Highway Articles Meet Mixed Fate at Town Meeting

CHESTER – Voters agreed to give the highway department $200,000 for asphalt in the coming year and to begin funding the town’s Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for future road projects, but decided against purchasing additional equipment or improving the highway shed area.

After selectman Mike Weider explained a CIP and the benefits it held for funding large projects while keeping the tax rate level from year to year, voters nearly unanimously agreed to fund it with $350,000, with $200,000 of that amount raised through taxation, the other $150,000 taken from the unreserved fund balance.

Weider has long been pushing for the CIP as a wise way to plan for future projects, and he got the go ahead to create a warrant article this year from his fellow selectmen, largely in light of continued failed warrant articles and bonds to pay for costly roadwork.

The CIP is a planning document that outlines projects according to cost and desired timeframe for completion. Under the heading of the CIP the town can create specific capital reserve funds that can be funded annually until enough money is collected to begin work on a stated project.

At Saturday’s Town Meeting, a capital reserve fund for highway work was set up under the heading of the CIP, and the plan is to annually add to that fund. Road agent Mike Oleson said he was in favor of the plan, but wanted to make sure that voters knew it wasn’t a panacea for their road problems. It’s likely, said Oleson, that he’d be back in coming years to raise a significant sum to get long neglected work complete. The cost of deteriorating roads is high, explained Oleson, and it was going to take significant investment to even think about getting caught up.
“This isn’t a magic wand. We’ll still need a large warrant article to catch up,” said Oleson.
“It’s not a perfect plan,” conceded Weider. “But it moves us forward.”

Resident Dennis Maloney argued for the CIP, saying that for years the town has decided against paying to fix roads and this was a better way to move ahead, especially as it didn’t require the town to borrow money.
With a secret ballot vote, the first of many of the day, voters decided to give the highway department $200,000 for asphalt to get some road work done this year. The final tally was 102-24.

Most of the day’s secret ballot votes were prompted by the budget committee, chair Rhonda Lamphere explaining that they think in a small community where voters knew the people asking for expenditures, a ballot made voting less stressful.

While budget committee member Chuck Heuer explained that the budget committee voted against the $200,000 sum in light of the CIP funding and a pricey warrant, Oleson likened the scenario to a leaky roof. If you didn’t have the money to fix your roof right away, would you let it sit a year until you did? he asked.

Next on the warrant for the highway department was the purchase of a class 8 dump truck for $185,000. Oleson quickly moved to amend the article to ask instead for a class 5 truck for $92,000. Oleson said it was never his intention to purchase such a large truck, as it wasn’t the best choice for the department, but said the article was selectmen prompted. The truck would have replicated a truck the department has now.

Weider, who lost his bid for reelection earlier in the week, argued for the larger truck, and an at times heated back and forth began between him and Oleson. Weider took issue with Oleson’s statements that the article was selectmen driven, saying that Oleson asked for the truck in a previous year. Weider said the selectmen and budget committee had good data to support the items they brought forward.

Voters decided against the truck after they agreed to amend it as Oleson desired.
The purchase of a loader also failed, again following a continued heated exchange between Oleson and Weider. Weider argued that the town needs to move away from road agents who rented the town their own equipment, a long held practice in Chester.

Oleson argued that the town was forced to rent a loader because it didn’t have one, so the cost savings would be there after a few years and it would get the town on the path to having a self-contained highway department that wouldn’t rely on contracted equipment. He explained the intended use for the piece, and how it would be useful for the entire town, including other departments.

Weider, speaking as a resident, argued against the loader in part because it wouldn’t be used daily and in most years the town didn’t pay much to rent a loader from a contractor. Weider said purchasing a backhoe made much more sense than a loader and noted the town currently rents a backhoe from Oleson.

The loader’s purchase failed with 61 no votes and 27 in favor.
In light of the failure to purchase any equipment, an article that would have used that equipment to clean up debris at the highway shed was tabled successfully by Weider. That article also would have built two buildings to house highway equipment.

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