October 31, 2014

Williston resident receives his high school diploma at age 74

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By Jen Butson
Correspondent

A Williston resident has finally received his diploma more than 50 years after his senior year at Richmond’s now-defunct high school.

Ed Young, 74, was awarded the diploma in his former study hall — now the Richmond Town Center — during a recent meeting of that town’s Selectboard.
Young enlisted in the service when he was 18 and just a couple of months before he would have graduated high school. He said in hindsight that probably wasn’t the smartest decision.

“I was 18, what did I know back in those years?” he said.
He did earn a certificate of completion at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas, where he also trained as a medical corpsman.
Though his service in the U.S. Air Force and more than 33 years at United Technologies Inc. allowed Young to see many different parts of the world, he always knew where home was.

“I retired at 55 and I came back here for the quiet and to enjoy Lake Champlain,” he said.
George Bergin, Young’s longtime friend and former neighbor, helped facilitate the process of getting the diploma. “That’s what neighbors are for,” Bergin said.

Bergin served in the U.S. Navy for 28 years. Some of his service was during the same period Young was in the Air Force.

“We got to talking one day and it came up that Ed had joined the service during the Korean conflict, two months before he would have graduated high school,” Bergin said. “I know the kind of work that Ed did in the Air Force and felt that a guy who had risked his life deserved a diploma.”
Gail Conley, the retiring superintendent of Chittenden East Supervisory Union, agreed to help. With a bit of research, Conley found a diploma from Richmond High School, which closed in 1967, took it to a designer and had a replica made for Young. It was presented to him at a July 5 Richmond Selectboard meeting.
“I never even knew I was going to get a diploma,” Young said. “It was a top-secret surprise, though I think everyone in my whole family knew about it before I did.”
Young and his wife Carol live in Williston. Their four grown children were never told that their dad did not graduate from high school. But after Young received his diploma, family members from as far away as Hawaii sent their congratulations — belated but well-deserved.

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Town may fund Little League scoreboard to avoid advertising

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Lyons: kids and Coca-Cola don’t mix

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard appears poised to fund an electronic scoreboard for the Community Park Little League field, pulling out the town’s wallet to avoid advertising on the device.

Selectboard members seemed inclined to support the expenditure, which would cost approximately $5,000, pending word from Town Manager Rick McGuire about where the funds will be extracted from the current budget. McGuire indicated finding the money should not be a problem.

The Community Park sits on land owned by the Williston School District, but the town has an agreement with the district to run the facilities. The field where the scoreboard would sit mainly hosts Little League games.

Municipal funding of the scoreboard would allow the Selectboard to grant the Williston Little League’s request for the scoreboard without confronting the question of whether to allow advertising, specifically of Coca-Cola, on the structure. Coca-Cola had approached the Williston Little League about funding the scoreboard in exchange for having a small logo on it.

The town’s zoning ordinances would not allow the scoreboard advertising, but Mike Healey, a member of the Williston Little League Board of Directors, approached the Selectboard this summer and asked it to amend rules for Community Park. The Planning Commission unanimously recommended against the amendment.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons reiterated her opposition Monday night to Coca-Cola advertising on the scoreboard because of the nature of the soft drink, which she had referred to as “empty calories” at an earlier meeting. Lyons said she has worked with some coalitions that found there were “a lot of problems with that kind of advertising.”

“They have a negative effect on kids over time,” Lyons said.

When Lyons said she did not believe there was much support for allowing Coca-Cola on the scoreboard, Healey replied that he believed there was in fact widespread support for it. No one but Healey from the Little League has attended any of the Selectboard discussions to speak on the topic, though he attributed that to his desire to keep the discussion to a low profile.

Selectboard member Andy Mikell has been an outspoken proponent of the plan to allow Coca-Cola to purchase the scoreboard. On Monday, he expressed uneasy support for the new plan to use town money.

Mikell said the Selectboard “would still be ducking the big issue” by not deciding whether it would allow advertising at the field.

Mikell, whose children played Little League and who says he has attended numerous youth baseball games around the area, said most youth fields in the area have scoreboards with advertising from Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

“Every other town on the planet allows this,” Mikell said.

Mikell argued that the town could amend its zoning regulations to allow for the advertising and “save the town $5,000.” Healey agreed, saying it made sense to keep the expenditure, however small, off the property tax rate.

But, in addition to Lyons, Selectboard members Ted Kenney, Terry Macaig and Jeff Fehrs each seemed more inclined to use municipal funds, though there was no vote on the subject.

“Conceptually, I’m not averse to advertising if that’s the only way of getting the scoreboard, but I’d prefer to do it the other way,” Kenney said.

Healey asked the Selectboard if it would be opening Pandora’s box by funding the scoreboard purchase. He noted several other fields in town could use an electronic scoreboard. Earlier in the meeting, Mikell had wondered if other nonprofits would now approach the Selectboard with funding requests.

Kenney said the scoreboard was an isolated decision and “I don’t

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Structural problems limit traffic on Richmond bridge

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By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Add this to the summer’s commuting headaches: Structural problems on a bridge along the road that links Richmond and Williston have forced state officials to reduce traffic to one lane.

Problems with the Checkered House Bridge on U.S. Route 2, which spans the Winooski River in Richmond east of the Williston line, were discovered Monday during a routine inspection. On Tuesday, the state installed a stoplight that will restrict travel over the bridge to traffic from one direction at a time.

Richard Hosking, district transportation manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, said the closure would reduce strain on the truss bridge by halving the weight it must bear at any one time. But he said motorists should not worry about crossing the structure, which runs 40 feet above the river.

“If it was unsafe to go over, we would have closed the bridge,” he said.

The bridge, built in 1929, has been rusting for decades. Hosking said. Some rust has been removed over the years, and it was painted in 1988.

The state has been planning to fix and widen the bridge for many years. Earlier this year, state transportation officials asked for the Richmond Selectboard’s support for a $7 million repair plan.

But Monday’s inspection revealed that the bridge was in worse shape than had been previously thought, including extensive rust and cracks in the steel support beams.

“We knew there was some corrosion underneath,” Hosking said. “We just didn’t realize how severe it was.”

The bridge problems come in the middle of a massive repaving project on Interstate 89, the only other direct east-west route between Richmond and Williston. The paving, which is expected to be finished in October, involves a 16-mile stretch of I-89 from South Burlington to Bolton.

U.S. Route 2 is as an alternate route for motorists trying to avoid the paving project.

Hoskings said traffic is usually light over the bridge and on the stretch of U.S. 2 between Williston and Richmond. So commuters may find that backups due to the bridge’s lane closure are minimal.

Still, Williston Selectboard members greeted news of the bridge’s problems with dismay Monday night.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said Hosking abruptly left a meeting with town officials earlier that day after receiving an urgent call about the bridge problems.

McGuire told the board that he was informed that the problems were structural and that the bridge crossing might be one lane “for a long period of time.”

The information eliciting a chorus of groans and sighs from the board.

“It doesn’t sound like an easy fix,” McGuire said.

The state is still deciding what to do about the bridge, said Mike Hedges, structures program manager for the Agency of Transportation.

He said the state would likely do short-term repairs and later completely renovate the bridge. The long-term fix could involve building a temporary bridge and rehabilitating the original structure by using some of its original components and replacing others.

“We understand how important the bridge is to local agriculture and businesses,” Hedges said. “We’re putting together plans to repair it.”

Observer reporter Tom Gresham contributed to this story.

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Several bear sightings alarm Willistonians

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By Jen Butson
Observer Correspondent

Stephen Brown sat down to eat lunch on the deck of his Sunrise Drive home on a sunny Friday earlier this month. With his back to the wooded area bordering his backyard, he didn’t see what was coming. But his wife did.

Kim Brown walked out the glass doors to the deck. She pointed and stammered, barely able to get the word out.

“Bear!”

Stephen Brown turned to see a black bear that had moseyed up within 10 feet of him. It appeared to have no intention of leaving.
“We’re worried,” said Brown, who is on his neighborhood association’s board of directors. “It’s early in the season and we have 23 houses with a ton of kids who play in the woods and on the street.”
Brown himself has two children who were previously free to roam on the 20 acres of nature trails the subdivision shares. The family had used two-way radios to communicate with the kids, but now the children, ages 10 and 5, are not allowed to venture out of their yard alone.
“They can’t go unless I am down there with them,” he said. “The black bear is not as dangerous as a grizzly, but one swat from any 200-pound bear is all it takes.”
Black bears are mainly vegetarians, but they can attack humans if provoked. Brown and his neighbors suspect that the bear visiting their backyards is a young bear, perhaps 2 years old and weighing between 125 and 200 pounds. He speculates that the bear is attempting to find easy sources of food, like bird feed or suet because his neighbors have recently found their feeders mangled.

Steve Parren, coordinator of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s Nongame and Natural Heritage Program, agrees that the bear is probably a young male who is looking for a quick meal.
“Bears make an appearance usually in the spring or fall, when they’re food stressed,” he said. “That this one is coming out midsummer makes me think this is a young male bear.”
Brown said what worried him the most was that the bear in his backyard showed no fear of approaching a human in broad daylight. “He’s young, and its 12 noon. He showed no fear of a grown man flashing away with a (digital) camera,” Brown said.
Concern for the bear and the safety of the neighborhood are issues that Parren said should be addressed preemptively.

“It’s becoming more common than it used to be,” he said. “We need to prevent developing a bear culture that’s no longer afraid of people but rather sees people as a source of food.”
The Sunrise at French Hill subdivision where Brown lives is located on the east end of Williston off U.S. Route 2. It borders two large undeveloped tracts of land: 200 acres used by the University of Vermont as a research area and 500 acres owned by the Catamount Family Center.
Brown and his neighborhood association have taken steps to prevent any more visits from unwanted wildlife. They have posted flyers with a list of items to remove from accessible areas of residents’ yards, like bird feed or garbage cans. They notified Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire and the Williston Police Department of the bear sightings.

Williston Police Sgt. Bart Chamberlain said he has received four complaints of meddling bears in Williston this summer.

"This is the time of year when momma bears kick out the 2- and 3-year-olds," he said.

In addition to the Sunrise subdivision, bears have been spotted in Williston on French Hill and in the Meadow Ridge subdivision off South Road. Chamberlain said a bear even climbed onto one woman's porch at the Williston Woods senior housing development on North Williston Road.

"If you spot one that keeps coming back, the best thing you can do is stay inside, call us or call the Department of Fish and Wildlife," Chamberlain said.
Parren estimates that Vermont has a population of about 4,000 black bears.
He recommends keeping domestic pets indoors, leashed or fenced in. If a wild animal is spotted, keep your distance; use binoculars rather than trying to approach any wild animal.
Parren said taking simple precautions can deter a black bear encounter. Removing barbecue utensils, dog food or other edible items from lawns and decks will help prevent the unwanted guests. He also advises elevating bird feeders so they do not provide easy pickings for bears.

“They’re looking for easy food,” Parren said. “If it’s not easy, they won’t even try.”

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Selectboard reduces fine in dog bite case

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard has lowered the fine it imposed on a Williston woman for an alleged dog bite incident in April.

Michelle LeBlanc will have to pay $50 instead of the $500 originally levied. Her German Shepherd, Paco, was accused of biting her neighbor, Brooks McArthur, on April 15.

The Selectboard agreed with the argument of LeBlanc’s attorney, John P. Campbell, that the state statute governing the board’s authority in a dog bite case was “ambiguous and vague.” Campbell, a state legislator who has written some animal welfare legislation, asserted that the Selectboard only had the authority to levy a maximum fine of $50.

The Selectboard had made its original decision to fine LeBlanc on April 29. LeBlanc then appealed the decision. The Selectboard heard her appeal at a June 21 meeting.

The board considered the appeal in closed session on June 21 and a draft decision was subsequently circulated by e-mail to board members. The board met June 27 and approved the decision.

LeBlanc, a Vermont State Police trooper, also does not have to ensure that Paco undergoes obedience training — part of the board’s original set of punishments. LeBlanc no longer owns Paco. She placed the dog with someone who lives in a rural area of New York.

LeBlanc purchased the dog with the intention of having it be a police dog, Campbell said. However, Paco was not accepted into the Vermont State Police K-9 program “as a result of this incident and the surrounding publicity,” according to a letter from Campbell to the Selectboard. LeBlanc was accepted into the K-9 program.

The board also decided it will not force LeBlanc to compensate McArthur for expenses connected to the incident. Campbell said McArthur has not responded to repeated offers from LeBlanc to pay his clothing and medical expenses. Campbell told the Selectboard at a June meeting that he believes McArthur, a deputy state’s attorney in Washington County, plans to file a lawsuit against LeBlanc.

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Scoreboard puts town in a pickle

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The question of whether to allow the Little League to generate much-needed revenue by selling advertising at a Community Park field remained unresolved Monday night.

Selectboard members continued to express ambivalence about the Little League’s plans, which would include banner advertising on the outfield fences during the season and a new electronic scoreboard that touts Coca-Cola.

Little League officials received an offer from the soft drink giant last year to fund a new electronic scoreboard at the field. Mike Healey, a member of the Williston Little League Board of Directors, previously had estimated the price of the scoreboard at $10,000, but revised the figure downward to $5,000 at Monday’s meeting. In return for purchasing the scoreboard, Coca-Cola would have a small ad spaced on the board.

But the town’s zoning regulations do not allow for billboard or off-premises advertising signs. In addition, the number of signs currently in place at the Community Park field already exceeds the limit allowed in the village zoning district.

In a May letter denying the application for advertising on the scoreboard, Williston zoning administrator D.K. Johnston noted the question had come up previously when the manual scoreboard at the field was installed. The zoning administrator at the time required commercial messages on the top of the scoreboard to be painted out, Johnston said.

In response, the Little League asked the Selectboard to approve an amendment to the zoning ordinance that allows advertising at the field. The Planning Commission has voiced opposition to the amendment. The Recreation Committee previously expressed support for an electronic scoreboard, but not for advertising on a scoreboard.

Selectboard member Andy Mikell supported the idea of an amendment, saying the Little League’s plan seemed harmless and discreet to him. He said advertising seemed like a natural way to support the program, particularly without raising municipal taxes.

Mikell, who said he has frequently attended youth baseball games over the years, asserted that electronic scoreboards with advertising are commonplace at Little League fields in other municipalities.

However, Chairwoman Ginny Lyons expressed disappointment that the proposed advertiser on the scoreboard was a global soft-drink giant. She said she did not like the idea of a business that produced “empty calories and junk food” getting a prominent spot for advertising at a youth athletic facility.

“The sponsor is important,” Lyons said. “If it was a local business, like a health and fitness club, or another type of business, then I would be more enthusiastic.”

Selectboard member Ted Kenney pointed out that Coca-Cola was sold at local businesses and that the advertising would therefore benefiting them, too. Kenney also voiced concern about the Selectboard overstepping its bounds to control the identity of the advertiser.

Still, one proposal broached at Monday’s meeting was approving a zoning amendment that allows advertising at the field, while concurrently devising an administrative way to manage the advertising to ensure it fits certain standards.

The Selectboard ultimately directed the Planning Commission to draft a zoning ordinance amendment that allows advertising at the field. The board will review the drafted amendment and its other options at a future meeting.

 

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Property taxes to rise

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Rate increases by 13 cents for homeowners

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Williston residents will pay a slightly lower property tax rate than was estimated in March, but the rate will still rise substantially compared to last year.

The residential tax rate of about $1.71 is a penny-and-half lower than was projected when both the municipal and school budgets passed in March. The education tax rate accounts for $1.60, while the municipal rate produces another 11 cents. The state set the education tax rate last week.

The combined tax rate amounts to an increase of 13 cents over the property tax rate during the 2004-05 fiscal year, which just ended June 30.

The owner of a $250,000 home will pay $4,300 in property taxes under the new rate, $325 more than during the previous year.

The sharp increase comes a year after Act 68, a new education funding law that replaced Act 60, helped cut the property tax rate for all properties in town by 26 cents. Local officials said at the time the reduction was a one-time event and would be followed by a climbing property tax rate.

The education rate represents a 9-cent increase over the previous fiscal year. According to the Williston School District, about half of that was attributed to a 3 percent decrease in the common level of appraisal in town.

The CLA measures a percentage of the fair market value of property, based on sales, that is reflected in a town’s grand list. As the CLA drops, the property tax rate increases to cover the corresponding increases in property values.

Also, in the education rate increase, Williston’s share of the $19 million renovation project at Champlain Valley Union High School contributed about 3 cents.

On the municipal rate, which climbed nearly 4 cents from 8 cents, the chief catalysts for the tax hike were payments on Williston’s $6.3 million public safety facilities bond and the town’s decision to contribute $147,300 to help continue bus service in town. The municipal budget increased 15.5 percent over the previous year.

The increased municipal spending was partially offset by a rise in revenue produced by local sales and rooms and meals taxes. Without the approximately $2.7 million those taxes produce, the municipal rate would be 24 cents higher — a savings of $600 for the owner of a $250,000 home.

The non-residential property tax rate will be about $1.70 this fiscal year — a reversal from the recently concluded year, when commercial property owners paid a higher rate than residential property owners. The non-residential rate, which, unlike the residential rate, is not tied to school spending, was $1.64 during the past fiscal year. Residential and non-residential properties share the same municipal rate.

The owner of a $500,000 commercial building will pay $8,500 in property taxes this year

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Police seek saw-wielding mailbox vandal

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By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Police are still investigating an incident last week involving a vandalized mailbox that culminated with a Williston woman discovering a teenager with a hacksaw in her front yard.

Joy Karnes, who lives in Southridge, said she was awakened in the early morning hours of July 19 by her ringing doorbell. No one was at the door. She said it was a recurring problem — kids “ringing and running” in the middle of the night.

However, Karnes was also aware that they often returned to the same house after the resident had gone back to bed. So, Karnes waited by the front door and watched for a returning prankster.

When she spotted a figure crossing her front lawn, she opened the door to surprise the person. And there, standing before her, bathed in Karnes’ front door light, was a young male carrying a hacksaw — an echo of many horror movies.

Karnes said she tried to make a sound, but the fright of seeing a male wielding a hacksaw in the middle of the night rendered her speechless.

However, the teen was also clearly afraid, she said, because he turned pale and bolted. The teen did not attempt to get into the house, contrary to a Williston Police Department press release and subsequent media reports last week.

When the teen ran, he headed east through the field behind the residences on Goodrich Drive. Karnes believes she heard him calling to acquaintances, but she did not see anyone else. Released by the teen’s flight, Karnes then began to scream.

“I’ve never been that close to hysterical before,” she said.

Williston police officers searched the area with assistance from the Essex Police Department, which provided an infrared camera, and a K-9 unit from the Hinesburg Police Department. The K-9 dog lost the scent of the suspect at the pool area across the field.

Williston Officer Dan Gowans said police recovered the hat. He said officers also found that a mailbox had been cut down — the apparent reason for the suspect was carrying the saw.

The suspect is described as a white male in his late teens with dark brown hair and freckles on his face. He was last seen wearing a dark hat, a dark hooded sweatshirt with a round white logo on the back and khaki shorts. Karnes gave police a description for a composite portrait of the suspect.

Karnes showed the composite to some of her neighbors last week. She believes it was a neighborhood kid. She said there are 32 households with children between the ages of 12 and 20 in Southridge.

Multiple neighbors identified the same Southridge teenager. However, Gowans said he interviewed the teen and ruled him out because of his appearance and location the night of the incident.

“It wasn’t him,” Gowans said.

Gowans said police continue to investigate the case and hope to receive help from the public. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Williston Police Department at 878-6611.

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Police eye several suspects in thefts at Agway dealer

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John Deere riding mowers stolen from business

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Williston Police are pursuing multiple leads into a string of thefts of riding mowers from the Agway store on Vermont Route 2A.

“There are a lot of different people we’re looking at right now, but it’s safe to say that there appears to be multiple subjects involved,” said Officer Jon Marcoux said. He said police believe the stolen mowers were sold at a private sale in the area.

The most recent theft occurred July 20 when Agway reported that a John Deere Model L120 mower was stolen overnight. The mower was valued at $2,300.

Previously, Williston Police had responded to a theft complaint on May 5 at Agway, where a John Deere Model L111 mower valued at $1,800 had been taken overnight.

Milton police officers also recovered a mower stolen from Agway in June when they discovered a stolen pickup truck with a John Deere mower in the truck’s bed.

Marcoux said the two men suspected of stealing the truck are among those suspects in the lawn mower thefts. The men were cited on a charge of felony aggravated operation of a motor vehicle without the owner’s consent. The complaint alleges the suspects stole the truck and then altered its appearance.

Marcoux said police are investigating whether the thefts in Williston are connected to a series of similar thefts of riding lawn mowers at the Yandow Sales & Service store in North Ferrisburgh.

Anyone with any information about these thefts or recent private sales of new John Deere equipment is asked to contact the Williston Police Department at 878-6611.

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Merit pay supplements town employees

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Manager mulling this year’s pay hikes

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard recently approved a 3 percent cost-of-living raise for non-union municipal employees. However, those will not be the only raises for town employees this year.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire planned to make his annual decisions this week on merit and longevity pay for non-union municipal employees. The merit raises are added to the cost-of-living increases and are doled out on an individual basis. McGuire typically attempts to finalize the raises by July 1, but makes the salary hikes retroactive when he misses that self-imposed deadline.

McGuire’s deliberation impacts all full-time municipal employees, except for police officers, who belong to a union, and the town clerk, who holds an elected position. The police officers’ annual raises are determined by a contract negotiated with the town, while the town clerk’s salary is set by the Selectboard.

The Selectboard determines the total amount of money set aside for merit raises, but McGuire has the discretion to determine the merit and longevity raises without oversight from the board. He consults with department heads and reviews the performance of each employee.

He said it is important for the town manager to have the ability to manage the salaries without the Selectboard’s guidance.

“Ultimately, I’m responsible for the performance of the town employees,” McGuire said. “This gives me an important tool to reward employees for performance. I need that flexibility without the Selectboard, and the board has been very good about granting that.”

Although the bulk of eligible employees receive a merit/longevity raise, McGuire said the amounts of the raises are typically modest. For instance, last year municipal employees securing merit-based raises received additional pay of either 1 or 2 percent. In previous years, McGuire has awarded merit raises as high as 3 or 4 percent, but he said increases that large are rare.

McGuire works from a budgeted amount. For instance, he had $25,000 last fiscal year, which ended June 30, to dispense for the merit/longevity raises.

McGuire has $45,000 for the current fiscal year, but that number includes $20,000 set aside for police officers’ raises. The town and police officers’ union is currently negotiating a new contract, and the funds for the officers’ raises, which are usually their own line item on the budget, are temporarily included in the money for the merit raises.

The raises are based both on performance and the employee’s experience in a position. It is not an automatic determination with triggers for certain years of service, but an attempt to provide compensation for the value that someone’s experience in a job adds to the position and to the town.

McGuire said the town fell behind other comparable municipalities for offering competitive salaries a few years ago and consequently lost some employees. As an example, he said the staff at the Dorothy Alling Library was starkly underpaid a few years ago.

However, he said the town has caught up. McGuire said he tracks the salaries for various positions at other Vermont towns, and Williston generally falls in line with them now. Similarly, the town sets a cost-of-living raise each year based on a survey of what other municipalities are doing.

“The goal is to remain competitive because if we don’t keep up with the competition than we can’t keep quality employees,” McGuire said. “Right now, we have quality employees.”

A key aspect of managing the municipal salaries is maintaining the town’s pay grades, McGuire said. Positions are located in a pay grade based on 14 criteria, including demands on personal time, supervision exercised and financial accountability.

McGuire also has the task of determining whether a position has changed and should be elevated to a higher, more lucrative pay grade. A pay grade encompasses a span of 48 percent. For instance, the pay grade for the town manager position ranges from $54,267 to $77,979.

Employees have salaries arranged in the pay grade based on multiple factors, most prominently experience.

As an example, McGuire said the town hired zoning administrator D.K. Johnston at a salary above the median pay grade because he arrived with significant experience. By contrast, Scott Gustin, the previous zoning administrator, was hired at a salary a bit below the median because he had less experience.

Of the town’s eight department heads, four were paid last year at a salary above the median in their respective pay grades and four were paid below the median.

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