State: New Northlands lease could mean compensation for Vergennes

VERGENNES — Although the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has again delayed selecting the next operator of Northlands Job Corps, according to Vermont officials the DOL and the state are close on a new 20-year lease for the MacDonough Drive campus.
It is a deal that might mean that once again Vergennes would be compensated for hosting the program.
Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services Director of Property Management Bill Laferriere said on Wednesday the department has been talking regularly with DOL officials for the past six months about a new lease for the roughly 60-acre property.
“We’re in discussions with them to extend that for another 20 years,” Laferriere said. “I spoke with them two days ago. We’re hammering out the details right now.”
Those details could include compensation for Vergennes, he said.
“That’s a piece of our negotiations right now, but I’m not going to go any further with that right now,” Laferriere said.
The DOL, which oversees the roughly 120 privately operated Job Corps sites around the nation, has leased Northlands from Vermont since 1978. The current 20-year lease — which replaced an initial 15-year deal signed in 1978 by DOL, state and city officials — will expire on June 30.
The original lease specifically called for Vergennes to be paid for hosting Northlands, which employs about 120 and took over a campus formerly occupied by the state-run Weeks School for troubled teens. City officials have maintained the program’s presence creates a burden on city police, fire and public works services.
In the past, its 270 students have been compared to the city’s roughly 2,700 people to create a percentage of the city’s budget that was in turn used to create a payment schedule.
According to City Manager Mel Hawley the 1993 renewal did not reference compensation, but the city still received payments that approached $100,000 a year until 1999.
“The checks were still cut,” he said.
In 1999, DOL attorneys ruled that compensation was in effect illegal taxation of the federal government, and the checks stopped coming.
Vermont’s Congressional delegation wrangled a one-time payment to Vergennes of $585,000 for five years, but no more money has been forthcoming. City officials are upset that what they called a 1978 promise has been broken, and that they were not invited to participate in the most recent round of talks.
“We have never been invited to the table,” Hawley said. “And obviously we were part of the whole discussion in 1978.”
Laferriere said state officials are being mindful of the city’s point of view during negotiations with the DOL. 
“We’re well aware of that. From a Vergennes standpoint, they would like fee for service, and they’ve made that real clear,” he said.
Laferriere said state officials’ stance is in effect bringing the city into the bargaining process. 
“Understanding the city’s position is as good as having Vergennes at the table, in my opinion,” he said.
Meanwhile, the future of the program is unclear. Laferriere said Northlands has had to limit its enrollment this year due to federal funding issues, although the state still supports the job-training program for economically disadvantaged youths.
“There’s some funding stuff and funding concerns coming out of the feds, and they are not accepting any new students,” he said. “From a Vermont standpoint, the program is still a go.”
The DOL has refused a state offer to purchase the property, however, Laferriere said. And although a new lease will spell out terms for two decades, the DOL will not be obligated to stay that long.
“There’s an out clause in that lease,” he said. “They can get out of it with 90 days’ notice.”
The fate of the current operator, Alutiiq LLC, is also up in the air.
The DOL announced in March 2012 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; 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.
Sources have contacted the Independent since then to say the discipline situation has not improved in the past year.
A review of 2012 Vergennes police logs published in the Independent showed that city police dealt last 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 December those statistics probably don’t tell the full story: In that 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.
Sources say the majority of Northlands students are motivated and well behaved, but that a minority causes most of the problems.
In December, DOL regional spokesperson Ted Fitzgerald said Alutiiq had been granted another three months, and the identity of a new operator would be announced in March.
Last week, Fitzgerald released a statement that said DOL officials had changed the timetable again:
“Job Corps is currently re-procuring a contract to operate the Northlands Job Corps Center. Job Corps is currently in the evaluation stage of the procurement. It anticipates that an award will be made by May 31, 2013. The current contract extension for Alutiiq ends on May 31, 2013. Transition of the new contractor is expected to occur June 1st through June 30th.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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