Retired fireman’s perspective sheds light on dispute
Retired Rutland City Fire Department Lieutenant Raymond Mooney recently recounted a brief history of the department and its staffing, Jan. 6. He noted that city records show a staff of 12 firemen on duty working 144 hours a week in 1926, with each man working three 24-hour shifts and then one off.
The two-platoon system went into effect in 1947; each firefighter worked 84 hours a week. The city hired an additional six men. When the federal government mandated a maximum workweek of 56 hours in 1975, the city hired four additional men. There were always 12 on duty.
A reorganization while Jeff Wennberg was mayor transferred the paramedic service to Regional Ambulance Service. When three were laid off three, it was deemed “violating the Tenure clause in the Charter.” A judge ruled they must be reinstated, but Wennberg refused, according to Mooney. The Board of Aldermen passed an ordinance for their reinstatement, an ordinance vetoed by the mayor.
Although he had originally sided with Wennberg, Chief Fire Engineer Gerald Lloyd came to agree with the department by the time the aldermen overrode the mayor’s veto and the three laid-off firemen returned to work.
Wennberg sought to remove the tenure clause from the charter through the March town meeting ballot, but the voters defeated that measure “overwhelmingly,” Mooney recalled, observing that this struggle seems to presage a pattern that is recurring this year.
A 1990 reorganization resulted in three platoons working 46.6 hours a week, with 10 men per shift. The roster dropped to seven men per shift in 1992. There was a similar drop in shift size under Mayor John Cassarino, Mooney remembered, saying “each time men are cut, the number of men on shifts available for callback gets smaller and smaller.”
Last summer Mooney himself, long retired, helped “stretch hose with the guys who had landed with two houses on fire while waiting for help to arrive.” Mooney described the current proposal placed before the aldermen as “the shell game of replacing three responding firefighters with two management people who the Mayor says will be certified and can respond with the six left on duty.” However, management staff goes home at 5 p.m., Mooney said. During previous administrations, he had repeatedly argued with the city attorney in his capacity as administrative assistant to the chief, on whether to ask for help from another department. “I argued strenuously that a house on South Street could catch fire as I was going up Woodstock Avenue and I didn’t want to play Russian Roulette with the lives and property of city taxpayers and residents,” he wrote. Although the city administration has changed since those years, Mooney believes subsequent city bureaucracies have continued to harbor animus toward the fire department.
Evelyn Street redesign takes the first step
RUTLAND—The Rutland Redevelopment Authority issued a Request for Proposal on the redevelopment of Evelyn Street Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016, with responses due Jan. 24 in time for the next RRA meeting. The proposal is for a comprehensive planning study, funded through a Vermont Community Development Program (VCDP) planning grant, utilizing vendors’ “expertise, initiative and innovation when developing their proposals to refine the scope of work activities.”
Project boundaries are “the lands abutting Evelyn Street and associated with the Rutland Shopping Plaza and City owned lands associated with the Amtrak station.” It covers the former CVPS building and Depot Park while looking for some of the ambiance of Burlington’s Church Street.
Not included the project is the TD Bank drive-through building, although it will receive a simultaneous historical architecture review. Nor does the project include redesign of Strongs Avenue, Merchants Row or Center Street.
In other planning for the year ahead, the RRA’s Executive Director Brennan Duffy is anticipating changes to the organization’s website to refresh the promotion of selected real estate, especially 34 N. Main St., the former Berwick Hotel site at the corner of Center and Wales streets, 92 Park St., 77 Grove St., and other properties.
City education funding “tight” as tax bills shrink
Rutland City voters will see an education budget up 2.4 percent from last year’s, totaling $51.64 million. But improvements in the city’s common level of appraisal (CLA) will result in lowered homestead property taxes, reduced to $1.52 per $100 of assessed property value from last year’s $1.56. Property owners with a home valued at $150,000 will see tax bills reduced from $2,341 to $2,278.
Superintendent Mary Moran attributed the modest total increase to normal rising health insurance and salary costs. Completion of several capital improvement projects—lighting, heating and cooling, roof work, flooring, boiler work, and an energy performance upgrade are expected to save money in the future.
The current year’s project list features replacement of the high school’s intercom and bell system, apparently installed 23 years ago when the structure was built.
The district’s staffing has seen a net decrease over the past five years, with 39 fewer positions. The school district has a student population of 2,671, with 233 full-time teachers, according to the SchoolMatch website.
The district had considered adding three positions but decided against it. Moran said the district contingency fund will be tapped if an additional English Language Learning position is needed.
Railyard break-in yields potential long sentencing
RUTLAND—Two area men were charged with burglary and possessing burglary tools plus trespassing and unlawful mischief in their arrest for breaking into a building at the Rutland railyard. Eric Bryan, 37, of Middletown Springs and Richard E. Bates, 31, of Poultney were arrested Jan. 15 by city police responding to a call that two men were using bolt cutters on a fence at the yard near River Street and Strongs Avenue. In addition to receiving the same charges as Bryan, Bates also was charged with resisting arrest, Jan. 17.
Both pled not guilty to the charges. Bryan’s maximum penalty is 30 years and nine months in jail. He remains in jail for lack of $2,600 bail. Bates has the same, plus an additional year potential sentence for resisting; he too remains in jail for want of $1,000 bail.
Being an employer was no excuse
RUTLAND—Rutland optometrist Leif Erickson received a 15-to-42-month jail sentence for drunk driving Tuesday, Jan. 17. The severity of the sentence hinged on his conviction for DUI-4, driving without a license and several charges for violating his release conditions.
Erickson’s enrolling in an alcohol abuse rehab program in August and expressing concern about his elderly and disabled patients as well as for his employees who would be severely inconvenienced by his absence from his 44 Washington St. practice was not enough to convince Judge William Cohen to allow Erickson to remain out of jail. Cohen said he would not give a defendant special treatment because of the defendant was an employer.
The current charge was Erickson’s fourth DUI. A Rutland police officer saw Erickson driving erratically as he left a downtown bar. At the time he was waiting for sentencing on a third DUI count. In the intervening days, Erickson missed a required police check-in. He also confessed that he had imbibed at least one drink after the DUI-4 arrest.
Aldermen appeal state ruling
RUTLAND—The state claims Rutland City must reassess property values, but the Board of Aldermen have unanimously agreed to appeal the state’s finding. The difference between the two opposed positions lies in whether the city’s property assessments are close enough to fair market value.
The city last appraised property in 2006, City Assessor Barry Keefe said, explaining that the coefficient of dispersion (COD) had risen to 20 percent — that is the measure of how much the common level of appraisal (CLA) differs from the fair market value. Currently, the city’s CLA is 97.35, better than its previous score of 94.5, but the COD has become perilously close to the reappraisal threshold at 19.11. A COD of 20 or higher triggers reappraisal. The city has been putting away money every year to pay for an appraisal that seems to be inevitable. Keefe noted that the most recent reappraisal, in 2006, cost $450,000.
Keefe believes the statistics cited to arrive at the COD present an inaccurate image of Rutland’s real estate landscape. Keefe said the COD is calculated based on a three-year average of property sales, but that the sample size was unusually low due to the depressed market over the last three years. He said the sales he noticed were outliers that had an over-sized impact and that he plans to argue that they should be left out of the sample.