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Gas prices prompt creative town office hours

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By KATHRYN FLAGG

MIDDLEBURY — Even after Fourth of July festivities die down for another year, every weekend will be a long weekend for employees at the Middlebury town clerk’s office. Beginning July 7, the office will be operating on four-day workweek.

The move comes as officials in Middlebury, like those in other government offices, look for ways to cushion the blow dealt by skyrocketing fuel prices.

The new schedule — which will include extended hours from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Monday through Thursday — will be in effect until at least Aug. 29, allowing the office almost two months to test what Town Clerk Ann Webster termed a “pilot program.”

According Webster, the decision to test the new schedule rose first and foremost from a desire to save on transportation costs for employees — especially Webster’s two assistants, who commute daily from Ferrisburgh and Granville, respectively.

The pilot program comes in conjunction with an energy savings project undertaken by the Middlebury Area Global Warming Action Coalition. Using a “low carbon diet workbook,” MAGWAC, as the coalition is known, has worked intensively with groups of individuals to reduce energy consumption and the burning of climate-changing fossil fuels. It has also applied this same principal to several town offices and vehicles.

The town clerk’s office is currently the only Middlebury municipal office making the shift to a four-day workweek so the town will not gain the potential energy and cost savings that would be had by not heating or cooling the municipal building if all offices were closed on Fridays. But there still will be some savings, said MAGWAC energy coordinator Laura Asermily, as “flex time,” telecommuting and shortened workweeks provide increased flexibility for both town and private offices.

“What’s fun about this program is that each department gets to look at what makes sense for them,” Asermily said.

Webster recognized that the shift is not feasible for every municipal office — or every municipality.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea for everybody,” she said. “Each municipality is different.

“It’s just something we’re trying in my office and we’re just seeing how it goes,” she continued. “My big concern is just customer service overall.”

She noted that the overall number of hours of operation will be the same.

STATE CONSIDERS HOURS

The change at the Middlebury town clerk’s office coincides with renewed statewide interest in the four-day workweek, though Webster noted that she made her decision independent of the discussions now gaining traction among some state legislators.

“We were actually kind of ahead of them there,” Webster said.

But public officials and employees around the state have begun weighing the pros and cons of a four-day workweek in the wake of an e-mail that Sen. Vince Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, sent on June 16 urging the Douglas administration, the state board of education and other state officials to strongly consider the condensed workweek.

Escalating fuel costs are the root of these discussions, according to Illuzzi, who has called for state government offices and schools to consider the move to a four-day workweek before the end of 2008.

The response, he said, has been largely positive.

“The only real opposition has come from a handful of schoolteachers,” said Illuzzi. “But the NEA (Vermont-National Education Association) itself … has been fairly open-minded. They know how precarious the state’s revenues are.”

If Vermont wants to avoid raising taxes or significantly cutting programming, Illuzzi said, the state must institute “some innovative measures.

“Vermont can’t control the cost of energy,” he said, “but we can to some extent control the use of energy.”

With the Legislature adjourned until January, Illuzzi said that decisions lie in the hands of Gov. Jim Douglas, the Vermont State Employees Association, school boards and the Vermont-NEA.

The biggest hurdle comes in implementing changes for the school calendar — in large part because Vermont law requires that schools hold no fewer than 175 student-attendance days. Cutting the student school week — even for just a few weeks in the winter — would require the law be changed or students attend classes in the summer.

But Illuzzi, who said that Vermont has long been a leader in energy conservation, must now tackle energy reduction.

“Four-dollar-a-gallon gas has got people’s attention, but they still haven’t changed their lifestyle,” he said. “Reality is going to hit home this coming winter.”

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