November 20th, 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
BRISTOL — Middlebury selectmen will spend the next five weeks trying to put together a fiscal year 2009-2010 municipal budget that features no local tax increase.
Selectmen are seeking to maintain the current municipal rate of 80.6 cents per $100 in property value in deference to Middlebury residents who are struggling through a tough economy. Several local businesses have laid off workers during the past year. Meanwhile, economists on Tuesday predicted a $30 million decline in general fund revenues for the current fiscal year and a state unemployment rate that could soon reach 7 percent.
“We come at this budget in a little bit of a different way, intentionally,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said. “I think it’s a good change in the process for what is clearly going to be a difficult year, if not two or three years. Because of the difficult financial situation, this leads us toward a budget presentation and preparation unlike previous years … where we’ve set the baseline as ‘maintaining the level of service.’ This is looking at holding the line financially, and a more arbitrary financial limit because of the economic stress that is perceived in the community.”
Middlebury Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo on Tuesday spelled out the impact a level municipal tax rate would have on next year’s budget.
First, he noted a projected 1.5-percent increase in Middlebury’s grand list would give the town roughly $6,760,000 in revenues, a sum that would fall approximately $259,496 short of the $7,020,147 needed to maintain the same services that local residents are currently receiving.
The lion’s share of the gap — almost $165,000 — is associated with increases in wages and benefit premiums for municipal employees, hikes that are guaranteed through negotiated contracts.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
ADDISON COUNTY — By the time fuel oil hit the record high price of $147 per barrel this summer, telephones were ringing off their hooks at local fuel vendors’ offices. Customers were clamoring for “pre-buy” contracts, looking for a way to lock into a price of $4 per gallon of heating fuel or more and pay for a winter’s worth of oil up front.
Now, though, fuel oil prices have dropped to under $60 per barrel this week and prices for heating fuel have fallen by 30 percent or more. With the price for No. 2 fuel oil at some local companies coming in this month at around $2.80 per gallon, those same customers are likely wishing they’d left their phones on the hooks.
But customers, it turns out, aren’t the only ones who locked in at high prices this year — their vendors did, too.
“We were kind of forced into it by the customers,” admitted Mike Bordeleau, the owner of Bridport-based Mike’s Fuels. In July, Bordeleau was on the fence about offering pre-buy contracts — reluctant, he said, to have his own customers lock into prices that were $1.50 or $2 per gallon higher than last year.
Skyrocketing prices, though, made some customers anxious to buy early in case prices climbed even higher over the course of the winter. What’s more, speculators on Wall Street — Matt Cota of the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association (VFDA) named Goldman Sachs as an example — were calling for oil prices to hit $200 a barrel, which could result in heating oil priced at $6 or $7 per gallon.
“There was a panic across the Northeast,” Cota said.
So, when Bordeleau was able to offer a pre-buy contract at $3.99 a gallon, almost 20 percent of his customers — around 500 out of approximately 2,700 households — jumped at the offer.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — They came from all walks of life and from all corners of the county on this clear May day, to strike up a singular voice of compassion for a woman who was drawing her last breaths during the annual season of renewal.
They respectfully gathered around Cynthia Hodgson’s bed, gazed upon her lovingly, and eased into a rendition of the spiritual, “There’s A Light.”
Mrs. Hodgson couldn’t acknowledge those serenading her, and she didn’t have to. As the group watched and sang, her breathing slowed, then stopped completely.
“She just eased on,” said her son, Will Porter, who was among the family members present at her bedside. “It was almost like she relaxed right away.”
Family members are convinced Mrs. Hodgson’s final moments on Earth were made more peaceful by Wellspring, a group of Hospice Volunteer Services singers who offer to serenade those nearing the end of their lives.
For almost four years now, the group has been sharing song as a source of comfort for hospice patients struggling with the pain, fear and anxiety that can come with a terminal illness or advanced age.
Priscilla Baker is Wellspring’s coordinator. She was with the group when it began rehearsing in 2004 and gave its first “patient sing” in 2005.
She noted how Wellspring has grown from a rather casual collection of seven or eight people to an association of almost 30 avid singers devoted to the cause. Practices, conducted the first and third Tuesday of each month, draw upwards of 16 singers.
Since she serves as program director for Volunteer Hospice Services, Baker is able to offer Wellspring’s services to clients who might feel soothed by music.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — What does a “downward dog” tunnel have to do with fighting hunger?
Plenty, if Otter Creek Yoga owner Joanna Colwell and one of her yoga students have anything to say about it.
Acting on a suggestion from Lila McVeigh, who has regularly practiced yoga with Colwell, Colwell is hosting a whimsical yoga class this week for pre-school-age children and their parents. While the class is free, she and McVeigh are suggesting parents bring a donation of $10 or non-perishable food items for the food shelf at the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) agency on Boardman Street.
As it turns out, Colwell’s yoga studio is one of several businesses chipping in to stock local food shelves this fall. And requiring a food donation for a food shelf is popular with other events, as well.
Across town, the Middlebury branch of the Chittenden Bank is participating in the company’s Share the Bounty initiative. Their three-month-long food drive, which started last month, will also be contributing donations to a local food shelf.
Other businesses and events in the county supporting area food banks include:
• Screening of “The Fragrant Spirit of Life” documentary film. Organizers of the Dec. 2 event in Bristol said donations of canned food will be accepted.
• Hypnosis Works at 52 Liberty St. in Bristol. A group hypnosis session on Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. is free with a non-perishable food donation for the food shelf or a $3 donation to Heifer International.
• The Cool Yule kick-off event in Bristol on Dec. 5. The lighting of the bandstand and memory tree on the town green, which will also feature seasonal songs by school choruses, will include a food collection for Bristol’s food bank.
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Soapworks officials hope to move the growing business from its current Exchange Street headquarters to a building on Industrial Avenue that will double the company’s production space and allow it to potentially double its workforce during the next two years.
Vermont Soapworks President Larry Plesent launched the manufacturing company in 1992 in a 1,700-square-foot farmhouse in Brandon. A steady increase in business prompted Plesent to look for larger accommodations, which he found in 1996 in the Neri business incubator building at 616 Exchange St. Vermont Soapworks initially occupied around 2,500 square feet in the 31,000-square-foot structure, but has gobbled up additional space during recent years as production demands have grown. The company now occupies 10,000 square feet of production space and 1,000 square feet of retail space in the Neri building.
But once again, Vermont Soapworks finds itself at an enviable crossroads. Now producing hundreds of soap-related products that it markets to thousands of firms, stores and lodgers in 43 countries, the company has been growing at a rate of 25 percent per year. It again needs more room.
“Now we have totally outgrown our space here,” Plesent said, watching some of his 26 workers trim bars from large soap blocks, pack products into huge boxes and tend to the small store that offers locals and tourists a sample of Vermont Soapworks’ wares.
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — The latest director of the Northlands Job Corps center in Vergennes plans to improve students’ experience and academic achievement at the MacDonough Drive campus through better discipline, and to tackle a long-standing issue for the federal job-training program: recruiting more Vermonters.
After taking over this past summer, Tony Staynings, 55, first had to deal with a hospital stay for health problems, and now he is back on track in his mission of improving the center for his employer, the Kentucky firm Rescare Corp.
Staynings said his top focuses are improving employment prospects and job skills for the center’s roughly 230 economically disadvantaged students from around New England.
The son of a British Army sergeant major, Staynings is an accomplished long-distance runner who competed in two Olympics and described himself as “like a drill instructor with a sense of humor.”
“I like to have fun. I want the students to have fun,” he said. “I want the kids to know that education should be and can be a fun experience for them. But I also make it very clear there are rules. You have to be responsible and accountable for what you do.”
As well as longstanding prohibitions on drugs, alcohol and violent behavior, rules now include requiring passes to wander the campus during daytime classroom hours and banning “public displays of affection,” which Staynings said are not acceptable in the workplace, and therefore not at Northlands.
“We’re training these folks to be ready for the workplace, (teaching) what we call employability skills, social skills,” he said.
By JOHN FLOWERS
RIPTON — Folks who live near a river will tell you there’s something comforting about listening to the gentle gurgle of water as it meanders down a country mountain.
But folks like Carol McKnight also know that a meandering river can suddenly hop its banks and turn into an angry, destructive freight train. After having seen the Middlebury River do just that on Aug. 6 and shear more than 10 feet from the backyard of her Ripton village property in the process, McKnight doesn’t sleep as soundly during a rainstorm.
“I’m feeling extremely anxious,” McKnight said on Tuesday, as she walked around the exterior of her beautiful home in the heart of the Ripton village. The home was surrounded by a gushing moat only three months ago during a devastating flood from which some areas of Addison County are still recovering.
“I’m very concerned,” she said.
McKnight and her neighbors immediately downstream, Rick and Molly Hawley, are now seeking guidance and help in shoring up the river banks along their shrinking property to ensure their homes don’t wind up cascading down to East Middlebury on some future rain-soaked day.
And McKnight and the Hawleys stressed that it is in the town of Ripton’s best interest to see the banks reinforced and the Middlebury River redirected into the channels it has abandoned over time at the whim of Mother Nature. Town officials acknowledged mounting evidence that the next cataclysmic flooding event could result in the river not only taking out the McKnight and Hawley properties, but gushing over Route 125 and into the three municipal properties that define Ripton Village: the town office building, the community house and the 1864 Ripton United Methodist Church.
By KATHRYN FLAGG
SUDBURY AND WHITING — Plans for a tri-town school merger in Leicester, Whiting and Sudbury were derailed Monday, after voters in Sudbury defeated a measure 54-44 that would have allocated $7,000 to a planning fund for the potential community school.
Of the three towns, only Sudbury voted against the merger and planning funding — and in fact, Whiting and Leicester voted overwhelmingly in favor of moving forward with the community school.
“The message was quite clear that due to the economic conditions, this was not a time to even spend $7,000 to study the proposal of a joint school merger,” said Cathy Smid, a Sudbury resident and volunteer on the committee investigating the merger.
Whiting voters approved $6,000 for the planning effort Monday night 41-8, and last week voters in Leicester unanimously approved a $12,000 contribution to the fund.
Monday’s nearly two-hour meeting at the Sudbury Town Meeting House, on the other hand, was marked by heated debate.
“There were many people who came to the meeting who had already made up their minds,” said Sudbury school board Chair Stephen Roberts.
Roberts said that he tried to make clear at Monday’s meeting that this month’s vote would not definitively determine whether or not the three towns would build the proposed community school. Monday’s votes were the first in a potential three-vote process. Had all three towns agree to move forward with the merger, residents would have participated in a governance vote this winter to establish a joint school district.
Finally, all three towns would have been asked to approve large bond votes for the new school in a year’s time.