By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
RUTLAND — After a decade of population decline, Rutland City officials are beginning a conversation about redrawing the lines of its political districts, which would change voting locations for many city residents.
“Some serious adjustments are going to have to be made,” said state Rep. William Notte, D-Rutland, who represents Ward 4.
The state’s Legislative Apportionment Board redraws House and Senate districts every 10 years, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, to ensure compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court’s one person-one vote standard. State board members ultimately decide how the House districts are redrawn in Rutland and elsewhere, but Notte is beginning to meet with city officials in hopes that they’ll have a say.
“At the end of the day, of course, it’s the Legislature will have the final stamp of approval,” Notte said. “So it’s a matter of seeing what works down here, and then making certain that, if we have an option that we think stands above the others, that we bang the drum loudly for it.”
Districts around the state are facing similar challenges, according to a map from the Secretary of State’s office, and officials are hurrying to determine how to best redraw district lines while waiting for official 2020 Decennial Census data, which won’t be released until mid-August.
Based on preliminary Census numbers, Notte expects the city to continue to have four state representatives, but will need to significantly alter the shape and size of the districts, which determine where residents go to vote, the Rutland Herald first reported.
Ideally, every House district in Vermont would contain exactly the same number of residents. Typically, the apportionment board divides Vermont’s population by 150 — the number of representatives in the Vermont House.
The state allows districts to deviate from that amount by no more than 10%. One of Rutland’s districts, Ward 2, in the southeast part of the city, is “one of the most out of balance in the state,” by 17%, Notte said. Ward 3 deviates by 11%.
“There’s no way we are going to get balance and get all of our Rutland City districts in a legally acceptable limit without doing some significant shifting of households and populations,” he said.
Unless the city reverses the overall population decline, it will likely shrink to three representatives in another decade.
Notte, who said he’s been talking with other officials privately about the matter, planned to present possible changes to the Board of Aldermen on Monday night. He’s heard several preliminary options for redistricting. One involves shifting all four districts until the appropriate balances are found.
“Theoretically, they could all be at minus 9% and just slide under what’s legally viable,” Notte said. “That would require some huge shifts in lines and quite a bit of change. But mathematically, it may be possible.”
Another is to combine districts, splitting the city in half instead of into quarters, with two legislators representing each half. A third option could include transitioning some voters from Rutland Town into Rutland City districts.
Though the Legislature will ultimately decide how to redraw the districts for the city, Notte said he believes local officials should be actively involved in discussions so they can advocate for their preferred version of the new districts.
The districts will need to be ready before next summer’s primary election, putting legislators in a squeeze to use the formal Census data after it’s released later this summer.
“It’s going to be a bit of a rush,” Notte said.
He plans to introduce a bill at the beginning of next session that will propose using state funds to send postcards to every resident with information about their new polling locations.
“It’s a solid reminder for people in this community that, you know, we do need to explore every option for increasing our population,” Notte said.
To that end, Lyle Jepson, executive director of the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region, says the organization has been revamping its regional marketing initiative after taking a less assertive approach during the pandemic.
This week, the Chamber is relaunching a digital campaign called “Real Rutland” to target potential employees and prospective newcomers to the area. It’s particularly focused on the health care, engineering and education sectors already located in New England metropolitan areas.
“We’re first looking for folks that are a bit familiar with who we are and what Vermont is all about, and then we’ll branch out from there,” he said. “We anticipate getting in front of about 500,000 people using a digital campaign.”
With funding from municipalities and businesses, the Chamber is also advertising a package to the first 30 people who qualify; it includes things like ski-lift tickets at Killington, memberships to MINT makerspace, restaurant gift certificates, and airline tickets to Boston. That’s on top of a statewide initiative that gives remote workers up to $7,500 to move to the state.
Jepson said the initiative has been relatively dormant, but still, it’s drawn nine families, a total of 30 people, to Rutland since November 2020. He said he’s actively following up on 163 more leads.
Notte said the marketing campaign is one of several measures the city can take to grow the population, including relocating refugees and asylum seekers, monitoring the availability of land and real estate prices, which are soaring across the state, and taking advantage of new railway connections.
“No one of those options is going to be our golden ticket,” he said. “I think we need to work on all of them, and we will need to work on all of them diligently.”