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From cannabis to COVID relief funding, catching up on major Town Meeting Day results

A sign saying "school budget vote - vote today" stands in the snow alongside a snowy road in the small Vermont city of Winooski.
Matthew Smith
/
VPR
Cannabis, city budgets, school boards and city council seats, and big projects funding with federal COVID relief dollars: just some of the items Vermont voters weighed in on during the 2022 Town Meeting Day.

Town Meeting Day has come and gone for most of Vermont communities. Some opted to push back their local meetings and big decisions due to the ongoing pandemic, but the majority weighed in on issues big and small: from funding infrastructure and wastewater projects, to allowing local cannabis sales, to electing city councilors, select board members and school board officials.

We check in with VT Digger reporter Kevin O'Connor for the major take-aways from Town Meeting Day 2022.

Connor Cyrus: Out of the 246 cities and towns across the state, how many of them met yesterday and voted?

Kevin O’Connor: About 75%, which would be about 175 [communities] actually cast ballots yesterday, and another 40—which would be about 15%—actually held town meetings. That leaves another 30 or so towns who've decided they're going to wait till it's warmer, either so they can open the windows or meet outside. So, we're in town meeting season right now, but people are going to see it around the state continue in April, May and as late as June.

"[Vermont's] 28 communities that have 5,000 or more people [saw] 'business as usual.' The smaller towns were the ones who sort of decided, if they weren't going to have a floor meeting ... this wasn't the year to be bringing up items that perhaps needed to be debated."
Kevin O'Connor, VT Digger reporter

Was there a theme to this year’s Town Meeting Day? Something that was on a lot of city and town ballots this year? 

There are only 28 communities in Vermont that have 5,000 or more people. And those 28 communities tend to vote in March on a ballot. So, those communities were sort of “business as usual.”

The smaller towns were the ones who sort of decided, if they weren't going to have a floor meeting, if they were going to instead vote on a ballot, that perhaps this wasn't the year to bring up items that perhaps needed to be debated. So, in terms of the big municipalities, the trend tended to be "business as usual" and they had no problems bringing up big-ticket items.

In the smaller communities, I tended to find they really sort of kept it to the basics, with the idea that, hopefully, they can be back on the floor next year and debate some of these more contentious issues.

More than 40 cities and towns across the state had marijuana on the ballot, by way of a ballot item asking if they should allow retail cannabis in the community. How did voters respond to that ballot  item?

Back in 2020, the state legislature said that communities could allow local marijuana sales, but they would have to “opt in.” Up until this week, about 33 communities around the state had said yes, we'll do that. And there were another 40 communities that were voting over this past couple of days on whether to do that or not.

A lot of those results are still coming in. But at this point, we know that at least 25 more communities have said “yes” to do that. There were several communities that decided “no.”

At this point, it's looking about 50 or so towns will be ready to approve local cannabis sales when the state law allows that later this year [Oct. 1].

More from VPR: New U.S. attorney for District of Vermont to focus on violent and white-collar crime; cannabis not a top priority

A lot of communities have one or big items that they want to bond out to either build or buy. Can you explain what some of those are, and where they are?

The smaller towns decided that they really were going to keep these kinds of items off their ballots, but the larger towns in the state had no problem. They put on a collective more than $100 million in bond items.

The biggest were in Burlington—they had two items that, combined, about $50 million in different bond items to do infrastructure improvements—and Montpelier was sort of second. They had about $25 million in different bond items.

Amazingly, people in both Burlington and Montpelier, even with those price tags, said yes, although in Burlington, the challenge was, they said yes to the bond items, but they said no, we don't want to increase our municipal tax rate. So, short term, the city is going to face a little bit of a challenge in terms of, how do you write a budget for the next year? Long term, however, they have decided, yes, we'll pay for the infrastructure improvements that we need.

So it was interesting that in terms of around the state with these big price tags, on most places said yes.

A lot of communities had ARPA money, money from the federal government for the state to spend because of the pandemic. How did cities and towns that had the option choose to spend it?

There are some communities that have decided to start spending this money, and had a couple of items on the ballot in the last couple of days. The majority, however, are still trying to figure that out.

But those that did have ballot items, sort of got creative. Colchester, for example, has had a multimillion dollar plan to try to do a sewage system in the Mallets Bay area. When they last proposed this, and taxpayers would have had to pay for it, voters decided they didn't want to try that, that it was too pricey. When Colchester put the plan back together and started using these federal funds, the American Rescue Plan Act funds, voters were more receptive, and they actually voted for that.

There are a couple of other infrastructure bonds around the state that passed, in part, because it wasn't going to be reliant simply on the local taxpayers, but the towns and cities were going to be able to use much more of this federal money to bring that cost down, and to do sort of “one time” long-term improvements.

Listen to the full interview to hear more about how Vermont voters decided on key local issues, how Montpelier voters came to approve the purchase of the 138-acre former Elk's Club country club, and how eight towns spread across Bennington and Rutland counties decided to support a regional fieldhouse.

Broadcast live on Wednesday, March 3, 2022 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

Connor Cyrus joined VPR as host and senior producer in March 2021. Formerly a reporter at WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island, he's passionate about journalism’s ability to shed light on complex or difficult topics, as well as giving voice to underrepresented communities.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined VPR in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.