Archive - Apr 2008
On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, held a well-publicized hearing with five of the nation’s top oil executives. The theme: Explain why the nation’s taxpayers should extend $18 billion in tax subsidies to an industry whose top five companies posted profits of $123 billion last year.
The obvious answer: Cut the subsidies and make it effective as soon as possible. Then, extend those subsidies to the alternative fuel industry and increase the nation’s conservation efforts.
That is the very least Congress should do to right the wrongs promoted and passed by a Republican Congress and President Bush since he came to office. The Republican Congress and Bush not only have been in bed with the oil companies since 2000, the excesses border on the obscene. Hence, Exxon-Mobil’s vice-chairman was testifying before the committee why it seemed reasonable that its former executive was given a $350 million salary and retirement package — an amount, as the senator from Missouri noted, that translates to $958,904 per day. When the average American is struggling to afford a tank of gasoline and oil companies are pulling in record profits, just how — the Democratic congressman asked — should he explain to his constituents why they are being taxed to pay for $18 billion in oil industry subsidies?
J. Stephen Simon, senior vice president for Exxon, did his best to explain the excess, but it was abundantly clear that greed has tarnished the oil industry as much as the hydro-carbons the industry produces.
The move Tuesday by Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington to abandon plans to close a loophole on a capital gains tax exemption initially proposed by Republican Gov. James Douglas turns state politics on its head. Since when do Democrats fail to close a tax loophole to the wealthy for potential gain to the common good?
Yet, that’s what happened.
Not that there would not have been difficulties proceeding with the proposal. The Democratic Legislature and Gov. Douglas had disagreements over how to spend the estimated $21.4 million annually. Douglas wanted to give the windfall to middle income Vermonters as well as to the very rich. Democrats wanted to split the amount three ways: $4.2 million for targeted property tax relief; $8 million for the highway and bridge program and $7 million to pay off a portion of the $55 million the state owes on school construction projects (the latter two of which would also indirectly lower local property taxes for most Vermonters.)
Because Douglas objected to spending the money for the common good (as detailed above — no new programs, just meeting existing obligations of the state) and because he would be denied the possible campaign claims of saying he had reduced income taxes, a political battle was looming on the horizon. Both sides of the political aisle saw it coming and the decision to bail was greeted by sighs of relief from both parties.
Interestingly, the administration was relieved because it meant Democrats wouldn’t spend the money — even if the expenses had already been committed or, go figure, were for property tax relief. (Why Douglas would support income tax relief, but not property tax relief is unclear.) Many Democrats, on the other hand, were relieved because of the future economic uncertainty and the very real possibility that legislators might need to tap that ready source of income in the near future for critical needs.
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Volunteer rescue workers from the Saranac Fire Department Technical Rescue Team of Saranac Lake, N.Y., joined the effort to locate missing Middlebury College Student Nicholas Garza on Wednesday morning with an underwater search of Otter Creek.
Members of the Middlebury Fire Department assisted about 16 rescue workers from Saranac as they lowered video cameras into the dark water and prodded through debris along the shoreline.
Don Uhler, chief of the Saranac team, has been following the Garza case for weeks. Last Thursday he contacted Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley to offer the expertise and technology of his team, a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) swift water rescue team that incorporated underwater cameras into its searches two years ago.
Without underwater cameras, searchers may have had to wait until water levels receded later in the spring to conduct a full search of the river.
Uhler’s search includes three main functions: attaching a boat to a high-line rope system and dropping a camera into the water around the falls and near the footbridge; sending two teams along the shoreline to search debris piles with probes; and searching the river’s eddies, the outer corners where water becomes slow-moving.
“There is clearly a good reason to believe we could locate a person if they were a victim of the river,” he said. “The river is very predictable.”
When a person falls into a cold-water current like the Otter Creek in February, the process is always the same, Uhler explained. A body will descend through three phases, known as the top, middle and bottom load. If the person is conscious, he will remain in the top load longer as he fights the current. If he is unconscious, or cannot beat the current, he will sink to the middle load and finally the bottom.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury and Weybridge selectmen on Monday balked at signing an agreement with the state to initiate major repairs to the historic Pulp Mill Bridge, arguing some of the proposed work will simply perpetuate architectural flaws within the span and that the town could not afford to have the structure closed for a full year during renovations.
Erected in 1820 across the Otter Creek, the Pulp Mill Bridge links Middlebury with Weybridge across Seymour Street. It is one of only six double-laned covered bridges remaining in the United States, according to Sean James, an engineer with Hoyle, Tanner & Associates. The firm recently completed a study of the span, including a proposed list of repairs needed to ensure its ongoing ability to handle heavier vehicles and traffic.
The proposed repair list includes:
• Replacing of the standing seam roof installed on the bridge three years ago. James explained the current roof will need to be removed to allow heavy equipment to access the network of rafters, cross-braces, tie beams and knee braces that will require extensive work/replacement.
• Performing major work on the bridge’s truss system, including replacement of many of the vertical timbers.
• Replacing of 16 percent of the exterior north arch and 27 percent of the exterior south arch.
• Complete replacing of the floor deck, along with 16 percent of the floor beams.
• Installing new siding on the span.
• Paving 100 feet at each approach of the bridge.
By JOHN FLOWERS
ADDISON COUNTY — Local public works crews throughout the county are moving into “spring cleaning” phase to remove a particularly dense layer of sand left over from heavy application to area roads this past winter.
Many Addison County towns at least temporarily ran out of salt during what was a particularly snowy winter. This forced communities to rely more heavily on sand, or a sand-salt mix, during the latter stages of the winter. With the snow now almost gone, many roads are left covered with large mats of sand — especially at intersections — contributing to tire-spins and the pinging of pebbles against vehicle windshields.
Dale Hazzard, highway division chief for the Middlebury Public Works Departments, said the town’s street sweeper is being run through the downtown and subdivisions. The street sweeper has a hopper into which the sand is collected and hauled away.
Middlebury’s rural roads will be swept with a broom tractor, which will push the sand and other debris off to the side.
Meanwhile, Vergennes put its new street sweeper into motion on Monday — but not before using a Bobcat utility vehicle to loosen the gritty sand from the Little City’s roads.
“It’s a really tedious, messy sweeping (process),” City Manager Renny Perry said. “We will probably have to do a couple of revolutions on all the streets.”
Vergennes acquired its street sweeper last year. The city had rented a sweeper in prior years.
In Bristol, Town Administrator Bill Bryant said the local road crew will get to work sweeping as soon as it can rent a sweeper — a hot commodity around this time of year.
“It does seem like we have a lot of dirt on the roads this year,” Bryant said. “We will get started (sweeping) as soon as we can.”
By MEGAN JAMES
MIDDLEBURY — Fifth- and sixth-graders from Ripton Community School were climbing up the walls — and even across a ceiling — at Mary Hogan School on Thursday morning.
Kids packed into harnesses and helmets scaled the gym wall, which is painted like a mountain range, and pulled themselves up on platforms jutting out from the snow-capped peaks. Around the gym, others were hoisted up to the ceiling and descending down toward the floor like spiders on threads of silk.
Mary Hogan physical education teacher Mike Quinn was busy belaying a boy who dangled from the ceiling, slowly pulling himself across a rope. Quinn and guidance counselor Wes McKee started Mary Hogan’s climbing program about 16 years ago.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Quinn said, never taking his eyes off the boy suspended above him. “We have a great administration … even before (Principal) Bonnie (Bourne), they were really supportive of the program.”
The Ripton students started coming to Mary Hogan to climb about five years ago, the first year Steve Lindemann began teaching sixth grade in Ripton after previously teaching — and working with Quinn with the climbing program — at Mary Hogan.
“We couldn’t afford this up in Ripton, of course,” Lindemann said. “So I thought why couldn’t we take advantage of it, if it’s available.”
Quinn and Bourne said of course it was available, and they extended an open invitation.
Almost every year since then Lindemann brings his Ripton fifth- and sixth-graders down to Middlebury on a school bus in the morning and back to Ripton at lunchtime on an Addison County Transit Resources bus.
Each year they make two trips, giving the kids a chance to get over any fears they might have on their first visit.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on Wednesday, April 9, will be asked to support a proposed 2008-2009 Mary Hogan Elementary School budget of $5,624,785, reflecting a 2.59-percent increase in spending and restoration of an education technology position that had been cut a few years ago.
If approved, the spending plan would result in an increase of 8.4 percent in the education property tax rate for Middlebury homeowners, a boost that district officials said is associated with the “common level of appraisal (CLA)” provision of the state’s education funding law.
“The budget, to be frank, is pretty unremarkable,” said Mary Hogan Elementary Principal Bonnie Bourne.
She noted the one substantial addition to the proposed budget is an education technologist position that will work with teachers to help students access information through computers and other equipment. The person will also advise school officials on computer infrastructure and Internet access.
The computer technologist position is making a comeback after having been phased out of the budget in recent years as a cost cutting move. Mary Hogan Elementary currently serves 385 students, down from 540 enrolled eight years ago.
While the school is proposing to add a new position, it is preparing to cut others.
The budget reflects 2.1 fewer professional positions, with cuts including a second-grade teacher, to reflect a smaller-than-usual incoming class. There will also be fewer special education staff, to reflect the changing needs of next year’s student body.
By ANDY KIRKALDY
FERRISBURGH — The Vermont Electric Power Co. has fixed one problem with its new transmission line that Ferrisburgh selectmen called “shocking and offensive” in a Feb. 28 letter, and the town’s VELCO committee head believes the company will address two more: the visual impact of a 70-foot-tall structure near Vergennes and of guy wires on Route 7 power poles.
VELCO, which is in the midst of installing a major power line from West Rutland to South Burlington, last week removed a pole it had installed near Greenbush Road to hold an osprey nest. Selectmen and town VELCO volunteer Larry Keyes backed resident Bob Houghton’s contention that it blocked the runway of his private airport. The company ultimately agreed and took it away on April 1, Keyes said.
Still to be resolved are how and whether VELCO will shield the roughly 15 guy wires that hold up poles where the new line crosses Route 7 east of Vergennes, and mitigate the appearance of what selectmen said is the unexpectedly tall double-pole structure on a ridge not far from the new Vergennes substation.
Keyes said VELCO officials have been responsive in his direct talks about those two outstanding issues from selectmen’s Feb. 28 letter to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB), which approved and is overseeing the erection of the big new VELCO power line, which passes through Addison County.
The main problem with the guy wires, he said, are the yellow safety guards that cover their bottom six or eight feet. VELCO officials have told him they are willing to plant shrubbery to shield the safety guards, and although that assurance is not in writing Keyes said the company has made good on similar pledges in the past.