April 15th, 2008
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.
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.
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.
“Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimming’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”
The song was from the 1960s and Bob Dylan, who is widely noted as the most acclaimed and influential songwriter of the past half century, was talking about the changes rocking the country during that era of protests, demonstrations, love-ins and generation gaps. He was right on target, saying in his music of the day what political and social analysts would discuss for the next few decades in retrospect.
“Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside
And it is ragin’.
It’ll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’.”
Dylan, who the Associated Press recently wrote “brought rock from the streets to the lecture hall,” received an honorary Pulitzer Prize last week for what the Pulitzer judges called his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
The break through for rock ’n roll was substantial. The AP noted that “the Pulitzer judges, who have long favored classical music, and, more recently, jazz, awarded an art form once dismissed as barbaric, even subversive.”
Middlebury and Weybridge selectmen were right to reject the state’s plan to close the Pulp Mill Bridge for up to a year for renovations before the town’s proposed Cross Street Bridge was built. The state’s plan would leave the town with just the Battell Bridge on Main Street to cross the Otter Creek — a move that would cripple the downtown’s retail district and frustrate residents who already face traffic jams there several times throughout each day.
It’s as if the town’s shortage of bridges across the Otter Creek has been lost on the state transportation agency, even though the town has been pressing its need for a second span for more than 50 years and has been hard at work on the Cross Street Bridge for the past several years.
Let’s hope the selectboard’s message to do the work on the Pulp Mill Bridge after the Cross Street Bridge is in use is taken to heart and honored.
As important is that the work on the Pulp Mill Bridge is dictated by common sense, not sabotaged by misguided — though well-intended — strictures. In this case, the Vermont Historic Covered Bridge Committee must sign off on any improvements or changes to the bridge, which is being renovated at a cost of over $2 million. The current bridge has structural design flaws, according to at least one expert, that should be corrected as part of the renovation. The state’s plan, however, preserves those design flaws (thus weakening the bridge) in order to maintain its historical integrity. Such stupidity, if the alleged flaws would weaken the bridge, would make a mockery of the state’s historical preservation efforts.
A proposal to correct the flaws and construct a nearby educational exhibit detailing the original architecture — and the design flaw that was corrected — is a reasonable suggestion (see story Page 1A) that we also hope will be honored.
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.