Vergennes-area COVID-19 meetings prove fruitful

VERGENNES — The value of the weekly Vergennes-area COVID-19 meeting shone through on Wednesday morning when the topic of personal protective equipment, or PPE, came up, and the leader of one agency told the head of another he could help out.
The discussion started with City Manager Dan Hofman reporting to the group of 20 civic and nonprofit officials from Vergennes and the surrounding towns that the city was not in bad shape for PPE, although he was still not sure of the status of a 2,000-mask order from a Virginia company.
“We’re pretty good on PPE,” Hofman said, adding that he would update everybody on the mask shipment that could arrive sometime in the middle of the week. 
At that point United Way of Addison County (UWAC) Executive Director Helena Van Vorst made a plea on behalf of Addison County Home Health and Hospice. 
That agency’s health workers are treating COVID-19 patients in their homes, and must treat all homes as if their residents have the disease, she said. And the agency is running low on PPE, Van Vorst said, and needs help.
“Home Health and Hospice is in a very tight situation,” she said.
Another meeting attendee, Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel, quickly said he had a source that could help, although possibly not with gowns and boots.
“At the very least I can get gloves and masks,” Merkel said. 
Van Vorst said the agency would welcome any “extra surplus” it could get.
“They’re burning through PPE,” she said.

Vergennes Public Works Director Jim Larrow brought up the issue of possible non-compliance to the governor’s stay-at-home order by the Agency of Transportation and other local public works departments.
He said he had seen other towns’ road crews at work and “seven cars” in the local VTrans depot, all while his crew was standing down and responding to questions about why they weren’t at work. 
Panton Selectboard Chairman Howard Hall acknowledged his two-man crew was doing some part-time work, but working separately with no contact with each other on a part-time basis. He pledged to call his road foreman to make “sure we were compliant” and “setting an example” for residents.
Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, said VTrans was allowed to conduct online training and do emergency projects, as were local departments, but said he was aware that around the state not all towns and businesses were compliant.
Birong urged towns that were following the governor’s orders to stay the course: “If some municipalities are violating the order, it doesn’t mean other municipalities should violate the order.” 
Merkel noted the new enforcement guidelines the Vermont Attorney General’s office put out last week and urged Larrow and others to “call that number and report” violations.
As for businesses not sure of whether they were allowed to be open, or consumers unsure of that status, Birong said Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development has “a final list of who’s essential and who’s not.”

The question also came up of how municipalities would meet their upcoming obligations to make property-tax payments — the lowest is the $720,000 Panton will owe soon, half of its annual amount — to Addison Northwest School District.
During the coronavirus crisis towns have not been receiving full property tax funds that are included in mortgage escrow payments made to banks and credit unions. Officials are worried about their cash flows and the need to borrow money to make those payments, which are due soon — May 15 in Vergennes and June 1 in Ferrisburgh, for example.
Hofman said he has met with ANWSD Finance Director Elizabeth Jennings to see if payments can be staggered, and he said that appeared to be a possibility. He said Jennings would be willing to sit down with him and local clerks and treasurers sometime in the next week or so to go over the issues. 
Officials said not having to borrow to make payments now would be ideal because financial uncertainty moving forward means towns may not have the money in the future.
“I’m actually more worried about September,” said Ferrisburgh Town Clerk Pam Cousino.
In other business, the group:
•  Heard from Bixby Library Interim Librarian Maddy Willwerth that she had started an initiative to send “Boredom Bags” of books and crafts to families that would be delivered along with meals on Addison Northwest School District bus routes. Willwerth said she had prepared 100 bags, but demand had grown and she expected to send out another 150. 
“We’ve got to get books to people,” she said. 
•  Heard from Waltham Selectman Tim Ryan that Waltham had received a modem/router as part of a bequest from Microsoft and was in process of turning Waltham Town Hall into an internet hot spot for citizen use. 
Ryan said Ferrisburgh had also been granted equipment to turn Ferrisburgh Central School into a hot spot, and Panton’s Howard Hall said Panton was on a waiting list for a modem/router. 
•  Were told by Vergennes Mayor and Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes board member Jeff Fritz that the club had as of mid-week delivered 4,826 meals to young families and seniors in the city area, an effort supported by about $31,000 in donations. 
• Heard from Fritz the city’s evening “Clang and Bang” parades were still going strong, and that the Ferrisburgh Fire Department planned to join Wednesday’s event. The routes are going to be changed to include more neighborhoods, he added.
•  Heard from Hall that he is concerned about how towns can safely run August primary elections. Hofman said absentee paper balloting would be preferable, and Birong said the Vermont House and Senate Committees on Government Operations were working on the issue. 

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