Bellows Falls, Rockingham merger plans put on hold - for now
By Susan Smallheer
Staff Writer | December 11,2013
BELLOWS FALLS - A government merger between the village of Bellows Falls and the town of Rockingham has been put on hold - at least until next week.
After a lengthy meeting Tuesday night, attended by about 50 town and village residents, the Bellows Falls Village Trustees defeated a merger proposal on a 3-1 vote, and the Rockingham Select Board voted to rescind an earlier motion to approve the proposed merger.
Both actions came after dozens of residents questioned both the secret process leading up to the merger plan, and the timing of its possible approval - saying that it was being rushed through.
The two boards will meet again in joint session next Tuesday to discuss the merger, and consider adding a proposal to convert the Bellows Falls Police Department to a townwide police department. It is likely a townwide vote will occur at March town meeting, rather than late January.
Bellows Falls Village Trustee Stefan Golec said the merger proposal had been conceived in secrecy by a "special interest group" and that elected officials were only notified after the fact. As a result, he said, the plan is suspect.
Golec said he wanted a town and village-appointed group to study the plan, which was outlined by James "Jiggs" McAuliffe, who is chairman of the Rockingham School Board, and one of the five members of the private merger committee.
Other members were Thomas MacPhee, chairman of the Rockingham Select Board, Louise Luring, president of the Saxtons River village trustees, and Roger Riccio, president of Bellows Falls village. Riccio said he had only attended two meetings of the group.
McAuliffe said the main reason for the merger - or consolidation - was "governance," and the inefficiency of having two boards govern what was in essence was a small Vermont town.
McAuliffe, a Bellows Falls native who returned to town eight years ago, said the town and village boards haven't always gotten along.
Merger and consolidation has been proposed and rejected periodically over the last 30 years.
Rockingham Select Board member Ann DiBernardo, who lives in rural Rockingham, said that some people had called her in support of a townwide police department.
Vermont State Police don't always respond to Rockingham residents' concerns in a timely way, she said.
"I'd like to be able to call a cop at 3 a.m., when someone is breaking into my house," she said.
MacPhee said that the police department was not part of the merger, as under the plan it would remain in a special Bellows Falls village-only fee district.
Under the proposed plan, the town of Rockingham would be split into four different service districts depending on the level of fire and police service. Bellows Falls would retain both fulltime fire and police
service, unlike the rest of the town.
Municipal Manager Willis "Chip" Stearns said the two boards could change the merger proposal at the first hearing, on Jan. 2, but couldn't make changes at the second hearing leading up to a townwide vote.
Rockingham Select Board member Josh Hearne was the only Rockingham Select Board member who said he was against the merger. The residents of rural Rockingham don't want to pay for full-time police or fire coverage, he said. Under the plan, rural Rockingham would see the biggest tax increase, about 6 percent.
Under the plan, the board of the Bellows Falls village trustees would be eliminated, but the Saxtons River village trustees would remain. The Saxtons River village, which is also in the town of Rockingham, has an
extremely small budget, McAuliffe said.
After the meeting, MacPhee said that the merger would not provide any cost savings in the form of staffing, despite the emphasis that town hall staff were overburdened by the inefficiencies of "duplicate"
village and town governments.