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April 17th

Lawmakers ready to cut state budget

By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — State lawmakers on Wednesday began reviewing a menu of $46.3 million in potential spending cuts and revenue adjustments to compensate for an estimated $24.5 million shortfall in Vermont’s fiscal year 2009 general fund budget.

The potential spending/revenue adjustments were developed by the Joint Fiscal Office and representatives of the House, Senate and Douglas administration. Released at around 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the proposed adjustments seek to remedy a major revenue shortfall predicted on Tuesday by state economists.

Since lawmakers and Gov. James Douglas have vowed to not raise any broad-based taxes this year, the Legislature will have to find economies within the $1.2 billion spending plan passed earlier this month by the House.

Red ink is also looming in the state’s transportation and education funds, which pushes the total potential fiscal year 2009 revenue shortfall to around $30 million.

“People are working cooperatively to do the dirty job of looking where to cut,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee and is Senate majority whip. “I don’t think there will be anything held sacred, except for the education fund.”

The menu of potential cuts unveiled on Wednesday included:

• $5.6 million from the executive branch, including hiring freezes, possible job cuts and a 25 percent reduction in the travel budget.

• $20.5 million from human services, including elimination of state-only prescription programs under Medicare Part D; closing the Northwest State Correctional Center in St. Albans and sending those inmates out of state; and limiting inflationary increases to 1.25 percent for nursing homes, mental health care agencies and developmental services agencies.

full story

Middlebury sets May 20 for local option tax vote

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury voters on May 20 will be asked to approve local option taxes of 1 percent on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol transactions in town for the next three decades in order to raise $7 million for a new bridge that will span the Otter Creek at Cross Street.

Selectmen made that decision on Monday evening, only hours after Gov. James Douglas signed into law a charter change that would give Middlebury the authority to implement local option taxes.

The board also decided on Monday to limit the lifespan of the new taxes to 30 years — the same timeframe for payback on an already-approved $16 million bond issue to fund the bridge, which will link Main Street with Court Street as a means of reducing gridlock in the downtown.

Middlebury College has pledged to cover $9 million of the project costs. The institution will make annual payments of $600,000 over 30 years, beginning when the span opens to traffic — perhaps as soon as the fall of 2010.

Figures provided by the Vermont Tax Department indicate a 1-percent local option tax on sales, meals, rooms and alcohol would’ve netted Middlebury $725,319 in 2007. That sum acknowledges the 30 percent in local option tax revenues that Middlebury — and any other community implementing such taxes — must turn over to the state for its payment-in-lieu-of-taxes program.

full story

April 15th

Counseling Service breaks ground on $4 million building project

BY JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — The Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) will carry a lighter financial load in financing two new building projects thanks to $191,000 in federal money recently secured by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Leahy assistant John Goodrow confirmed the federal earmark at a groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday, April 10, in Middlebury’s Catamount Park that drew Gov. James Douglas, CSAC staff and board members, representatives of project contractor Naylor and Breen Builders, and other guests.

Thursday’s groundbreaking was for a new, 18,500-square-foot office building that will house the agency’s developmental services programs and its administrative offices, freeing up all of the smaller building for programs serving children and adolescents.

The project will also include a two-story addition of about 2,400 square feet at the back of CSAC’s downtown office at 89 Main St. The addition will provide more accessible offices, a larger group room, and an elevator to improve access to much of the existing building.

Robert Thorn, executive director of CSAC, said the new structures would carry great symbolic, as well as utilitarian, significance.

“To me, these buildings and projects are going to be a memorial to how much people have had to deal with in their lives, their perseverance and courage,” Thorn said. “It’s great we are going to have these buildings, but it means so much more to me.”

It was in 2005 that CSAC launched a fund-raising campaign to generate $680,000 toward the estimated $4 million price tag for the two projects. The agency recently reached its goal. The remaining projects costs will be covered by a 30-year, $2.9 million bond arranged through the state of Vermont and through additional CSAC funds, some derived from the sale of other property the agency will now no longer need.

full story

Middlebury's charter change on fast track

By JOHN FLOWERS

MONTPELIER — In a venue where the passage of legislation is often measured in months, a bill that would pave the way for Middlebury to adopt local option taxes to help fund a new in-town bridge shot through the Statehouse like a meteor last week.

“We could have hardly asked for a better alignment of the planets,” said Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington, who spent last Wednesday, April 9, testifying on behalf of the town before various legislative committees.

The Middlebury charter change bill was scheduled to hit Gov. James Douglas’s desk by Friday, April 11. Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, has already said he supports the bill and its purpose of allowing Middlebury the option of generating around $7 million toward a new in-town bridge at Cross Street in the downtown.

Douglas’s expected signature on the bill would allow selectmen to proceed with their goal of holding a town meeting vote in late May on implementing local options taxes of 1 percent on sales, rooms, meals and/or alcohol purchases in town to raise revenues for the bridge project.

Middlebury College has already pledged $9 million toward the $16 million undertaking, which will include a roundabout intersection at Main and Cross streets.

Individual towns in Vermont cannot levy their own taxes unless their charter, which is approved by the Legislature, allows it. Middlebury’s charter did not allow local taxes.

Reps. Steve Maier and Betty Nuovo, both Middlebury Democrats, got the legislative ball rolling last month after townspeople voted in favor of the in-town bridge project and to proceed with the charter change.

full story

Voters OK $5.6M Mary Hogan School budget

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Around 60 Middlebury voters on April 9 overwhelmingly approved, by voice vote, a 2008-2009 Mary Hogan Elementary School budget of $5,624,785.

Voters asked ID-4 school board members several questions during a roughly hour-long discussion that preceded the vote. Serena Eddy-Moulton, chairwoman of the ID-4 board, said some of the voters’ questions keyed on the impact of the spending plan on the local education property tax.

While the budget reflects a 2.59-percent increase in spending, it results in an 8.4-percent hike in the homestead education property tax rate for Middlebury residents. The rate for Middlebury homeowners will be $1.576 per $100 of property value, up about 12 cents. That represents an increase of $240 on a $200,000 home.

The education tax rate in Middlebury for non-residential property will increase 13.7 cents, or 10.2 percent, to $1.48 per $100 of property.

The hike in the education tax for homeowners is the result of the “common level of appraisal,” or CLA, provision of the state’s education funding law. The CLA compares local property value assessments with the state’s estimation of actual market value. Communities in which property is less than, or more than, market value are required to adjust their tax rates. The goal of the CLA is to equalize property taxes across towns.

In Middlebury’s case, local property was judged to be appraised below market value so the CLA pushed up the education component of the property tax.

“People didn’t understand how the CLA affects the budget,” Eddy-Moulton said of a recurring theme at the April 9 meeting.

full story

April 10th

Garza searchers probe Otter Creek

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.

full story

Officials pan plan to close Pulp Mill Bridge for year-long repair

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.

full story

Extra sand on roads means extra, extra spring work for crews

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.”

full story

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