About 150 residents attended the annual gathering of voters at the multi-purpose room at the Manchester Elementary Middle School, compared to about 185 the previous year. By the end of the meeting, which lasted a little more than three hours, residents passed a municipal budget calling for slightly under $4.5 million in public spending. Two special articles, one calling for $50,000 for further improvements to a new Park House center at the towns recreation park, and another authorizing up to $50,000 to help pay for a portion of a set of proposed improvements to an adjacent skateboard park, also sailed through with little debate.
"I was very happy with it," said Town Manager John O'Keefe after the meeting adjourned. "I've heard many times that people really trust the Select Board's judgment on the budget - I think if that weren't there Town Meeting would go a lot differently."
The only special article which was adjusted on the floor was one sought by the Bennington Coalition for the Homeless, which initially called for a town appropriation of $5,000. However, the nonprofit organization is undergoing a changeover of leadership amid disclosures that its financial bookkeeping is in disarray and needs further review. Its long-serving executive director, Kendy Skidmore, was let go about a month ago. Meanwhile, a homeless shelter that the coalition had opened last year on Richville Road will be closed on March 15, those attending at the town meeting were told by Stacey New, the coalition's acting executive director.
That homeless shelter had been opened before the coalition was financially ready to support it, she said. No Manchester residents had lived there up to this point.
"Our position is 'humble' at this time," she said. "Our audit will take place shortly and we'll come out of this on the other side with a correct and complete financial picture."
Voters in Manchester then amended the coalition's request to $1,500, the same as last year's amount, pending the completion of a satisfactory audit of the organization's financial records.
By virtue of that reduction, the amount of revenue needed to be raised by taxes for fund the budget came to almost $2,502,700, which represents a 6.
All told, with $177,931 added into the town's spending plans through the special articles, the grand total of municipal expenditures for the coming fiscal year, which starts on July 1, will total $4,722,259.
The largest single item voted off the floor from among the special articles was $153,200 to support the Mark Skinner Library. That requested amount has been unchanged for the past three years. In her remarks to the audience Betsy Bleakie, the library's executive director, was careful to distinguish the requested sum from the private fund-raising efforts being undertaken to construct a new library, which the library's board directors hope to break ground on later this year. The money being voted at the floor meeting goes to the library's ongoing operating budget, she said.
"What you are voting on today is funding for our current library in Manchester Village," she said. "The new library will be funded 100 percent through private money raised by our capital campaign."
At the same time, the library was seeing more and more use by the community, and that increasing demand was placing additional cost pressures on the library's budget of $339,350, she said.
Otherwise, voters were in an approving mood, with the most extended discussion taking place over whether to combine together in one vote 11 of the special articles for funding requests from several area nonprofit organizations, or to decide them separately. After a lengthy discussion which lasted about 40 minutes, involving a series of amendments and debated the merits of whether or not representatives from those organizations should be present at the meeting -- some were, others weren't -- those attending the meeting approved the $23,231 in spending called for in those articles.
Voters at the floor meeting also defeated an effort to cut back expenditures to their previous levels in last year's budget, a difference of about $106,000. Leslie Cole made a motion that called for a spending moratorium and a freeze on new employee hiring for two years. After some discussion, and an inconclusive voice vote, the amendment was defeated 111-21 when Moderator Michael Nawrath called for those for and against the amendment to stand.
Cole, however, remained a presence in meeting, and cast a spirited and clearly audible "nay" vote at the conclusion of the debate over voting 11 special articles for the non-profits.
Voters also extended Hunter Park's tax exempt status for five more years.
Manchester's school district meeting will be held Monday at 7 p.m., also at the school's multi-purpose room. Voting for candidates for public offices will take place Tuesday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the town hall.