St. Johnsbury Voters Keep Non-Profits Alive

03/02/11 7:34AM By Charlotte Albright
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St. Johnsbury Athenaeum Directors Matt Powers and Lisa von Kann display their thanks to voters who agreed to appropriate over $100,000 to the Library.
(Host) Many town warnings ask voters to shell out money for worthy causes, but in the Northeast Kingdom, the stakes are especially high for non-profits who depend on tax dollars. Private donations can be hard to come by these days, and in recent years, voters have also become choosy about how to divvy up scarce public resources. VPR's Charlotte Albright reports from St Johnsbury.

(Albright) Last year, 20 organizations asked St Johnsbury for a total of nearly $300,000. They didn't get all of it, and a few disappointed groups got nothing.

This year, there are seventeen requests ranging from Meals on Wheels to the town band. The two biggest supplicants by far are the Fairbanks Museum, which is looking for $56,000, and the historic public library, called the Athenaeum, which wants over $100,000.  It's never been refused. But on voting day, Library Director Lisa von Kann wasn't counting her chickens.

(Von Kann) "This has been a little bit different this year just because there's a lot going on in the town that's not entirely clear to everyone."

(Albright) She's being diplomatic. In fact, the months leading up to town meeting day in St Johnsbury have been very contentious, both in public meetings and in the press.  Non-profit leaders have been worrying about getting caught in the cross fire over budget cuts.

Matt Powers has been the Athenaeum's  Executive Director for only four months, and already he's had to come up with a troubling plan B, in case the appropriation-20 per cent of the  Athenaeum's annual budget-got denied.

(Powers)  "The first thing that would happen is that we would have to close the doors for a little while we evaluated what our library services are and what the future is and what that means not only to our constituency but to us internally. The Board of Trustees and the staff would have to evaluate how to move forward."

(Albright) And closing those doors, even temporarily, could leave 77,000 books that usually circulate on the shelves. Other non-profit directors have also been fearing "no" votes. For example, without municipal support, the Fairbanks natural history museum might have to raise ticket prices beyond the reach of many average Northeast Kingdom residents. 

Down the street, Catamount Arts, which got no money from St Johnsbury last year to support its many performances, art exhibits,  and films, asked for only $4,000-1 percent of its budget-- this year.

It got that wish-with only about thirty votes to spare.

Fairbanks prevailed by a much wider margin.  And the Athenaeum's door will stay open, with nearly 1200 yesses and 600 nos.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright, in St. Johnsbury

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