VERNON -- Town officials are preparing for a budget season like no other in recent memory.
With the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant set to close no later than halfway through fiscal year 2015, Selectboard members already have begun to meet weekly to plan that year's budget.
On one hand, they are urging residents to not overreact, with Selectboard Chairwoman Patty O'Donnell offering assurances that services will not be "devastated." But officials also say some reductions are inevitable.
"We have to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars out of our budget, so we have to think about a different way of doing things," O'Donnell said.
It's not a topic that Selectboard members are tackling alone. On Monday, Vernon School Board members Mike Hebert and Mary Ann Gardner attended a Selectboard meeting to begin to explore ways the town and its elementary school could save money.
"I'd like this to be the first of several meetings," Hebert said.
At this point, such discussions are happening without a clear picture of exactly how and when Vermont Yankee's closure will impact the town and the school.
For instance, even after the plant ceases to operate, plant owner Entergy is expected to maintain ownership of the property as it enters a pre-decommissioning process dubbed "SAFSTOR." That process could last for decades under federal regulations.
Also, there is spent nuclear fuel stored at the site.
But as the plant stops producing power and its workforce is reduced, Entergy is sure to seek reassessment of the property's value. And that will have big impacts, as the company pays more than $1 million in property taxes annually.
O'Donnell believes company administrators will work to soften that blow.
"I'm sure Entergy is going to work with us as much as they can," she said, adding that Vernon officials have maintained "a good working relationship because we never tried to extort Entergy."
However, it will be up to the Selectboard to take a realistic look at what the town's revenues and services might look like post-Yankee. And that process is beginning now.
While the Selectboard has made a habit of meeting weekly during budget planning, O'Donnell said those weekly sessions are starting earlier.
"The one thing about the world we're living in right now is, it's forcing us to look at what we're doing and why we're doing it, and is there a better way?" O'Donnell said.
One item that may be on the chopping block is Vernon's curbside trash pickup, which costs the town $135,000 annually.
With regulatory changes on the way due to a new state law, town officials already had been discussing alternatives including installation of a transfer station or instituting a pay-as-you-throw system.
In light of Entergy's announcement, "we're dealing with a whole different world now than we were two months ago when we talked about all this stuff," O'Donnell said.
She now favors the pay-as-you-throw option, in which residents would purchase the trash bags they need.
When the board settles on a trash-collection plan, "this is something that will be put into the budget and presented at Town Meeting," O'Donnell said.
Officials also are looking outside Vernon's borders for cost-cutting ideas. That will include meeting with other towns that have lost a nuclear plant, O'Donnell said.
Closer to home, the Selectboard plans a detailed comparison of Vernon's budget with similarly sized towns including Dummerston, Guilford, Londonderry and Putney.
"We're actually going to call and meet with some of these towns and say, ‘How do you handle this? What do you do with that?" she said.
O'Donnell cautioned, however, that it won't be as simple as cutting or reducing programs that Vernon has and the other towns don't.
"Sometimes, just because the money is less from one town to the other, that really isn't the answer. Maybe there's a real difference in how services are provided," she said.
"We need to know exactly what we're comparing so we make sure we're comparing things fairly," O'Donnell said. "Our goal is to rein spending in, but do it in a way that we're still keeping this town the great town that it is. We don't want to devastate the town in any way."
Vernon school officials also have no interest in gutting their programs. Hebert on Monday proposed a variety of possible options for cost-cutting, including joint-maintenance agreements with the town and a solar-power array.
Personnel is the school's biggest single cost, he said. Hebert said personnel-related expenses must be reviewed, but he emphasized that, "at this point, there's no plan to cut anybody."
"We don't want to do anything to harm the program," he said.
In the end, budget reductions for both the school and town will be left to voters. Officials said Town Meeting attendance will be more important than ever.
"We can't have a handful of people deciding the future of this town," O'Donnell said. "Everybody pays, so everybody should decide."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.