Clippings: News changes, and stays the same

How time flies.
I started as a reporter here at the Addison Independent back in 1990. A quarter-century later, times have changed — as have virtually all the faces with whom I deal in municipal and state government.
Some of the story themes currently on my plate are a lot different than they were 25 years ago. For example, back then, there was no controversy in Addison County about the siting of solar farms, natural gas pipelines or cell towers. There wasn’t a murmur about same-sex marriage, let alone civil unions.
One of my first assignments back then was covering the race for Vermont’s lone congressional seat, featuring incumbent Republican Peter Smith and the then-mayor of Burlington, Progressive Bernie Sanders. Sanders of course went on to win that seat, ran successfully for the U.S. Senate, and is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. He hopes to fare better in that endeavor than did Democrat and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean back in 2004. Dean was a practicing physician and lieutenant governor when I took my seat in the Independent newsroom back in ’90. Meanwhile, Middlebury Republican Jim Douglas was Vermont’s secretary of state and was sizing up his own mountain to climb — a challenge of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Budget requests, needless to say, were a lot lower than they are now.
Local voters in March of that year fielded proposed 1990-1991 budgets of $3,182,386 for Vergennes Union High School; $4.6 million for Mount Abraham Union High School; and $7,359,428 for UD-3 schools in Middlebury. Voters that year defeated all three of those high school budgets, all of which featured increases of at least 7.5 percent.
History repeated itself earlier this year for the 2015-2016 VUHS and Mount Abe budgets of $10.47 million and $14.06 million, respectively. The UD-3 budget of $17.3 million sailed through.
The state’s dairy farmers in 1990 were enjoying what they considered to be “high” milk prices of $11.70 per hundredweight. That price in June 2015 was at $16.90 in a dairy landscape characterized by a lot fewer family farms.
The health of Lake Champlain was as much in the headlines in 1990 as it has been this year. Back then, Vermont’s congressional delegation fought to get $25 million in federal funding to manage the cleanup of the lake.
Twenty-five years later, lake cleanup remains a priority. Last week, state officials sent the Environmental Protection Agency a plan to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain by decreasing phosphorous in the lake.
Property tax reform remains as elusive today as it was in 1990. Back then, several lawmakers rallied around the notion of increasing the personal property tax rate from 23 percent to 62.5 percent of the federal levy and then reducing property taxes by a corresponding amount. The property tax backlash abated somewhat in the county during the mid-1990s after I watched Gov. Dean sign Act 60 in Whiting, the hometown of Vermont Supreme Court plaintiff Amanda Brigham, but tax reform is once again near the top of many lawmakers’ priority lists.
Middlebury’s property tax rate in 1990 was $3.34 per $100 in property value. The total residential rate this year is $2.825. So high was Middlebury’s rate in 1990 that town officials asked residents if they’d like to adopt some local options taxes to reduce their financial burden. But residents rejected four separate option tax proposals. Townspeople would relent in 2008 and OK local option taxes to assist in debt service for the $16 million Cross Street Bridge.
Speaking of bridges, Middlebury officials in 1990 had their own version of a rail span controversy that almost rivaled the one that is now playing out regarding replacement of the overpasses on Merchants Row and Main Street. Town officials were furious about what they perceived as “foot dragging” by state and federal officials on a scheduled fix of the Seymour Street rail underpass, a span marked by huge cracks and missing chunks of concrete.
For those still interested in a Middlebury bypass, the issue made a little headway — back in 1990. A local committee forwarded a proposed easterly highway bypass that would’ve extended 3.5 miles, from Exchange Street to Route 7 South, near the new Denecker Chevrolet location.
In Bristol, the selectboard of 1990 was taking stock in its municipal landfill, a facility that the town finally closed earlier this month. The board endorsed mandatory recycling as a way to help buy more time for the town landfill, which now is the site of a local waste transfer station.
But landfills were a county-wide issue in 1990, and it wasn’t pretty. Addison County was asked to site a regional landfill. A committee identified a dozen possible sites, eventually narrowing that number down to three — one each in Orwell, Salisbury and Whiting. As we now know, the landfill was never sited and the county now exports its trash (except for Salisbury, the lone hold-out in the state with an unlined landfill of its own).
Bristol in 1990 also launched a new effort to merge its town and village, which had separate governing boards and bureaucracies. It was a successful effort, and I still have a copy of the old Bristol Village charter, autographed by Gov. Dean, who came to town to make the merger official.
In Vergennes, BF Goodrich 25 years ago bought Simmonds Precision on Panton Road, which remains one of the area’s top employers in spite of shedding positions through the years.
Middlebury College in 1990 found itself inaugurating a new president (Timothy Light), just as it is this year (Laurie Patton). The college was wrestling with another big issue back then — the comportment of what were six off-campus fraternities. The institution that year ordered the fraternities to become “houses,” actively recruit women and cut their affiliation with their national chapters if those chapters continued to ban women.
I can remember briefly interviewing and shaking the hand of the Dalai Lama when he visited Middlebury College campus a quarter-century ago. That visit stood in sharp contrast to his return to campus in 2012, when he was blanketed by security.
Heard a lot about health care reform and a singlepayer system during the past few years? It was in 1990 that U.S. Sens. Jim Jeffords, R-Vt., and Leahy took testimony in Montpelier on the concept of a nationwide health care system that would serve all residents, regardless of their ability to pay. The two senators delivered Vermont’s message to the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Care. Nothing ever came of it.
And finally, 1990 was a good year for Lawrence Miller. I recall interviewing him as he installed equipment for what would become the state’s third microbrewery, in rented warehouse space off Middlebury’s Exchange Street. The founder of Otter Creek Brewing sold his company and is now Senior Adviser to the Governor and Chief of Health Care Reform.
It’s been a busy 25 years that began with coverage of the first of 25 graduating classes at Mount Abe that included our own two (now grown) children.
I can’t say I’ll be at it for another 25 years, but I hope to have at least a few more reporter’s notebooks to fill as long as you folks keep on giving me news to cover…

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