salaries of the guys who do the work, often in miserable weather.
Our two volunteer fire departments are independent of the town. Nevertheless, voters allocated $20,000 to each for the ensuing year. Voters also agreed to fund other fire and safety organizations whose services we use: Mutual Aid, the regional dispatch service; Rescue, the local ambulance service; and ten grand to the state police for traffic control. We earn some of that money back for every ticket issued: Speeders beware!
Voters also had a chance to hear from our delegation to Montpelier. Both county senators and our local representative reported and answered questions about current legislation in the state capital. The voters passed a non-binding resolution instructing the State Treasurer to divest state funds from coal and fossil fuel companies.
The longest discussion of the day concerned an amendment to add $2,400 to the bottom line to fund two social service agencies that hadn’t applied for funds by the application deadline. No one questioned the need for the good work these organizations do, but some expressed frustration that they failed to follow the procedure, which is clear and fair.
I’m the Town Moderator, so I don’t take part in the discussion; I facilitate it according to Roberts Rules. There were two things about this particular discussion that stood out for me. The first was how civil it was. No one shouted, yelled, called anyone names or even used an aggrieved tone of voice. People made their opposing opinions with respect for each other and for each other’s points of view.
The second remarkable thing about this particular discussion was the amount of compassion voters expressed for the impoverished, for children who need services, and for adults learning to read.
The amended budget passed before noon, and the voters dispersed with little fanfare, having fulfilled this annual obligation to determine the taxes that will keep our town operational for another year.
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