By Lani Duke
Rutland Free Library improvements, accomplishments
RUTLAND—As the year closed, the Rutland Free Library totaled up a list of its accomplishments for 2016. They are impressive.
Direct support by voters in all five supporting towns enabled the purchase of 10 new PCs for public use. EVoter support and an endowment funded the purchase of a new computer for blind and visually-impaired patrons. Special software enables magnification; it also contains text-to-speech programming and a touch-screen monitor.
A new microfilm reader replaces the most venerable one, so ancient that no replacement parts were available. Two anonymous donors proved the funds for this purchase. Students and researchers thank them heartily.
A Vermont Arts Council grant paid to renovate the old restrooms in the lobby.
Looking forward in the new year, Friends of the Library underwrite the First Wednesday programs, which cover a wide range of cultural topics. The library currently displays a civil rights display in keeping with Martin Luther King Day, January 16. The exhibit is on loan from the National Archives Foundation.
Choosing to not seek election
RUTLAND—Vanessa Robertson has announced that she is not running for re-election to the City’s Board of Aldermen. The youngest person ever elected to the board, the 21-year-old was elected to the office last March, to fill the remaining time in the term of resigning board member Jonathan Skates. Skates had resigned to take a job in another community.
She is the second board member to announce her intention to not run for another term. Alderman Ed Larson has also announced he will not run for another term, saying he wants to spend more time with his family.
Refugee office scheduled to open in January
RUTLAND—The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants announced Jan. 5 that a refugee resettlement office will open in Rutland within the following two weeks. Rutland was approved as a refugee resettlement city by the U.S. Department of State in September, with up to 100 Syrian refugees to be brought to Rutland in the coming year. The first of the refugees may arrive in January, according to Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.
Three full-time staffers will occupy the office after receiving intensive training under the direction of the Colchester-based Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. A location for the office has not yet been formally announced.
Pool question forces amenity vs. necessity discussion
RUTLAND—Trade amenities for the best pool possible within the budget constraints, Rutland City’s Board of Aldermen told City Recreation and Parks Superintendent Cindi Wight, Jan. 2. Recreation Committee members urged Wight to find other areas to trim the plans while maximizing the pool itself.
Perhaps the bathhouse could be reconfigured and minimized while laid out in a way that allows for an upgrade in the future, the aldermen advised. Bids for the pool’s initial design, containing one pool for diving, laps and racing, with a second sloped-entry pool with slide plus bathhouse, lockers, and a community room, came in about $1 million higher than the $2.5 million bond voters approved for the replacement project.
Wight told the board that some electrical improvements may be enough for pool users to use the bathhouse as a refuge and changing rooms. She plans to find out whether the current structure may be rendered disabled-accessible. Bringing in portable toilets and installing outdoor showers may provide a solution to accessibility issues in the current building.
That approach might provide enough budget leeway for a diving board and other features, and maximize the family section’s capacity. Aldermen returned that they have not yet seen a design incorporating those changes.
Design changes need not be approved by the voters, City Attorney Charles Romeo told the board. Voters approved a set amount for a pool, but the ballot question did not indicate a specific design.
Mayor vetoes budget, override likely
RUTLAND—Saying that the charter clearly enables him to veto any act of the Board of Aldermen, Rutland City Mayor Christopher Louras announced he is vetoing the board’s rejection of the fire department budget. The Jan. 3 announcement seems to then place the board in violation of the charter, but approving a decreased budget for the fire department that reflects a questionable restructuring plan is “a misstep the Board of Alderman cannot endorse,” Board Chair William Notte responded. Notte described the mayoral veto as “heavy-handed” and “not the reasonable way to proceed.” Rutland City Attorney Charles Romeo said he advised the Board of Aldermen not to deny the fire department’s budget, in what seems to be a deadlock between the legislative and administrative branches of city government. The city charter mandates a budget be passed by Dec. 31, but the aldermen voted unanimously not to approve the portion dealing with the department because it is too low. The charter gives the aldermen only the power to reduce or eliminate items in the budget that the mayor submits to the aldermen for approval.
It does not allow the aldermen to add money to the budget, only to reduce it.
In an eight-page analysis given to the board for its Dec. 20 budget meeting, Romeo observed that it appears the board may still finalize its budget by the Town Meeting Day warning cutoff, Jan. 30. Firefighters oppose the budget vigorously, citing safety concerns. The proposed department restructuring trims a firefighter from each shift, but creates both the positions of assistant chief and fire prevention officer. Firefighters disagree, saying that the shift reduction endangers both them and the public.
There was no intent on the part of the aldermen to not fund the fire department, but the board was unable to complete its budget review, Notte said. Not having a budget ready for voter inspection by Jan. 1 violates the charter, Notte admitted, saying he has “no desire to start the fiscal year without funding in place for the fire department.”
The board president said he hoped the mayor would adopt a previous board suggestion to move enough money from the overtime line item to salaries, as was done during the previous two mayoral administrations. If a new administration is in place after Town Meeting Day, it will be up to the new mayor to follow up on the restructuring or abandon it, Notte commented. Considering that the board unanimously approved rejection of the fire department budget, an override of the mayor’s veto seems highly likely.
Louras denies that removing a full-time shift position reduces the number of personnel able to respond to a fire. The fire prevention officer would be fully trained and able to fill in the emptied seventh position, he noted. In his veto letter, Louras guaranteed that a minimum of seven certified firefighters would be available to respond to any incident. In addition, part-time substitutes could fill out the firefighting teams.
“What you’re hearing fire department members saying is, they want them to be full-time, union members of the fire department,” Louras responded. Notte still hopes to reach a resolution, but said he is neither “chagrined or embarrassed” by the board’s failure to approve a budget “that we unanimously believe to be completely unacceptable.”
When Town Meeting Day arrives March 7, taxpayers will vote on more than the budget, Notte observed. They will also vote on their choice for mayor. Both of Louras’ opponents in that election have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the department restructuring proposal.
Notte also believes that the proposed fire department changes rely on attaining certain outcomes to new firefighters’ union contract negotiations. However, the aldermen give final approval to union contracts. With this uncertainty looming, the more “reasonable” course is to “leave the salary line intact,” Notte stated in a public letter.
A third consideration in the discussion is the upcoming expiration of the fire chief’s contract. A new chief may well be dissatisfied with the proposed staffing changes; he or she should have a working budget that provides for such a change, Notte projected.