City urges Northlands to support rescue volunteers

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council on Tuesday met new Northlands Job Corps Director Shirma Ferguson and learned more about Chugach Alaska Corporation, the company the U.S. Department of Labor recently selected to operate the Macdonough Drive federal job training center for economically disadvantaged youths.
At the meeting, city officials and former Ferrisburgh Fire Department Deputy Chief Mike Donnelly, a Vergennes resident, questioned Ferguson about the center’s policy on allowing volunteer firefighters and rescue personnel to leave during their shifts.
Their questions came after the resignation of a Northlands employee, identified in an email from City Manager Mel Hawley as “a member of the Ferrisburgh Volunteer Fire Department,” due to not being allowed to perform volunteer duties.
Donnelly said previous Job Corps management companies had “always had good relationships with emergency services in our community,” and contrasted the Vergennes area with the larger cities where Ferguson said Chugach operates four other Job Corps centers.
“We’re a small community, and we’re not Texas. We’re not Chicago,” Donnelly said. “We rely on these people very, very much. What is your philosophy?”
Ferguson described a situation in which twice the firefighter left the center, which is short-staffed (she is trying to hire 17 people), in the middle of shifts. She said she supports volunteerism, but had to think of the center first.
“During the training the radio went off, and the individual left the training, and it was his shift to work. And that would have left one security person for the entire center. So we talked to the individual about it, and, again, those things happen. Just let us know what’s going on,” Ferguson said. “And it happened again. So we had to ask him if he wanted to shift his shift, or what he wanted to do. And he told us he didn’t want to work with us any more.”
Ferguson described the situation as “really unfortunate,” but added, “We also provide a service to our students and staff. We have to keep them safe and secure … They (employees) have to understand their first priority is the center and the students. We just have to figure out how to work with the individuals that are volunteers.”
In a phone conversation later on Tuesday, Donnelly, a 34-year veteran and trustee of the Ferrisburgh department, disputed some of the details. He said the individual was asked to cover a shift on his day off, and agreed to come if he could leave for two hours to provide previously scheduled training for town firefighters. Only when that two-hour absence was denied did the firefighter resign from Northlands, Donnelly said.
Donnelly said Ferguson does not understand the vital nature of the emergency services Vermont volunteers provide.
“I wanted to say to her, ‘What if you were trapped in a car?’” he said.
At the meeting Hawley explained the local system, in which local employers, including United Technologies Corp., cooperate as much as possible with emergency volunteers.
“We are not a big city. We don’t have fulltime firefighters. We don’t have fulltime rescue staff,” Hawley said. “So all employers, even the city of Vergennes, we have three people in the public works department who are members of the fire department … there is a dual responsibility.”
Hawley urged Chugach and Ferguson to develop a policy that would allow flexibility.
“I would encourage you to have such a policy,” Hawley said. “These two extremely important organizations … rely on people that are on call.”
Ferguson moved toward agreement, also stating she was not aware of the issue and that it will be a challenge because of the center’s staffing level.
“I totally understand, and I totally agree with it. Whenever you take over a company like this Job Corps the way we did … there are things like this that we were not aware of,” Ferguson said. “So we will look at the policy, because we want to make sure we support the community. But at the same time we are short-staffed … We just ask for your sympathy and your understanding as we continue to work on the staffing issues and the student issues.”
The Department of Labor (DOL) awarded Chugach a one-year contract, plus a six-month option, to run Northlands beginning Dec. 1. Ferguson described it as “a hostile takeover” from CHP International, which lost its contract in June, less than three years through a five-year deal.
According to DOL Boston office spokesman Ted Fitzgerald, DOL first sought a new five-year contract, but CHP protested, “which delayed award of the new contract and resulted in postponement of the re-procurement activities until resolution of the protest.”
Instead, Chugach was awarded its short-term contract. In the meantime, Fitzgerald said in a Wednesday email the DOL will begin seeking another five-year contract this month and award it “prior to the end of the short-term contract.”
According to the Chugach website, the company was formed in 1972 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). Instead of the reservations used elsewhere of the U.S., ANCSA established a system of native corporations. Those include former Northlands operator Alutiiq, which preceded the recently ousted operator CHP International, an Illinois company. Chugach provides a wide range of commercial and government services.
Ferguson, a Trinidad native, came to Northlands from the Potomac Job Corps Center. The former Baltimore resident said she is a Job Corps graduate.
“A lot of the kids are really shocked to learn I went to the Job Corps,” she said.
She said Chugach took over a center “with some issues,” but said she hoped to move Northlands higher in the rankings that the DOL uses to assess center performance. It had been lagging in the bottom tier of the 127 Job Corps centers, but now stands at No. 62, she said.
“My goal is to see Northlands in the top 50, and I think we’re on that path,” she said.
Ferguson touted the school’s “strong academic and career education programs,” but said inherited obstacles include shortages in staff — 17 vacancies, with 97 current employees, about 90 percent full-time — and students — the center can accommodate 220, but as of Tuesday only 135 were attending.
“If we continue to drop students, we’ll have to lay off people, but that’s not our intent,” she said.
She said the DOL has been happy with Chugach so far, particularly with center discipline, and noted she has already signed a law enforcement agreement with city police.
“We have had some great compliments from the regional office about the work we’re doing so far,” Ferguson said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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