Archive - Dec 2008
By ANDY KIRKALDY
MONTPELIER — $6.2 million in transportation payments that local towns anticipated in mid-January are being frozen as a result of budget-cutting negotiations among the administration of Gov. James Douglas, the Agency of Transportation and a key committee representing both branches of the Vermont legislature.
Those payments, plus another round due in April, could still be made in full at a later date or could be reduced, according to state officials. Their size and timing depends on a number of in-state factors, including the health of January tax revenue figures and ongoing negotiations between the state’s Republican governor and Democrat-controlled Legislature.
State officials also hope the administration of incoming President Barack Obama moves quickly with an economic stimulus package that could include funds for local transportation projects.
Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol) said joint fiscal committee member Shap Smith — the Democratic nominee for speaker of the Vermont house — told him that hopes for local transportation money in such a stimulus package was the single biggest reason for an agreement to freeze January’s Agency of Transportation highway grant payments.
Without such an agreement, there are no guarantees the payments will be made in full, according to Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“He said the primary reason behind the postponement is ... we’re hoping for some support from the federal government,” Sharpe said. “If that’s not forthcoming, then all bets are off, I guess.”
Sharpe is not fully optimistic about the forecast for January revenue figures, and said the overall state budget picture is not pretty. Cuts will have to be made somewhere, he said, and could still be made in quarterly highway payments that are due not only in January, but also in April.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
NEW HAVEN — When 64-year-old Lorraine Clark’s car swerved off an icy road and into the New Haven River earlier this month, the Bristol woman remembers having one clear thought: Don’t panic.
“I said to myself, ‘Now, don’t panic. You can’t panic. You’ve got to use your head and you’ve got to keep your wits about you,’” Clark remembered. “‘You’re the only one down here and you’ve got to help yourself.’”
That wherewithal — an inner strength, Clark said, that she never knew she had — and a heavy dose of good luck saved Clark’s life on Dec. 9, when her 2002 Pontiac Grand Am slid off the road and plunged about 30 feet into the icy river.
Clark had been driving toward Bristol on River Road around 2 p.m., shortly after leaving her job as a food service assistant at Helen Porter nursing home in Middlebury.
As she approached a narrow bridge over the New Haven River near Halpin Road, she saw a green car driving toward her from the opposite direction — too close to her own side of the road for comfort.
She swerved to the right slightly to avoid hitting the car, and the tail end of her Grand Am fishtailed. Clark made it over the bridge, but by that point the front end of her car had started to shake violently, and she lost control of the vehicle entirely.
Her car slid off the road, over the river bank, and then plunged into eight feet of icy, fast-moving water.
Clark, jostled by the crash, found herself suddenly in the passenger seat. Her car was rapidly sinking.
She knew that all four doors were locked — the Pontiac’s doors did so automatically every time the key turned in the ignition. So Clark fumbled with the lock, and then threw her weight against the door, using her shoulder to try to wedge the door open.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLBURY — It appears as though the various broadcasting and cell phone tenants of the communications tower on Chipman Hill will be providing Middlebury residents with some property tax relief this year.
Subject to the approval of an Addison County Probate Court judge, a portion of the rental fees derived from those tower tenants will be used to make up a penny on the tax rate — around $70,000 in property tax revenues — that will be earmarked for Middlebury’s conservation fund.
Middlebury selectmen recently requested the donation from directors of the Battell Trust, a 100-year-old organization that presides over the vast public lands on which the communication tower is located. Those lands include the 130-acre Chipman Hill and 90-acre Battell Woods properties that were willed to the town by the late Joseph Battell, who stipulated that the lands be used for public enjoyment.
A communications tower (to host an FM station transmitter) was first built on Chipman Hill around 30 years ago. The courts in 2003 OK’d the replacement of that initial tower with the more modern structure that stands there today. The structure provides free spots to several emergency response organizations, including the Middlebury police and fire departments, the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association and Porter Hospital dispatch services, Middlebury Department of Public Works and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
But other users — who pay monthly fees ranging from $500 to $2,000 — include Central Vermont Public Service Corp., Rinker’s Paging, Unicel, NEXTEL, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and local radio stations like WFAD 1490 AM.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Ben Franklin, one of downtown Middlebury’s largest retailers, is on the verge of being sold to a local family that plans to maintain it as a general merchandise store.
Bonnie Gridley, a broker/owner of RE/MAX Champlain Valley Properties, confirmed the potential transaction last week. She said she could not disclose the names of the buyers until the deal is finalized, which is likely to occur by the end of next month.
“They plan to keep the business pretty much status quo,” Gridley said, though the new owners may introduce some new items in addition to the household wares, fabric, toys, dry goods, candy and other odds and ends that have drawn area shoppers to Ben Franklin for the past 71 years.
“We hope people will continue to support the store,” Gridley said.
News of the store’s acquisition by a local family and word that it will remain retail space should come as good news to many Middlebury residents and town officials who feared the sizable Main Street spot could by carved up into condominiums or otherwise taken out of the downtown shopping mix.
The Duffany family acquired the Ben Franklin store in 1943 and has owned it ever since. Larry Duffany confirmed back in July that he was putting the 63 Main St. business — as well as the building in which it is located — on the market.
A Web-based listing of the property indicated an asking price of $649,000 for the two-story building and the 0.12 acres on which it sits. The listing described the building as having 7,832 square feet of office/retail space, along with two “very spacious” apartments on the second floor.
It is currently the largest retail space on Main Street and employs around a dozen full- and part-time workers.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — The Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) will need to trim its budget by around $500,000 before the end of June as a result of fiscal year 2009 state budget rescissions, including a new round amounting to $19.7 million announced by the administration of Gov. James Douglas on Monday.
State officials warned that additional, deeper cuts are undoubtedly on the horizon for this fiscal year and next.
Locally, the latest cuts will not only hit CSAC but will also mean closure of the Addison County Probation and Parole field office and elimination of state funding for the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge, though that organization is expected to weather the storm thanks to a $1 million gift it received earlier this year.
State lawmakers were still sorting out the impact of the latest batch of cuts as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday. Casualties included:
• 50 state government positions statewide (15 of which are currently vacant). Affected agencies include Natural Resources, Buildings and General Services, Secretary of State’s office, Agriculture, Corrections, Governor’s office, Treasurer’s office and Veterans’ Affairs.
• Pay cuts of 5 percent for non-union state workers now earning more than $60,000 per year.
• A $766,000 reduction for the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., in second-semester college tuition grants.
• A 4-percent cut for the state’s mental health agencies, including CSAC. Elimination of chiropractic service coverage for Medicaid recipients.
• Elimination of cervical cancer vaccines for adult women.
• Closure of state roadside rest areas (none in Addison County).
The rescissions also mean Vermonters and visitors will be seeing some higher fees for services, such as admission to state parks.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Voters in the seven towns that make up the Addison Central Supervisory Union school district on March 3 will cast ballots on a proposed UD-3 spending plan of $15,530,470 for the 2009-2010 academic year. The budge, which eliminates Middlebury Union Middle School’s (MUMS) living arts program, represents a 3.4 percent increase in spending over the current year.
The living arts program and its teacher ultimately became the casualties of Act 82, a new state law that requires school districts to hold two votes on their budgets if they exceed a state-prescribed inflationary threshold. The living arts program costs $88,000, an amount school administrators reluctantly recommended for paring in order to ensure the UD-3 budget would not trigger a second vote under Act 82.
“When we’re looking at the budget constraints we were facing this year, there was no way we could find those savings looking for $1,000 here or $1,000 there,” MUMS Principal Inga Duktig said. “It wasn’t an easy decision at all.”
A decision rendered even more difficult by another state law — Act 130, which requires that shared expenses be budgeted based on actual spending at elementary and secondary schools. That means UD-3 administrators have to reflect, in the 2009-2010 budget, around $280,000 in transportation costs that had previously been reflected in the supervisory union’s elementary school budgets. That accounting change is responsible for more than half of the 3.4 percent increase in the proposed UD-3 spending plan.
“It’s been a challenging budget for us,” ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease told the UD-3 board at a Tuesday evening meeting.
He added the 2009-2010 budget picture is likely not to get brighter in the near future. That’s because there is no more fund balance to apply to what is already a very conservative spending plan, according to Sease.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — After 30 years in the construction industry, Salisbury resident Jack Sheehan has seen economic ups and downs before — but never before has he seen business slow like it has this winter.
“Usually I’m about a year to a year and a half ahead,” he said, when it comes to plotting out his work schedule. “This year I have about half a year’s worth of work that I know of.”
And Sheehan, who runs a relatively small business with a crew of three other employees, is one of the lucky ones. He hasn’t had to lay off employees yet, and so far, he said, the spring looks promising.
Other local builders haven’t been so lucky, as construction around the region slows in the face of the national and statewide economic recession.
Work is tight in industries around the state. Unemployment in Vermont climbed to 5.2 percent of the workforce in October, up from 3.9 percent a year ago. (Statewide unemployment is still significantly lower than national unemployment, which at last count was a seasonally adjusted 6.7 percent.)
But with credit tight, and homeowners and business owners reluctant — or unable — to build, work is growing especially scarce for workers in the construction industry, which last year employed 5.5 percent of Vermont workers.
Slow business has forced some layoffs at businesses like Middlebury’s Bread Loaf Corp. and Apple Hill Design-Build.
Jim Pulver, the vice president of architecture at Bread Loaf, acknowledged that his company has had to downsize its workforce recently — though he wouldn’t say by how much.
The company, which specializes in industrial and commercial projects, is seeing fewer projects to bid on, Pulver said, as well as tighter budgets on projects that are moving forward.