Your guide to Vermont's Town Meeting Day tradition: Here's what you need to know.
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. Trust us: Even journalists sometimes feel our eyes start to glaze over when we’re reading our 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 until the end for something fun.
- The basics: When and how to vote
- What's a lister? A constable? Definitions of words you might encounter
- How to read a town budget
- How to read a school budget
- Questions you might want to ask at your meeting
- Town Meeting Day bingo
What is Town Meeting Day?
“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.”
Town Meeting Day is an election day for local issues and one of Vermont’s most cherished traditions.
More from Brave Little State: Is Town Meeting Outdated? (And Other Questions You Asked Bob)
What happens on Town Meeting Day?
- Elections of select board 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 select board 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). 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.
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 May.
If your town conducts any of its business via Australian ballot, rather than gathering all together in the same room (more on that later), it's a good idea to attend the informational meeting.
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, looked for the annual report. You may have received one in the mail, but many towns also post them online. The town meeting warning — it should be somewhere toward the front of the town report booklet — 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 will 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 — in some cases with a videoconferencing option — 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 amend weak the wording of a proposal in real time.
More from Vermont Public: First Tuesday In March: A 2007 VPR Documentary About Town Meeting Day
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.
What if I have a disability and need reasonable accommodations?
The Vermont Coalition for Disability Rights (VCDR) is asking 175 towns to take advantage of H. 42, a law approved earlier this year that allows public bodies — in 2023 and 2024 — to meet electronically and create "alternative procedures."
The VCDR says it "recognizes that community and democracy are both stronger when everyone is able to take part. That is why we are asking the 175 towns and selectboards listed ... to reconsider how they might utilize the new provisions of the law to create an inclusive Town Meeting Day."
In the meantime, VCDR says anyone with a disability who wants support in requesting reasonable accommodations to vote on Town Meeting Day can email, call, or text: email@example.com or 802-224-1818.
Am I eligible to vote on Town Meeting Day?
If you live in Montpelier 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 recently upheld Montpelier’s rules about this.
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.
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.
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. It’s mostly based on your local school spending per equalized pupil (see below).
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.”
Equalized pupils: Vermont school property taxes are calculated based on spending per student — but state lawmakers realize that some students, such as students living in poverty or students learning English, need extra support. Costs also vary by grade: high school students cost more to educate than preschoolers. Therefore, the state adjusts the “per pupil” formula to reflect the demographics of each school district. The result is a number called education spending per equalized pupil. It’s the most important number for calculating your local property taxes. In fiscal year 2023, the state average spending per equalized pupil was $18,373.
Starting in July 2024, this formula will change to weigh English language learners more, and it will also consider the inherent costs of educating students in rural school districts and small schools.
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.
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. When the common level of appraisal falls below 85% or rises above 115%, the town must reappraise all property.
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 select board) 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 select board 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, animal bites — and, of course, assisting in a pandemic.
Fence viewer: A 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 select board wishes to appoint them, along with similar positions such as weigher of coal and inspector of lumber, shingles, and wood.
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 don’t worry. 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 projections 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.
How to read a school budget
In many ways reading the school budget is a lot like reading your town budget, but it has different quirks because of Vermont's education financing system.
- Check the equalized 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 an 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. (See above for a definition of “equalized pupils.”) 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. Lawmakers in 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 or this report from the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office.
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! If you tag us on social media (Vermont Public) or mail your bingo card to us (365 Troy Avenue, Colchester, VT 05446), we will send you a sticker.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.