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Your guide to Vermont’s Town Meeting Day tradition in 2024

Vermont Public | By April McCullum

Liam Elder-ConnorsVermont Public Staff

Published February 27, 2024 at 5:00 AM EST

Two people up on a stage with an American flag in front of a wide room with tall windows of people sitting in pews. Mostly everyone is wearing a face mask.
Peacham voters gather for Town Meeting Day 2023 in the Peacham Olde Meetinghouse.

It’s almost time for Vermont’s Town Meeting Day, and Vermont Public wants to help you feel prepared and confident.

Whether you’re a new Vermonter or a seasoned local voter, town meeting can feel overwhelming – school and town reports are thick, and there are endless variations on how things are done from town to town. Take it from us: Even journalists sometimes feel our eyes start to glaze over when we’re sorting through tax rates.

We’ve put together this guide to help! Here’s everything you always wanted to know about Town Meeting Day but were too afraid to ask.

Stay to the end for something fun.

The basics

What is Town Meeting Day?

Town Meeting Day is an election day for local issues and one of Vermont’s most cherished traditions.

“Think of town meeting as the earliest form of government in the state of Vermont,” Vermont Public’s senior political correspondent Bob Kinzel said on an episode of Brave Little State. “It’s been held for the last 250 years on the first Tuesday in March. And many people view it as democracy in its purest form.”

Follow all of Vermont Public’s town meeting and 2024 election coverage here.

What happens on Town Meeting Day in Vermont?

  • Elections of selectboard or city council members, school board members, mayors and other local officials.
  • Approval or rejection of town budgets.
  • Approval or rejection of school district budgets.
  • Ballot items: You may see bond votes for infrastructure projects, advisory questions that tell the selectboard how the public thinks about a certain issue, and more.
  • Lots of eating! Some towns organize a potluck before or after voting; others have bake sales or other fuel for democracy.
  • Presidential primaries (in presidential election years, including 2024). Vermont’s primaries are always held on the first Tuesday in March, regardless of whether a town chooses to hold its town meeting on a different date.

More: Look for eclipse glasses distributed at town meeting in some parts of the state this year.

When is my town meeting?

This will vary from town to town. Traditionally, Town Meeting Day is the first Tuesday in March. But that’s far from standard. Some towns meet on a Saturday or a Monday night to help encourage participation, and some choose an entirely different date that can be as late as April.

If your town conducts any of its business by Australian ballot, rather than gathering all together in the same room (more on that later), look for information about an informational meeting. It’s a good idea to attend.

In 2024, some school districts may postpone their budget votes to a later date as the Legislature tries to get a handle on higher-than-expected school spending.

People scoop food from a long potluck table
Gretchen Boswell and 1-year-old Ingrid get some help getting a lunch plate at the Peacham town meeting luncheon on March 7, 2023.

Where can I find what my town is going to be voting on?

Track down your town’s warning. You can often find that on your official town website. If you’re stumped, look for the annual report. You may have received one in the mail, but many towns also post them online. The town meeting warning — it’s usually somewhere toward the beginning of the town report — will show all the offices that will be elected plus any questions that will be put to voters.

You’ll also want to find the report and warning for your school district. Some towns make it easy and post everything on the town website; in other towns, you may need to visit your school district’s website to track down the documents.

How do I vote? 

There are two main ways that voting happens: in-person (sometimes called floor votes), and by paper ballot (often referred to as an Australian ballot).

In-person votes require everyone to be in a room together and weigh in on questions through saying “yea” and “nay,” or by holding up hands if the voice vote is too close. This is a cherished tradition in many towns because it allows meaningful discussion between neighbors, the opportunity to stand up and ask questions, and even the chance to tweak the wording of a proposal in real time.

Australian ballots are just like voting for president or governor. You’ll have a window of time to submit your ballot — you can vote early, or you can go to the polls before 7 p.m. on voting day.

The mix of in-person and ballot voting depends on the individual town or city. In some larger towns and cities, everything is done by paper ballots. Some towns do everything on the floor. Some towns do both — some items for the ballot, some items for the live meeting. Your town’s official Town Meeting Day warning will tell you how everything will happen.

A view through an old paneled window, with four people walking on paths between the snow against old buildings.
Peacham residents depart from town meeting on March 7, 2023.

What if I have a disability and need reasonable accommodations?

You can request an accommodation through your town office, letting them know that you have a disability that impacts your ability to participate in some aspect of town meeting, and identifying an accommodation that would help, said Lindsey Owen, executive director of Disability Rights Vermont. You don’t need to disclose your specific diagnoses. Ask for a response in writing.

One example of an accommodation — and one that some towns have done in recent years — is to allow people to participate in town meeting remotely from a nearby location. Town officers can bring them a ballot.

If towns aren’t responsive to these requests, Owen said to contact Disability Rights Vermont.

Accessibility at town meeting is a mixed bag, Owen said.

“Some towns seem to really understand and embrace the idea (and the mandate) to ensure equal access to the electoral process,” Owen said in an email. “And then there are other towns who are remarkably stubborn and ill-informed as to their obligation to provide accommodations to those in need.”

A sign reads "vote here today" in both English and Spanish
Wilmington voters gathered for town meeting on Tuesday.

Am I eligible to vote on Town Meeting Day?

In the vast majority of towns, voter eligibility is the same for other elections — you must be 18 years old, a U.S. citizen, and a legal resident of the town.

If you live in Montpelier, Burlington or Winooski, you can vote in these local elections if you are a legal resident. You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen. The Vermont Supreme Court upheld Montpelier’s rules about this in 2023.

Brattleboro allows 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections only.

People who are 17 years old, but who will turn 18 years old by the date of the November general election, are allowed to vote in Vermont’s primary elections.

I’m not registered to vote in Vermont — or I’m registered in a different town than where I live now. How do I register?

You can register to vote on the Vermont Secretary of State’s website or at your local town clerk’s office — up to and including the day of the vote.

Register in the town where you have your principal residence — not where you grew up, where you intend to live in the future, or where you own property. You can check your registration status on the Secretary of State’s website or by checking your individual town’s voter checklist.

What if I still have questions about the process?

Contact your town clerk.

Key terms to know

Moderator: The person who makes sure an in-person meeting runs smoothly and fairly. Moderators are elected by voters and serve a one-year term. Electing a moderator is typically the first order of business at any town meeting — and then the new moderator helps to manage all subsequent votes on other matters using rules known as Robert’s Rules of Order.

A Vermont Secretary of State’s Office guide for moderators calls them the “referees” of municipal meetings. Sadly, they don’t wear official uniforms.

A photo showing blue signs stuck in snowbanks reading all legal resident voting, what's that?
Burlington voters approved all legal resident voting during town meeting day on Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

Australian ballot: A standardized paper ballot filled out in private, much like the ballots used for statewide and federal elections.

Local option tax: An extra 1% tax that Vermont municipalities can add to transactions to bring in more money for the town. This 1% tax can apply on top of the normal state sales tax, rooms tax, and/or meals and alcoholic beverage tax. Voters choose what kinds of transactions should get the extra tax.

Only some municipalities are eligible to impose this tax under state law.

Fiscal year: The year that begins July 1 and ends on June 30. Most Vermont towns use a fiscal year for their budgets (rather than a traditional calendar year), and all school districts use a fiscal year.

People refer to the fiscal year by the year it will end — for example, the fiscal year 2024 budget is the one that ends on June 30, 2024.

Municipal property tax rate: The property tax rate used to fund town operations. It’s a separate tax rate from the tax that funds education – add them both together to find your total tax rate.

Homestead education property tax rate: The property tax rate that applies to Vermonters’ primary homes. Two key variables impact your town’s rate: how much needs to be raised statewide to fund all schools, and how much your local school district is spending per-pupil. The formula that determines each district’s per-pupil spending tries to account for the fact that some kids — like English language learners, low-income students, and children in rural settings — should cost more to teach.

Nonhomestead education property tax rate: The property tax rate that applies to second homes in Vermont, camps, business property, industrial property and more.

Property tax credit: This is how Vermont adjusts people’s property taxes to reflect their income. You might also hear people call this “income sensitivity.” About 70% of Vermont households get a property tax credit. It shows up on your tax bill on the line “state payments.”

Slices of pie on plates
Pie at the Peacham town meeting luncheon, which returned for the first time since 2020.

Grand list: In the context of a town budget, the grand list is the sum of all taxable property within the town boundaries. Grand list growth means more property value and more tax revenue.

Lister: A resident of the town, elected by voters, who assesses the fair market value of all property in the municipality. Some towns have switched to hiring a professional assessor instead.

Common level of appraisal: A number, expressed as a percentage, that estimates the accuracy of the listed property values in a Vermont town. A lower number means the properties in that town are undervalued compared to the market.

The common level of appraisal is used in the Vermont education funding formula to attempt to make sure that taxpayers pay a fair amount in relation to their neighbors in other towns.

Constable: A person elected at Town Meeting (or appointed by the selectboard) who can do the following things:

  • serve court papers
  • collect taxes
  • remove disruptive people from Town Meeting
  • kill injured deer

Constables must go through official training at the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to be able to serve in a law enforcement role.

More from Vermont Public: What do constables do, anyway?

Town health officer: The person in every Vermont town, nominated by the selectboard and appointed by the state health commissioner, who’s responsible for responsible for protecting public health in their community.

One crucial role of the health officer is to investigate complaints about unsafe rental housing.

Other issues they might handle include the health aspects of septic system failures and animal bites.

Fence viewer: local official who can be called on to arbitrate disputes over fences and land boundaries, to require a fence to be built, or to require one to be torn down. It’s a holdover from Vermont’s more agricultural past. There can be three fence viewers in a town, if the selectboard wishes to appoint them, along with similar positions such as weigher of coal and inspector of lumber, shingles, and wood.

A person wearing two pairs of glasses sits in an audience looking at paper.
Tyrone Traber looks at Elmore’s town report on March 7, 2023, during the first in-person town meeting there since 2020.

How to read a town budget

The town budget might seem overwhelming — a spreadsheet with lots of rows and columns and numbers written in tiny fonts. But when it comes to reading a budget, there are just a few basic principles to keep in mind.

  • Check out your town’s total expenditures: The expenditures are what your town wants to spend money on in the next fiscal year. This could be anything — a new fire truck, printers, office supplies, or new personnel. Look for the line that shows you the total — not the line items (you can always dig into those if you want).
  • Check the total revenues: Once you know how much your town wants to spend, check out they plan to pay for everything. Taxes are one way a town will pay for its expenses, but there are other fees, grants, and money that a town collects. You can look at the line item breakdowns to see where the town gets its cash. Now the revenues here are projections — so it’s good to look at what the town’s revenue projectors were last year, and what they actually came in at (most towns will include this information).
  • Check the tax rate: Towns should include in the budget or the accompanying report an overview of how the proposed budget would affect municipal property taxes. 

People sit in rows in a school gymnasium
Voters in Bethel gather on Town Meeting Day on March 7, 2023.

How to read a school budget

In many ways reading the school budget is a lot like reading your town budget. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Check the per pupil spending: This is the most important bottom-line number if you’re thinking about taxes. Per pupil spending is the total education spending divided by the number of kids going to school in a district. But in Vermont’s equalized per pupil calculation, the number of pupils is “weighted” — meaning it accounts for certain factors, like the number of lower-income students in a district. Most districts should also include whether the per pupil spending is projected to increase or decrease compared to the current budget, and by how much.
  • Look at the total education spending: There will be a column that shows the total amount your school district wants to spend — that includes salaries and benefits for everyone working in the schools, classroom supplies, and more. Typically, the overall education spending number is the whole proposed budget after taking into account things like revenue from grants, incoming tuition dollars and the prior year’s surplus or deficit. 
  • Compare it to last year: Most school districts will include a note how much of an increase (or decrease) the new budget is compared to the previous year’s budget. Some districts will include written explanations about what’s driving the change, others might include a line-by-line breakdown of the budget where you can see exactly where spending is going up or down. 

OK, so how does all this affect my taxes?

The short answer is you won’t know for sure on Town Meeting Day — but your district should have an estimate for how the new budget will affect property taxes. Most districts will include that estimate in their budget presentation or documents that they make available to the public.

Why is the tax rate on Town Meeting Day just an estimate? Vermont’s education funding system is a statewide system. The tax rates depend on everyone’s combined spending, and we don’t know that number until every single school budget is approved. The Legislature will take a look at the statewide numbers, and they are the ones who officially set the numbers that finalize your tax rate.

The way the state calculates tax rates for the education fund is complicated — and not something we’re going to tackle here — but if you want to know more, check out this handy FAQ from the Department of Taxes.

A man with a mustache and knitted sweater points to a board showing a map of what the Town Center will look like once renovations are complete.
Selectboard member Jeff Forward, who heads the town’s Town Center and Library Buildings committee, explains the proposed $9.8 million renovation to the Town Center building that will be on the ballot on Town Meeting Day 2024.

Raise your hand! Questions to consider asking at your town meeting

One of the best ways to come up with questions to ask during Town Meeting Day (either during the floor vote or at an informational meeting before voting) is to read the town report, which will detail what’s happened in the last year in each town department, what town officials want to do next year, new positions or programs included in the budget, etc.

“The town report is a narrative form of what you’re voting on — in so many ways, it gets really deep,” said Ted Brady, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. “It’ll likely spark a question, something that you care about individually.”

But if you need some help with those questions, here are some basics to get you started:

  • Why is the budget going [up/down]?
  • What is the reason the town should [spend money/not spend money] on [pick an issue, like a new position, an eliminated position, etc]?
  • Why is [pick a ballot item] on the ballot this year? [or: Why isn’t [pick an issue] on the ballot this year?]
  • How did you determine the cost for [pick a project]? Did the town consider any other approaches to the [pick project/ballot item]?
  • What happens if this [ballot item/budget] isn’t approved? 

And last but not least: Town Meeting Day bingo!

Town Meeting Day is serious business, but also, it’s fun. You can print out and take this card with you, or save it on your phone, and share your results on social media (tag Vermont Public!).

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