VERGENNES — U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Vergennes officials confirmed last week that the current firm now operating Northlands Job Corps, Alutiiq LLC, has been granted an additional three months to run the federally funded job-training center for disadvantaged youth.
The DOL, which oversees the nation’s roughly 120 Job Corps centers, had announced in March that it would terminate Alutiiq’s Northlands contract, effective Dec. 31.
DOL officials never explained that termination, but it followed a serious assault on Northlands’ MacDonough Drive campus that hospitalized the victim, an attack that went unreported to city police for more than 24 hours. It also followed repeated complaints by Vergennes officials that center management was not cooperating with city police, and an Independent report documenting ongoing beatings in one of the Northlands dormitories of which some center personnel were aware.
“Our concerns with the current contractor have involved the lack of timely reporting of criminal activity on center,” said City Manager Mel Hawley in a recent email.
DOL officials offered no specific explanation for Alutiiq’s extension, although DOL Job Corps contracting officer Tom Pendleton — who earlier had confirmed the extension to Hawley — said last week the contracting process “sometimes takes longer than anticipated.”
Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the DOL’s regional office in Boston, released this statement:
“The procurement is still in the evaluation phase and as such information cannot be released. We anticipate an award date of March 1, 2013, and the transition will take place during the month of March 2013. The new operator will be in place on April 1, 2013.”
City officials said they are puzzled by that timing: The DOL leases the roughly 60-acre Northlands campus, the former state-run Weeks School for troubled teens, from the state of Vermont. That lease expires on June 30, 2013, just three months after Alutiiq’s new scheduled termination date.
City officials also remain upset that Vergennes is no longer compensated for hosting Northlands, as was agreed to in writing in the three-sided deal in the late 1970s among the state, the city and the DOL.
In the late 1990s, DOL lawyers ruled payments to the city were a form of illegal taxation on the federal government, and other than a one-time sum granted to the city by the federal government after it was arranged by the state’s Congressional delegation, no more payments have been made.
When the payments ceased, they were about $100,000 a year, at that time about 10 percent of the city’s annual operating budget, exclusive of the user-funded sewer department.
At the Dec. 18 city council meeting, Hawley said to state Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, that city officials are frustrated they are being excluded from current negotiations.
“It’s very odd how little involvement there is between the state of Vermont and the city of Vergennes,” Hawley said. “I am very curious about the level of communication among all the entities involved.”
Lanpher said she has talked to state officials, including those from the Department of Buildings and General Services, but that she had few good answers about why Vergennes was being left out of the loop or where lease talks stood.
For example, she said it was hard to get an answer from the DOL because a law firm was handling lease negotiations with the state on the DOL’s behalf.
Lanpher did say she hoped the lease would be renewed because the alternative would be a vacant campus and the loss of more than 100 local jobs.
“The worst-case scenario is that DOL decides not to renew a lease, and the state of Vermont has empty buildings, and the city of Vergennes has empty buildings,” she said.
On the other hand, city officials and police remain concerned about discipline and safety issues under Alutiiq’s watch, and one source for the Independent’s story on the dorm beatings called earlier this fall to say the overall atmosphere had, if anything, deteriorated on the 280-student campus since the spring.
A review of 2012 Vergennes police logs published in the Independent showed that city police have dealt this year with eight reported assaults, one brawl, one drug case with two arrests, five alcohol incidents both on and off campus, two disorderly conduct cases, a bomb threat, and four thefts allegedly committed by Northlands students, both on and off campus.
Police Chief George Merkel said in fact those statistics probably don’t tell the full story: This month one student told police she had been the victim of an assault that had not been reported to city police, and Merkel said that was not the first such report he has heard this year.
“My concern is (the students’) safety and the safety of the people that work there. And … we’re getting not one, not two, but four, five, six reports of unreported incidents, incidents not being reported in a timely manner,” Merkel said. “(And) we’ve had some pretty serious injuries that have taken place coming out of fights or assaults that have taken place at the Job Corps.”
Regardless of what company ends up operating the center, Merkel hopes its officials will cooperate with his department.
“I would look to anybody that goes in there, whether it’s Alutiiq if they stay there, or the new agency that comes in, to certainly tighten up that protocol they have for reporting incidents (and) getting medical care there for people who are injured during those incidents. Because let’s face it, those incidents … are going to happen because of the backgrounds some of these kids come from,” Merkel said. “You don’t fix the problem by hiding it and you don’t fix the problem by not reporting it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.