City budget omits fire department; Louras leaves meeting
RUTLAND—When Rutland City voters mark their ballots in March, their city budget will not include funding for the fire department. The Board of Aldermen voted to remove that $3.5 million sector of the budget in accordance with the Public Safety Committee’s recommendation. There appears to be no precedent for the budget’s failing to provide funding for an entire department. If voters reject the budget at the March town meeting, the mayor must submit a new budget to the voters.
The board also voted to remove two existing police department positions and to eliminate funding for a homeless veterans’ program.
The fire department vote was a reaction to a proposed restructuring plan intended to reduce each shift by one firefighter while adding two administrators. Fire Chief Michael Jones believes the restructuring will make the public safer, and he has sole authority over his department’s structure.
The firemen’s union, IAFF Local 2323, objected, saying that to do so puts all three of firefighters’ professional priorities at risk: citizen safety, property preservation, and firefighter safety.
Deputy Fire Chief James Miles commented that, in the past, the chief and the mayor have consistently attempted to add firefighters while the Board of Aldermen has tried to reduce the number. Those standpoints are now reversed.
From his perspective, the department cannot do more with less, nor is another layer of stabilization necessary to standardize practices among shifts. Every fire scene is unique. “Mr. Mayor, give the people the services they expect and deserve,” he declared.
The Board of Aldermen is only able to remove or reduce items in the budget that has been formally proposed by the mayor. When the aldermen hoped to find a way around that stricture by moving money from one line item to another and thereby retaining current staffing levels, the mayor vetoed that request.
Alderman Ed Larson asked for a year’s delay in restructuring. A retired police officer, he had to investigate the death of a city firefighter; he is still affected by that duty and wants to do all possible to protect the city’s firefighters. Seven firefighters per shift “is better than six. Their lives matter a lot,” he said.
As the aldermen continued to work their way through the other segments of the budget, they voted to remove $180,000 from the police department budget. Although the budget has funded 41 police officers, only 35 are currently on staff. Aldermen President William Notte commented that, during the nine years he has served on the board, the department has not yet reached a full complement of 41. The budget approved by the aldermen funds 39 positions, but aldermen said they would find funding for two more positions in the fund balance if the department hires two more.
When the police commission chair Sean Sargeant rose to speak, the intent to vote had already been announced. Louras complained that the board was voting without hearing from Sergeant, Police Chief Brian Kilcullen, or himself, but Notte declared the debate ended. Six aldermen voted for the cut, four against.
Louras said that closing the debate this way violated the open meeting law. Larson said the public had opportunity to comment on police department staffing during the committee process, and the board had heard from both the police chief and the mayor before voting on the police budget. Louras left the meeting.
Habitat to restart local chapter with Cleveland Avenue house
RUTLAND—The local chapter of Habitat for Humanity is reestablishing itself in Rutland with plans to rebuild at 42 Cleveland Avenue. The single-family house on the property was a two-story, clapboard-sided structure on a 6,970-square-foot lot in the Northwest Neighborhood, a primary target area for funding from the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, Project Vision, and NeighborWorks of Western Vermont. The structure was destroyed by fire in February 2014 and NeighborWorks took on the task of removing it.
The next steps are to find a buyer, a family partner to take on a mortgage with no interest charges, and rebuild with volunteer labor. To become a Habitat family, a buyer must have low income and meet certain other fiscal criteria.
Dave Pearson, vice president of the Rutland Habitat’s board of directors, said fundraising for the project will begin soon, with a $110,000 goal. The family will be expected to contribute about 200 hours of “sweat equity” when the project begins.
Habitat application information is online at rutlandhabitat.weebly.com or by telephone at 747-7440.
Teacher safety concerns headed for arbitration
RUTLAND—The Rutland teachers’ union has not only filed an unfair labor practice charge against the school district but has also filed three grievances concerning staff safety.
Attorney Jeff Fannon of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association filed grievances on behalf of two Rutland City public schoolteachers who say they suffered injuries at the hands of students. The Rutland Education Association submitted a third complaint indicating it received an unsatisfactory response from school administrators.
The unfair labor practice charge alleges the administration retaliated against teachers after they complained to the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration (VOSHA); that issue is before the Labor Relations Board. The school administration is contesting the allegations rather than seeking a resolution, an approach that Fannon characterized as stunning.
In a recent press release, Superintendent Mary Moran charged that the union’s complaint contained “numerous misstatements and fallacies” on how the school system has addressed and is addressing staff and student safety concerns. The school is addressing teachers’ safety concerns and the district is providing more specialized training for teachers and paraeducators, she said.
The School Board denied that a teachers’ union grievance alleging a new safety directive requiring employees to wear closed-toe shoes was in retaliation. The union felt the response was inappropriate when the concern had been that of student-on-staff violence. The board denied its decision was any form of retaliation and the safety protocol’s timing was “irrelevant.”
Rutland Education Association President Ellen Green stated that the board also denied two grievances by teachers who said they were injured in the schools. Fannon said those two grievances were not made public and he couldn’t discuss their details. An arbitrator chosen by the American Arbitration Association will rule on all three, probably early next year.
Historical society guru is honored
RUTLAND—WCAX has recognized Rutland’s Jim Davidson as a Super Senior, extolling his work in establishing the Rutland Historical Society in 1969 and his ongoing commitment to it. A retired educator, the 85-year-old is its volunteer curator and leads a team of volunteers who are digitizing old newspapers to preserve the community’s rich history.
Among his many contributions to the Rutland area, Davidson taught history at Mount St. Joseph Academy from 1960 through 1979 and served the then Castleton State College as its registrar from 1979 to 1994. He was instrumental in transforming the former Nickwackett Fire Station on Center Street into the RHS headquarters, which maintains an archive of documents and assorted objects from the city’s past and that of neighboring towns. He was named a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of the Arts and Science, and subsequently honored by the Legislature.
RAFFL by the numbers
RUTLAND—As the year ends, Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) has toted up some impressive accomplishments. In 2016, its Everyday Chef cooking and preservation workshops delivered instruction in basic cooking skills and healthful eating to 500 individuals to recovery homes, shelters, work-sites, schools, and hospitals, often working in partnership with other organizations.
Its Farm Business Development program provided financial consultations, land access, and planning assistance to 35 farms and producers in Rutland, Bennington and Windsor Counties, and promoted farms and local food-friendly businesses throughout southern Vermont via the Locally Grown Guide, now in its 11th year, with both an online presence and paper copy distribution of over 20,000. The online local food store, Farm Fresh Connect, is a market opportunity for farmers to reach new customers through the convenience of their computers and has grown 45 percent in the last 18 months.
The organization also raised $1,500 on its own, matched by $1,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, towards the purchase of a cargo van and supplies for the Glean Team.
RAFFL welcomes two new faces
RUTLAND—Rutland Area Farm & Food Link (RAFFL) recently announced it has hired McKenna Hayes as its new Farm Fresh Connect manager. She has been studying food and agricultural policy at Vermont Law School, doing research and writing work for Food Tank.
Also new at RAFFL is Mara Hearst, taking on the role of farm business advisor. She is finishing her Bachelor of Science at University of Vermont with the self-designed major “Diversified Agricultural Sciences.” She hopes to be involved in changing and expanding Vermont’s legislation around on-farm poultry processing and sales.
Rutland Free Library renovations, program
RUTLAND—Renovations to Rutland Free Library’s lobby restrooms are complete. Giancola Construction replaced the residential grade plumbing with commercial grade pipes and made access easier. A Cultural Facilities Grant through the Vermont Cultural Facilities Coalition (Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Department of Historical Preservation, and the Vermont Historical Society) paid part of the project expense.
The library’s First Wednesday series begins Jan. 4 with an illustrated lecture by Shelburne Museum Director Thomas Denenberg, discussing the work of painter Anna Mary Robertson — better known as “Grandma Moses” (1860-1961). He places her career in the context of mid-century American culture and modernist art.
Rutland Town Highway Dept. proposes five-year plan
RUTLAND TOWN—Rutland Town Highway Dept. head Byron Hathaway presented the Select Board with a new five-year plan as part of this year’s budget process. The projects include sidewalk construction on Cold River Road from U-Haul to the Adele Stanley apartments, half funded by a grant from VTrans; developing a map to secure easements to build a connector road from Holiday Drive to Randbury Road to U.S. 7 by Aldi’s; engineering for a sidewalk along Post Road from the school to Chasanna Drive; a scoping study to develop a park at the falls on Otter Creek in Center Rutland; and engineering for some large culvert replacement projects. Most of these projects depend on grant funding that leverages tax money.
In the current fiscal year, the town bought a line striping machine to paint crosswalks, stop bars, and other striping at busier intersections. Hathaway reported it has proved to be quite cost-effective. Hathaway’s crew experimented with a fog line painted on the East Pittsford Road, part of the Complete Streets initiative. Although the line was “a little wiggly,” the line has received a positive reception from walkers, joggers, and bikers. That line will wear away through the winter, and Hathaway intends to straighten it as summer comes again. Additional fog lines will be installed on other Class 2 roads early next summer.
Hathaway reminds rural delivery patrons that mailboxes must be mounted on secure posts. He also notes that Rutland Town does not have a “bare roads” policy and that roads may be snow-covered during a storm, so snow tires are advisable.
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City budget omits fire department; Louras leaves meeting