Divided council allows boat to dock

VERGENNES — In a split vote, Vergennes aldermen last week gave permission for the 16-passenger tour boat “Moonlight Lady” to use the city’s free docks for overnight stays next summer.
Aldermen at their Tuesday, Nov. 16, meeting debated whether the dock space reserved for the Burlington cruise boat might better be left open for boaters who make the seven-mile trip up Otter Creek from Lake Champlain — and who might be more likely to spend money in Vergennes — or whether the publicity Vergennes receives from the cruises might be a greater benefit.
Mayor Michael Daniels, whose vote was necessary to create a 4-2 majority with one alderman absent, argued in favor of the Moonlight Lady and owner Michael Shea.
“It is hard to quantify the dollars and cents amount,” Daniels said. “But we want to sell the city as a warm and welcoming place to visit.”
Alderman Randy Ouellette and Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau voted against reserving dock space. Both noted meals are served on the boat, while Comeau pointed to the long trip from the lake.
“I hate to see people come up seven miles and find no place to dock,” she said.
Ouellette said he saw more value to accommodating boaters who are more likely to stay longer and spend more.
“I don’t see a quantifiable dollar amount coming into the city,” Ouellette said.
Shea repeated an offer made a year ago to pay for docking, but City Manager Mel Hawley said accepting money for the facilities could complicate the city’s relationship with private marinas. A council committee is looking into the possibility of accepting donations, however, and Shea said he remained willing to cooperate.
Alderman Joe Klopfenstein, who joined Lowell Bertrand and Christine Collette in allowing the boat to dock — except during French Heritage and Youth Fishing Derby weekends — said the council should look at the big picture.
“When a tour comes to a city, I don’t understand why a city would be unwelcoming,” Klopfenstein said.
Daniels made two points favoring the overnight dockage. He said aldermen should continue to work to find funds to expand the docks to allow more boats to tie up; officials believe the visitors do provide a valuable source of revenue to city businesses.
And he urged Shea to do what he could to promote city merchants.
“See if you can find a way to market those amenities that aren’t on your boat,” Daniels said.
Aldermen in a 5-0 show of hands also backed creating a discount for seniors on their annual sewer bills, but officials acknowledged it would probably be a year before the rate break could take effect.
Hawley said the city has a $70,000 surplus in the sewer fund, but is collecting at a rate of only about $589,000 a year of the $600,000 it needs to fund the sewer system. The projection had been higher, but Northlands Job Corps has tightened up its drainage and cut payments, he said, and is still working to reduce runoff entering the sewer system.
By the end of the fiscal year next summer, Hawley said he would be able to pin down what rates must be, and after that, the rate structure can be adjusted to give seniors a break.
“I think we could do something in November (2011),” he said.
Collette, Ouellette and Comeau will work with Hawley to come up with a proposal for the full council that Ouellette said he hopes will provide real relief.
“I’d like to see it be meaningful,” he said. “These elderly need a break.”
Newly re-elected state Reps. Greg Clark and Diane Lanpher also visited the council last Tuesday to discuss the upcoming legislative session.
Lanpher said, as has been widely noted, the major issue will be Vermont’s $112 million financial shortfall.
“Number one will be the budget,” she said.
Clark said that figure could even grow, and said he hoped the council would remain in “pretty steady communication” with Lanpher and him about the budget and other key questions, including Vermont Yankee relicensure and transportation infrastructure.
“It’s going to take some serious people to make some big decisions about these issues,” he said.
Aldermen said they hoped legislators would look into making casinos legal to create a new revenue stream. Clark said he had in the past introduced a bill to legalize casino gambling, but that it failed to earn support then and he was not optimistic now. Daniels suggested petitions around the state to support the proposal, an idea Clark endorsed.
Lanpher, who has a background in social services, was less enthusiastic. “It’s something I know has been proven to create economic hardship on families,” she said.
Lanpher said instead that there were up to $1 billion in economic incentives that legislators do not examine closely every year, and that the budget gap could possibly be closed instead by studying whether all were still necessary.
Collette had the last word in discussions between the council and the representatives.
“There should be no parties, no Democrats or Republicans,” Collette said. “I just want to know you’re all working up there together to help.”
Aldermen also approved a proposal by Hawley and City Clerk Joan Devine to amend the Vergennes dog law. All fines will now be $30 and will not escalate for repeat offenses. Owners of dogs picked up must also pay pound fees, including any flea and tick treatment as well as boarding costs, directly to the city.
In the past, the Vergennes Animal Hospital has collected the fees, and some tension has been caused there, Hawley and Devine said. That led the hospital owners to want to stop acting as the city pound. Once the law takes effect in a month-and-a-half, city officials will pay the animal hospital and then be responsible for collection, a decision that led to the hospital owners to agree to stay on as the pound at least through April.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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