Cassandra Hotaling Hahn / Staff photo Gary Anderson, left, and other residents line up at the ballot box at Bethel Town Meeting inside Bethel Town Hall on Tuesday.
BETHEL — Irene left town 192 days earlier, but the storm that wrecked homes, roads and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure claimed one more casualty on Town Meeting Day.
By a 122-74 vote, 12-year Select Board member Bill Richards lost his latest re-election bid to newcomer Bill Hall, whose supporters were critical of the town’s handling of the post-Irene recovery efforts.
“I’m not happy with the way the town responded to the flood victims’ needs,” said resident Eleanor Griffin. “We need someone like Bill Hall because of the big issues with the transfer station and the flood.”
Hall didn’t talk about the recovery efforts during his address to voters. But Richards defended his own conduct and that of town employees, who he said went above and beyond the call of duty in the days after the storm brought ruin to 70 miles of road, nine bridges, the town’s water and sewer system, and numerous private properties.
“Our infrastructure was wiped out by Mother Nature,” Richards said. “Even though we tried hard to please everyone, it didn’t always happen. I can tell you we were focused, prepared and well managed when the storm hit. The town of Bethel is strong and resilient, and with help and assistance we’ve come a long ways in 192 days.”
Tropical Storm Irene cast a shadow over more than just the contest between Hall and Richards on Tuesday.
The Bethel Town Hall, where residents filled nearly every seat on the ground floor and balcony, was filled with pictures and literature related to Vermont’s storm of the century.
A photo display of damage from the storm was set up at the front of the hall while copies of “The Wrath of Irene,” composed by the Herald of Randolph, were on sale at the back of the room.
Also available as handouts were booklets about the National Flood Insurance Program and a flier dubbed “Starting Over Strong Vermont: Managing the Emotional Consequences of Storms and Flooding.”
Much of the hand-wringing in town has concerned paying for the estimated $5 million worth of road and other infrastructure damage wrought by the flood.
While money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state funding is expected to pay for the lion’s share of repairs, the town would still be required under present funding formulas to shoulder 12.5 percent of the cost — or $625,000.
That is roughly half the value of the $1,268,666 highway and general fund budget that voters unanimously approved Tuesday.
Irene left only a light footprint in that spending plan, where a $40,000 expenditure was included to pay for interest on an 18-month loan the town took out to cover emergency repairs, according to Town Manager Delbert Cloud.
Cloud and state Rep. Sandy Haas, D-Rochester, said they are hoping a bill before the Legislature will cap the town’s liability at a level taxpayers can afford.
During an address at the start of the meeting, Haas said the bill seeks to limit the financial responsibility for infrastructure repairs in communities hard hit by Irene to a maximum of 3 cents on the tax rate. In Bethel, that cap would limit the cost to $57,000, she said, with the state picking up the rest of the tab.
“That would represent a significant change from what it might be otherwise,” Haas said.
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