Archive - Mar 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Gov. James Douglas on Monday encouraged lawmakers to come closer to his priorities on developing new affordable housing, a tight fiscal year 2009 budget and new strategies to stem Vermonters’ property tax burden.
Douglas outlined these and other legislative goals during his annual appearance at Addison County’s legislative breakfast series, held at the Middlebury American Legion headquarters on Wilson Road.
Calling it the toughest budget year in the six he has served as governor, Douglas warned that state legislators will be challenged in the coming weeks to make some tough decisions on spending priorities.
The most recent financial forecasts indicate a 1-percent drop in general fund revenues for fiscal year 2009, according to Douglas.
“It is a time for making choices,” Douglas said, quoting, as he did in his first budget address, President John F. Kennedy who said, “To govern is to chose.”
Douglas noted he had outlined his budget priorities in a draft 2008-2009 spending plan he unveiled in January. That budget has drawn fire from some House and Senate leaders for proposed cuts to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospitals and for a proposal to lease the state lottery to generate an estimated $50 million the governor would use to pay for school construction aid and to draw down property taxes.
“This is a year to make those difficult choices, and I know we can work them out and decide what’s most urgent for people in the coming year in a time of softening economy and decreasing revenues,” Douglas said.
By JOHN S. McCRIGHT
MIDDLEBURY — Addison District Judge Helen Toor on Monday sent George Dean Martin back to jail for another year for causing the deaths of two children in a July 4, 2002, boating accident on Lake Champlain.
Martin was convicted in 2004 of two counts of boating while intoxicated death resulting and sentenced to six-to-10 years in jail — three-to-five years for each of the two counts. But after he spent three years in prison, the Vermont Supreme Court last August ordered Martin’s release and resentencing saying the law allowed for only one count in this case since both deaths occurred during the same incident.
Toor could have sent the former Charlotte resident, who had been living with his mother in Rochester since his release, back to prison for two more years. Noting nine mitigating factors, the judged settled on ordering a single year of additional jail time. The formal sentence was four-and-a-half to five years, with all suspended but four years.
Martin accepted the sentence silently. After hugging a family member, the bailiff took him from the court and back to jail.
Charlotte residents Steve and Laura Mack — whose children, four-year-old Trevor and nine-year-old Melissa, were killed in the boating accident — were in the Middlebury courtroom for the sentencing. They said they were satisfied with the sentence.
“It’s time to put it behind us,” Steve Mack said. “I think he has remorse. He lost a child (years ago), he knows what we are going through.”
CHANGE IN THE LAW
In Bristol this Tuesday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m., the Zoning Board of Adjustment will meet to continue discussions regarding the proposed Lathrop gravel pit. It’s a complicated project with an Act 250 filing as thick as a big-city phone book, but the central question that needs public input and board leadership is relatively straight-forward: Is the proposed location of the pit the appropriate place for a large-scale mining operation, and should the public have a chance to clarify wording in the town plan that has created much of the ambiguity pertaining to this project?
The ambiguous wording is the phrase “in any district” found in section 526 of the town plan. The dueling interpretations of the phrase contend that the phrase would allow gravel mining ‘in any district’ in the town (supposedly including the village or any other residential setting) or, opponents of the pit argue, that the phrase meant that mining was allowed ‘in any district’ (industrial, etc.) where mining was allowed.
Logic would suggest that full-scale mining operations — with rock-crushers and the consequential noise and dust that would come from such an operation — would not be suitable for residential zones or mixed rural residential, commercial zones. The Bristol Planning Commission, which has the authority to clarify zoning by-laws and revise them if necessary, has said it will take up this section of the town plan at upcoming meetings. That’s welcome involvement because surely the commission members will make every effort to seek public opinion to determine the will of the community. Town plans, after all, are approved by a majority of the town’s residents and crucial aspects of the plan should be reviewed and revised, if necessary, with the public will in mind.
The year 2008 may mark one of the turning points in the Middlebury’s history. It will be the year town residents committed to building the Cross Street Bridge, approved a $16 million bond and agreed to change the town’s charter to allow for the implementation of local option taxes. All were enormously important decisions.
But it will likely also mark the beginning of a renaissance in community betterment.
Let’s count the ways:
• This summer, after almost a decade in the making, Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater comes back to life. The extraordinary $6 million renovation of that historic building will have been completed and Middlebury’s arts scene will be more vibrant than ever before.
• A riverfront committee is making plans to continue improvement on the banks of the Otter Creek just below the falls, following up on work that began this past fall. If all goes according to plan, an outside amphitheater will get underway that will provide several rows of riverside seating (just above and beside the footbridge near the Marble Works’ picnic tables) and the potential for musical and theatric entertainment in the summer and fall when the weather permits.
That’s just one part of a long-range plan to more fully utilize the Otter Creek’s shoreline through the length of the town and beyond. Better canoe and boat access and egress points are also in the works, making it more convenient for boaters to appreciate the creek. Expanded parks and a running/walking path along the creek are also in the planning stages.
In his State of the State speech, Gov. James Douglas announced two ways to generate additional revenue. The first was to lease the state’s lottery for a one-time gain of $380 million. The second was to eliminate a loophole in the state’s tax laws that benefited Vermonters with unearned income and capital gains. Closing the loophole would generate approximately $21.4 million annually.
As Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, notes in his legislative column on Page 5, the Legislature has so far been opposed to leasing the lottery for fiscal and values-related reasons. We wholeheartedly agree. The one-time benefit means little in the long-term scheme of things, and the trade-off would turn the lottery into an enterprise that preys on Vermonters who don’t have the money to lose. It’s an unseemly proposition.
Both sides of the legislative aisle agree that closing the capital gains loophole is a good idea, and that’s to the governor’s credit. It’s not only a substantial amount of money into the state’s coffers each year, but it is an effective tax increase on the state’s wealthiest residents. Kudos, then, to the governor for going against his pledge not to increase taxes and taking action on this oversight that needed correcting.
And contrary to the Democrats’ suggestion to use that money for expenditures they suggest would lower property taxes, the governor’s plan to use the $21.4 million to lower income taxes for Vermonters has considerable merit.
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Federal authorities charged with protecting the U.S. blood supply make a person who is ill or who has used illicit drugs wait a period of time before they are allowed to give blood. Only three behaviors, when disclosed, can result in a lifetime ban on blood donation: taking medication for HIV, taking money for sex and, if you are a man, having sex even once with another man.
When it comes to giving blood in the United States, gay and bisexual men, even those using condoms or in long-term monogamous relationships, need not apply.
Despite the fact that HIV testing has grown considerably more precise over the past 20 years, that the virus infects far more than just gay men, and that blood banks around the country have criticized the policy as outdated and discriminatory, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been enforcing the ban since 1983.
At Middlebury College last week, in the days leading up to an American Red Cross blood drive, the college’s non-discrimination policy — which requires that organizations with discriminatory policies, other than the military, hold an open forum at which community members can hold them accountable for those policies — was tested.
In lieu of banning the organization from collecting blood on campus, like San Jose State University in California did last month, the Middlebury Open Queer Alliance (MOQA) invited Red Cross officials to discuss the policy at a community forum.
More than 70 people attended last Monday’s event, which was the first of its kind for the Red Cross, to confront four representatives from the Northern Vermont Chapter about the FDA policy and what they’re doing to change it.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — A shorthanded Middlebury Police Department is working overtime — and a lot of it — in its efforts to locate missing Middlebury College student Nick Garza while continuing to meet the law enforcement needs of the community.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said the his department will probably exceed by a substantial margin the $27,000 that had been budgeted for special investigations, including overtime, in the fiscal year ending June 30. The department had run through $15,000 of that budget through the end of January — a week before Garza, 19, disappeared from the Middlebury College campus.
Since then, several Middlebury patrolmen — along with officers from other agencies — have been putting in 16-hour days following up on the scant leads that have emerged since Garza was last seen on campus at 11:05 p.m. on Feb. 5.
Local officers worked a combined total of more than 400 hours on the case during the first week Garza was missing, according to Hanley. That number of hours has tapered off only slightly during ensuing weeks as a result of weather factors and thanks to other agencies pitching in.
Local officials pledged to keep up the search at all costs. It’s a search that at the same time is taking a toll on a weary, short-staffed Middlebury Police Department with limited resources.
“It’s going to be fairly extraordinary,” Hanley said of the looming deficit in the department’s overtime budget.
The financial impact would not have been lighter had Middlebury police been at full staff. But the 14-member force is currently light three officers, as a result of two vacancies and one officer now serving with the Vermont Air National Guard.
By JOHN S. McCRIGHT
WEYBRIDGE — The University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge last week announced it had received a $1 million gift from the Amy E. Tarrant Foundation — 10 times the amount of the next closest single gift from any individual.
“Through her incredible generosity, Amy Tarrant is helping to ensure the legacy of the UVM Morgans and the one-of-a-kind home of our state animal,” said horse farm director Stephen Davis.
The money will not be used to expand the facility, but maintain its breeding and other operations. Davis said the young stock housing area, on-farm residences and pump house all could receive some attention with the funds, but the money is really to meet the usual needs of the farm. Like many UVM departments, the Morgan Horse Farm supports itself.
“This gift will allow us a little more leeway in planning for operations … and long-term financial planning,” Davis said. “Operationally we are stand alone. Hopefully this will help us maintain the status quo.”
The $1 million will be paid out in equal installments over four years. Of the $250,000 payments, $200,000 will go into an endowment and $50,000 will be used for immediate operating expenses. Once the $800,000 endowment is fully funded the farm will be able to draw down an estimated $36,000 a year in perpetuity.
The farm budgeted $362,584 for operating expenses in 2008, according to a UVM spokesman. Most of the revenues come from a hose breeding operation, plus admissions fees for tours.
Tarrant, the former wife of businessman and 2006 U.S. Senate candidate Rich Tarrant, has a long-time interest in the Morgan Horse Farm. Davis said she remembers visiting the farm as a young child with her family.