On October 22, 2015

News Briefs: Rutland Region

By Lani Duke

Downtown economic picture is encouraging

Foot traffic is up in downtown Rutland, according to the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, 73 percent higher during a week in November 2014 than it had been two years before — 8,765 compared to 5,052. Other numbers also seem promising. In July 2014, the same counting device registered 10,217 pedestrians for a given week — during the Friday-night-downtown series.

There are also more new downtown businesses than ones that have closed. There are relatively few available downtown spaces, probably pretty close to the 10 percent ideal that Downtown Development theorists say you need for a viable business community. They say a 10 percent vacancy rate means there are small spaces available for people to get a toehold in which to expand and also larger spaces in which current businesses can expand.

Act 46: Statewide rumblings

The State Board of Education plans to ask the Legislature to fund three new positions to administer the state’s new education consolidation law. Some $200,000 seems to be the annual price tag for the threesome — a legal advisor, a staff support person, and a facilitator to work with school districts as they merge and report to the board. One additional staff person has already joined the Education Department to help with the transition.

However, there is already a gathering movement to repeal 46. Consolidation seems like a worthy end in many instances, but being forced into it within a two-year period or take whatever the state dishes out seems more like racketeering than consensus building, many argue.

Act 46: Rutland schools

Trimming more than half a million from the Rutland City Public Schools budget will result in lost jobs. Even spending only as much as last year will cost the school system, according to chief financial officer Peter Amons, who said that inflation alone adds $1.24 million to the budget.

To meet the Act 46 spending caps, the system must shake $600,000 from its budget. How to distribute the cuts is tricky because they must be distributed among three contracts: teachers, school-level administrators, and support staff. Amons described the lengthy process from setting a budget to finding out the tax rate in an Oct. 13 meeting with the School Board. Allowable growth is determined by how much the district spent per equalized pupil the year before — Rutland City is allowed to grow its budget by $637,082 for the coming year. The current year’s budget is $49.5 million, but more than double that is eaten by inflation. The state calculates the education tax rate using the per-pupil cost, a process that may require months.

If a given expense is below the cap, its addition adds a penny to the tax rate; however, that one-penny increase becomes a two-penny increase if the budgeted amount exceeds the cap. Amons, therefore, is under pressure to keep the budget below the cap.

Rutland City’s size alone, more than 2,000 pupils, saves the city the necessity of consolidating under the strictures of the new legislation. A deeper evaluation might show advantages to merging with nearby districts that lack compatible partners, Board member Hurley Cavacas Jr. suggested. Rutland City schools could then be eligible for tax incentives.

The choices seem clearer for the Rutland South Supervisory Union, comprising Clarendon, Shrewsbury, Tinmouth, and Wallingford. Its officials have drafted a plan to merge into a single district that would operate its four elementary schools and the Mill River Union High School, as a Regional Education District. Elementary students could attend the school of their choice before funneling into Mill River.

The final report is to be in the hands of each RSSU board to gather their comments in October, with the potential to be in the state Act 46 office by Nov. 1, and potential for review and approval in mid-December. The timeline then unrolls into public forums in January and February, and goes before voters during Town Meeting Day.

Some speculate that Tinmouth voters may prove a stumbling block because Tinmouth students may now attend the middle and high school of their choice; others dismiss the thought with the observation that 90 percent of Tinmouth students have chosen to attend Mill River.

If all member towns approve, the new single, unified district may become reality by July 1, 2016. If one town withholds approval, the approving towns may form their own district. But lack of approval by two towns would necessitate a reset, with the plan declared unworkable. Given a district of three or four towns, member towns would enjoy tax incentives for four years while retaining their small schools grant. Those grants are a major contribution to keeping school doors open in Shrewsbury and Tinmouth, together receiving $167,269 as schools with an enrollment of less than 80. Yet another plus for the new district if it is approved by July 2016, it is exemption from Act 46 spending caps in the 2016-2017 school years, and also for the 2017-2018 academic year  if the new district is operational by July 1, 2017.

Act 46: Chittenden and Mendon

Neither Chittenden nor Mendon grade schools desire to leave the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union to join Rutland Town in the Rutland Central Supervisory Union. However, RNESU officials have offered putting the shoe on the other foot, saying that Rutland Town might leave RCSU, according to Chittenden board member Elizabeth Stahura.

Chittenden and Mendon and the school they share, Barstow Memorial School, need not expand beyond that threesome under Act 46. They can become a single district, meet the strictures of Act 46, and still keep their school choice at the high school level.

As the law now stands, choice and non-choice schools may not merge, and Act 46 cannot force a school to give up allowing students their choice of school. But the state would block Rutland Town’s leaving RCSU because doing so would leave partner schools West Rutland and Proctor with an unviable solution. The loss of Rutland Town would pull the RCSU numbers below 900; with no neighboring partners, it would be forced to dissolve.

As Casella’s annual meeting approaches

Locals had been concerned about rumors that a proxy fight loomed at Casella Waste Systems’s upcoming annual meeting scheduled for Nov. 5. Those rumors showed the Casella organization how much the community cares for this company, a firm that originated with one man and one truck wanting to give his neighbors better waste pickup and disposal service.

There are three open seats on the nine-member board of directors, company spokesperson Patrick Reynolds said. Open conversations have resolved what seemed to be potential conflicts. The company has a strong slate of candidates with a career-long experience in waste management who are ready to help lead the company as it simplifies and streamlines its operations, reducing exposure to risk and improving financial performance toward long-term growth and profitability.

Bridge construction continues

Work on the Dorr Drive bridge is switching over to a four-day work week, Monday through Thursday, 10 hours a day. Traffic may take on an alternating one-way pattern depending on the work being performed.

During the next few weeks, work will include fencing installation and resetting the historic stone wall.

At the Ripley Road bridge construction site, crews are building the first pier. The cofferdam has been sealed and 100 percent dewatered.

Fluoride flexibility?

Rutland City’s Board of Finance is the wrong audience to consider a 540-signature petition proposing the question of water fluoridation in front of local voters, mayor Chris Louras told representatives from the Rutland Fluoride Action group at the Board’s Oct. 14 meeting. The group objected to the Board’s accepting a bid of $2.89 a gallon for 3,000 gallons of fluorosilicic acid, a year’s supply, from Monson Companies of Leominster, Mass. The objection grew as much from terminology as from the disapproval of adding the product altogether.

The Department of Public Works had considered substituting a different product, pharmaceutical-quality flouride, but decided to continue with the initially approved supplier. RFA representative Jack Crowther characterized the Monson product as “hazardous waste from a fertilizer plant in Florida” that presumably must be inferior to a chemical worthy of inclusion in a pharmaceutical product. Public Works commissioner Jeff Wennberg objected to use of the “hazardous waste” descriptor, saying that each fluorosilicic acid delivery is chemically analyzed.

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