September 30, 2014

2006 in Review

Share

Observer staff report

Williston was in the spotlight statewide and nationally on more than one occasion during 2006. Here are a few of the highlights.

HULETT DECISION

When a Williston man was sentenced on Jan. 4 to a minimum of 60 days in prison after pleading guilty to repeatedly sexually assaulting a young girl, the case raised national eyebrows. District Judge Edward Cashman handed down the sentence to Mark Hulett, 35, in order to secure sex offender treatment for him. Cashman said that the Vermont Department of Corrections put him in a “dilemma,” because its classification system allowed only high-risk sex offenders to be treated while incarcerated.

Local and state officials expressed anger at the decision, and the sentencing made national news headlines. Critics demanded Cashman’s resignation and decried the state’s sex offender laws.

Cashman resentenced Hulett to 3-10 years in prison three weeks later after the Corrections Department changed their policy and allowed sex offender treatment programs in prison for “lower-risk” sex offenders like Hulett.

Another man was also convicted and sentenced for assaulting the same girl. Derek Kimball, 34, of Hinesburg was sentenced this month to 12-50 years in prison.

SCHOOL SPEAKERS

It divided the community more than perhaps any other issue in 2006.

Two speakers from Outright Vermont, a gay youth organization, had been invited to speak to seventh and eighth graders at Williston Central School on March 23. They were to be the first speakers in a series on anti-harassment issues. At an informational meeting just prior to the event, a small group of parents pleaded for a community conversation before proceeding, though parents had been allowed to “opt-out” their children. In response to the emotional meeting, District Principal Walter Nardelli canceled the event.

Nardelli, in his first year as an administrator in Williston, came under fire. Letters to the editor and phone calls and e-mails from as far away as California criticized him for the decision.

In the weeks that followed, and at a special board meeting on April 3, the community had its conversation. The majority of those who spoke publicly pleaded that the Williston School Board support the event as originally scheduled. The Board agreed.

In an upstairs classroom on May 12, speakers Kate Jerman and Connor McFadden, the originally scheduled guests, spoke with students without incident. The remainder of the series was not pursued; administrators say bullying and harassment issues need to be integrated into daily curriculum.

DRIVE-THRU VOTE

Williston residents voted from cars, motorcycles and bicycles. Two election workers wore in-line skates and an air of joviality pervaded the day.

The special vote on June 6 – a sunny day with clear skies – authorized an additional $1.24 million for construction of a new police station and a new fire and rescue station. Voters had the choice of driving their cars through the abandoned fire station or of walking into a separate room to vote.

The approach drew national attention. Town Clerk Deb Beckett appeared on FOX news. Local CBS news reporter Darren Perron did a segment that aired on CNN national news.

The approach also drew dismay from some, like University of Vermont political science professor Frank Bryan, who said the fast-food approach demonstrated a loss of community and democracy. Some residents chided the town for contributing to greenhouse gases.

In the end, 19 percent of Williston voters turned out for the vote, five times more than the last special vote in 2002. And it was the traffic on U.S. 2, backed up from the corner of Oak Hill Rd. – a daily occurrence on workdays – that caused any backup at the drive-thru polls.

POLICE AND FIRE/RESCUE STATIONS

The construction of a new 23,000-square-foot fire and rescue station at the corner of Talcott Road and U.S. 2 began this summer. Demolition of the old fire station, adjacent to Town Hall, made room for a new 13,000-square-foot police station. Both projects are on schedule, according to Project Manager Tom Barden. The fire and rescue station is scheduled to open in May, the police station in June.

In 2004, voters approved $6.8 million for the project. Barden estimated construction costs had risen about 15 percent since the 2003 estimates on which the plans were made. Voters on June 6 approved (733-537) an additional $1.24 million to cover those rising costs.

Williston police officers say the project, which will quintuple their space, will improve officer safety and privacy for crime victims, among other improvements.

The Williston Fire Department, with a building twice its current size, will be able to house all of the town’s 16 fire and rescue vehicles; alternate storage areas were needed with the smaller old fire station.

Since May the fire department has been working out of a small building adjacent to the village green to allow for construction of the police department.

REGIONAL LANDFILL

In August the Williston Neighborhood Coalition introduced itself. The group of residents from area neighborhoods announced their opposition to a regional landfill that has been in the works since 1992. That year Williston and other Chittenden County residents approved the construction of a landfill on Redmond Road, the current location of trash transfer facilities. Also since then the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the landfill’s planner, has been engaged in a legal battle for the land on which the landfill would be built.

In the last several months, members of the WNC have expressed their frustrations. They’ve said they were unaware of the potential landfill, adjacent to the planned location of the Circumferential Highway, when purchasing their homes. Some of these homes are within a quarter mile. Residents have expressed concerns about property values, health and the environment.

Solid waste district officials have said the planned landfill has much higher levels of environmental safeguards than Vermont’s current landfills. District officials also have said Chittenden County should take care of its trash locally, instead of shipping it off to Coventry and Moretown. A local, publicly owned landfill also would cost less, they’ve said.

It’s possible this topic could end up as one of Williston’s top stories for a few years to come. Waste district officials have said the landfill could open, at the earliest, in 2011.

[Read more...]

CVU budget draft at $19.5 million

Share

Increases considered in coming weeks

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Champlain Valley Union High School administrators introduced the 2007-2008 school year draft budget last week.

The initial working budget rings in at roughly $19.5 million, a 3.5 percent increase over this year’s budget. The bulk of the proposed increase is in teacher and staff salaries and benefits; those increases are only estimates since next year’s teachers’ contract is under negotiation.

The working budget is not likely to be the final total, however. From now until Jan. 15, when the board expects to adopt the budget, CVU School Board members will consider adding eight full- or part-time teaching or teaching assistant positions. Three operational areas – two new school buses; replacement of a roof built in 1994; and a heating system for what is known as the annex building – also will be discussed.

“The decision packets are really around ‘what can we do for the kids whose needs we aren’t meeting today?’” Board Chairwoman Jeanne Jensen said. “The deliberations are going to be around ‘you can always do more, but what’s affordable?’”

At the top of the list of considerations are two new full-time reading positions – one teacher, and one assistant teacher known as a paraeducator – for students struggling in reading but who do not qualify for special education services. Currently CVU employs one half-time reading instructor.

“We have strong test scores compared to the state averages, but we still have kids who can’t read at grade level,” Jensen said. The proposed new reading instructors, who would come at an estimated cost of $90,000 in salaries and benefits, would address those deficiencies, she said.

Also in the area of reading is a proposed special education reading instructor at an estimated cost of $68,000. CVU Principal Sean McMannon said the state would reimburse about half the cost for that proposed position, as well as a proposed paraeducator in the Lewis Creek language-based learning disabilities program.

Both of the positions could mean a cost savings for the school, McMannon said; alternatives include costly day school placements or outside tutoring services. Not adding those positions may mean more students failing language-based classes, according to the written budget request.

Other proposals include new part-time positions in science, business, and family and consumer sciences. A new half-time science position would reduce the number of students per 10th grade class; at 26 students each, 10th grade science has the biggest sections, McMannon said. The addition also would ensure a variety of science choices for 11th and 12th grade students.

Though officials predict a declining enrollment three or more years from now, McMannon said that shouldn’t preclude staff additions now.

“If we reach the declining enrollment numbers that are projected, there are going to have to be some reductions,” he said. “But we’re trying to meet the needs of students next year and the following year so they can be as prepared as possible.”

CVU High School serves students living in Charlotte, Hinesburg, Shelburne, St. George and Williston. Taxpayers in each of those communities pay a portion of the budget based on the number of students their respective towns have enrolled there.

 

 

[Read more...]

Bad bathrooms bring school budget proposal

Share

Students plea for improvement

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The students’ squeaky-clean appearance clashed with the ugly pictures on the screen.

Stained toilets, exposed pipes, and broken ventilator covers were among a dozen pictures set to ominous-sounding music that seven middle school students showed the Williston School Board last week.

Both Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby and District Principal Walter Nardelli said they have never seen students present on the budget in their combined decades of school board experience.

The students explained the extent of problems in Williston Central School’s 38-year-old upstairs bathrooms in hopes the school board will take action in their budget planning process under way this month and next. About 200 students, faculty and staff use the bathrooms, the only ones on the second floor.

Problems are numerous, the students said: Faucets leak; sinks have been retrofitted to try to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements but do not meet code; some stall doors do not lock.

“I know some people try to avoid going to the bathroom at school,” student Rachel Distler said after the presentation.

Rachel’s mother, Lynn Distler, chimed in: “I’ve heard other parents say they don’t want to send their kids to Full House or Phoenix (House) because of the bathrooms.”

The Great Bathroom Renovation project, as the students called it in their presentation, stemmed from a persuasive essay assignment by language arts teacher Tracey D’Amato last year. Essay topics included allowing cell phones in school, starting school later and allowances. The “hot topic,” D’Amato said, was the bathrooms.

“The bathroom papers generated a lot of discussion, so much so, that we spent an entire class brainstorming what was wrong and what could be done about them,” D’Amato wrote in an e-mail. “That’s when the students wondered if they could share their papers with the school board.”

D’Amato handed the papers off to Nardelli who in turn shared them with the School Board last spring. Members of the board subsequently toured the bathrooms. Students became hopeful the bathrooms might be fixed as a result, D’Amato said.

“When all the students came back in the fall, they were frustrated that nothing had happened to the bathrooms over the summer,” D’Amato said. “They kept asking ‘what else can we do?’”

Students formed a committee and met Wednesdays after school to come up with a presentation and a formal budget proposal, according to D’Amato.

During the presentation the foreboding music shifted to “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang as students presented their solutions. Based on their own research, under the guidance of D’Amato and art teacher and trained architect M.C. Baker, the students showed the School Board their vision’s new fixtures.

“Don’t worry, we don’t expect a chandelier,” student Joe Castano said, smiling, as a picture of a fancy bathroom flashed on the screen.

A complete renovation could cost up to $145,000, Baker told the board. Baker should know: An architect by training, she has worked with schools on renovation projects before. Renovating in phases, she said, is possible but ultimately could be more expensive.

The fate of the bathroom renovation proposal will be decided in January when the school board prioritizes the list of possible budget additions. Last year, 21 potential budget additions totaling over $400,000 were considered by teachers, administrators and the School Board; but only a few made it into the final budget.

[Read more...]

Proposed budget up 10 percent

Share

Property reappraisal postponed

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

A $7.4 million draft operating budget was presented by the town to the Selectboard on Monday night, representing an increase of about 10 percent over last year’s budget. Notable additions to this year’s budget are two new town positions: a clerical position in the Police Department, and an administrative position in the Public Works Department.

Meanwhile, the Town Assessor told the board that the planned statistical reappraisal of town property values was being postponed, due to a leveling off of the housing market.

The proposed property tax rate for the new budget is $0.24 per $100,000 of assessed value, an increase of 33 percent.

The draft budget reflects a snapshot of the town’s needs and revenues right now, but Town Manager Rick McGuire pointed out at the meeting that several things could change in the near future that would add to the budget, and potentially the tax rate.

LANDFILL FUNDS

As proposed, the draft budget includes anticipated money from the Chittenden Solid Waste District – about $300,000. The town has received approximately that much from the District for the past several years as part of the town’s agreement to host a regional landfill. However, over the last few months, many residents have voiced opposition to the proposed landfill, prompting the town to enter into talks with the District to try and buy out of the agreement. If successful, the town would not only not receive money from the District, it would have to pay back millions of dollars to the District.

McGuire and Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi have met with District representatives twice regarding the buy out. Sassorossi said at their meeting on Monday morning the District offered the first hint of the potential payback amount.

“The only number that we’ve heard about is legal fees and engineering costs – $2.8 million,” Sassorossi said. “That’s the first number.”

She said they would meet with the District again in a couple of weeks.

LOCAL OPTIONS TAX

Williston’s 1 percent local options tax is estimated to bring in nearly $2.9 million dollars in Fiscal Year 2008. McGuire reminded the board that beginning Jan. 1, a new state law will take effect as part of a national effort to streamline state sales taxes. The changes include a new 6 percent tax on beer, but no tax on clothing or footwear. The draft budget assumes a $25,000 increase in revenue from the 1 percent local options tax, but that won’t necessarily happen under the new laws, McGuire said.

“Putting this all together, we just have no way of knowing how this is going to affect our revenue source. We’re kind of caught here,” McGuire said. “It could have a dramatic impact on our budget, if we guessed wrong.”

NEW STAFF

A new clerical position for the police, and an administrative position in the Public Works Department have been added to the budget for next year. Police Chief Jim Dimmick also requested two more positions for the police, McGuire said in his budget transmittal letter to the Selectboard, but those were not included. Other future potential staff additions include an assistant in the Town Manager’s office, and additional firefighters to staff an ambulance service. Currently the town is looking into an ambulance study to investigate the need for such a service.

REASSESsMENT POSTPONED

Earlier this year, the board of listers proposed doing a statistical reassessment of property values in Williston, in order to avoid the “sticker shock” that some other communities have faced recently. Some homes in South Burlington and other nearby towns were presented with appraisal increases of 100 percent or more this year.

Traditionally reappraisals happen once every 10 years in order to keep the appraised values of properties in line with the state’s Common Level of Assessment (CLA). The CLA is the relationship between the appraised value of a property and its actual market value. The state requires towns to conduct reappraisals when the CLA falls below 80 percent. Williston’s last full reappraisal was in 2002. However, the listers guessed that a state reappraisal order for Williston was imminent, so they decided to recommend a limited revaluation, only visiting a percentage of homes in town.

Town Assessor Bill Hinman said the listers had decided to start a reappraisal this fall to be proactive.

“What we didn’t know was that the market was going to soften,” he said.

Hinman said between April 1 and Aug. 15, the market increased by about 2 percent, but then from Aug. 15 to October, values decreased by 2 percent.

“Because the values have leveled off, there’s no need to reappraise,” he said.

Recently, some homeowners have expressed worry that the values of their homes would decrease because of the planned landfill off Redmond Road. Hinman declined to speculate as to whether the fall off in the housing market was related to the landfill.

“The listers’ office is aware of the concerns of property owners concerned about the landfill,” Hinman said, “and it continues to monitor market trends which would require action of the listers’ office.”

Hinman said the office has received about 12 landfill-related appeals from Williston property owners.

The board of listers will monitor sales trends and meet again in the spring to discuss the revaluation.

[Read more...]

Learning center approved by town

Share

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

An educational center for children with learning disabilities easily won approval last week from the Williston Development Review Board.

The board voted unanimously to approve a conditional-use permit for the Augmentative Learning and Movement Center. It will be located in an existing building at the intersection of James Brown and Wentworth drives, which are off Vermont 2A north of Taft Corners.

The board expressed few reservations about the facility during its Nov. 28 meeting.

“It sounds like a great project,” said board member Cathy O’Brien, noting the recent media focus on autism, which will be one of the learning disabilities treated by the facility.

The Augmentative Learning and Movement Center will provide “therapeutic and education services as well as behavioral medicine for individuals with learning disabilities with a special focus on autism,” according to the permit application. It will accommodate a maximum of eight children and employ between six and 10 staff members. The center will be open between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. most days.

ALMC works with local school districts to provide the many additional services beyond the standard curriculum often required by students with learning problems. Those services can include physical therapy, psychological counseling and speech therapy.

ALMC can help public schools with such students by “integrating educational, therapeutic and medical programs in the school setting and in the community,” its Web site says. The center also offers evaluations, training and workshops for school districts.

The Augmentative Learning and Movement Center also operates facilities in Morrisville and Enosburg. Those locations include an independent private school, but the Williston facility will not offer a standalone school.

Margaret Novotny, ALMC’s executive director, said after last week’s meeting that she already knows of a number of local children with learning disabilities that may use the Williston center’s services. Novotny plans to open the facility in January.

[Read more...]

Local landfill: Does Vermont need it?

Share

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Opponents to a 66-acre Chittenden County landfill planned for Williston have posed the question repeatedly: Does Vermont need it?

Solid waste officials agree the state’s landfills have capacity for about the next 15 to 20 years. That capacity may come at a cost, however, financially and environmentally, according to the landfill’s planners.

Vermont’s landfill capacity

Vermonters last year dumped into the state’s landfills in residential trash alone the equivalent of roughly 1,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets, loaded with over 400 passengers and their luggage – more than 430,000 tons. Chittenden County was responsible for about one third of that.

Coventry and Moretown receives most of the state’s trash, as the homes of the state’s two major landfills, though a hefty one-third of Vermont’s total residential trash went out of state in 2004, according to the Waste Management Division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts landfills shared the bounty.

Williston boasts the only potential new Vermont landfill, according to state records. Two unlined landfills that can accommodate 1,000 tons a year operate in the towns of Bristol and Salibury; the solid waste districts in Hartland and Sheldon are permitted for landfills, but they are not planning to build anytime soon, according to the state.

If the current rate of state trash continues, and current permit applications are approved, both Coventry and Moretown are on tap to accommodate it for roughly the next two decades, according to their on-site managers.

Beyond that is anybody’s guess, they say. The Moretown landfill, owned by North East Waste Services, sits on 250 acres, according to general manager Tom Badowski, and at most 20 percent of that would be filled over the next two decades. Only 10 percent of the 1,000 acres Rutland-based Casella Waste Management Inc. owns at the Coventry landfill has been used or will be used in the next 20 years.

“I think there are always plans (to expand), but it’s not necessarily up to us because it’s so far in the future,” said Joseph Fusco, Casella Waste Management vice president for communications. “Suffice it to say there’s significant capacity for the state of Vermont for many years to come.”

The costs

Money is one factor the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the entity planning the landfill on Redmond Road in Williston, points to when explaining why a local, publicly owned landfill makes sense.

District estimates indicate a regional landfill in Williston – owned by the District, a nonprofit municipality – would cost consumers 25 percent less in fees alone. To have private companies collect, transfer and dispose of Chittenden County trash costs about $12.7 million a year, the District estimates. The local landfill would save about $3 million a year.

That doesn’t include the costs – financial and environmental – to Vermont roads and air. Diesel-fueled tractor-trailers haul each year the equivalent of 233 jumbo jets in weight to Coventry in the Northeast Kingdom, a 73-mile trip on mostly back roads. The remaining trash makes its way to Moretown, 35 miles away.

Local opponents have argued truck traffic will not change if Williston hosts a local landfill; they contend the for-profit landfill companies will just truck trash in from out of state to pay the bills. Landfill officials had two different responses.

“We like Chittenden County’s waste, but it’s not life or death for that facility by any stretch,” Casella’s Fusco said of the Coventry landfill. He said the company probably would not seek out-of-state trash. “There’s plenty of market opportunity, if you will, in the state of Vermont.”

Badowski at Moretown’s landfill said otherwise.

“We’re always looking to grow our business as any company does,” Badowski said. “If trash is taken away through the Chittenden Solid Waste District, inevitably we’d have to look other places to replace that.” In or out of state would be possible markets, he said.

Environmental protection

The cost of not building a local landfill may also come environmentally, says Tom Moreau, district manager for the Chittenden Solid Waste District.

Though both Coventry and Moretown landfills meet Vermont state standards, neither meet the stricter environmental regulations of New York state, Moreau said, but the Williston landfill comes much closer.

There are three primary differences between what is planned for Williston and the state’s current landfills, according to Moreau: a two-foot layer of clay, recirculation of leachate, and active gas collection systems. The two-foot layer of clay beneath the liner serves as extra insurance should the heavy plastic liners be punctured, Moreau said, offering added protection for groundwater.

Also the Williston landfill, instead of extracting leachate – or “garbage juice” – and taking it to a wastewater treatment plant, would re-circulate it within the landfill. This is important, Moreau said, because the U.S. does not have treatment standards for certain elements – like some pharmaceutical drugs, for example. Since they are not regulated, he said, they can be released into the Winooski River or lakes even though their effects are not known. Re-circulating leachate, on the other hand, allows those organic elements to break down and become inactive over time.

Finally, Moreau said, the Williston landfill would capture methane gases released from the decomposition of trash far more aggressively than what is done at Coventry or Moretown. This is better for Vermont’s air, he said.

Vermont state statutes require that municipalities assume responsibility for their own solid waste.

“If we’re going to be responsible for it… (and) if you can lower your risk by putting in more environmental controls, and it’s not going to cost more, wouldn’t you want to do it?” Moreau asked.

Raising the bar

Moreau said the solid waste district would have one less reason to pursue a local landfill if Vermont’s landfill regulations required Coventry and Moretown to add more environmental protection. That would require legislative action.

“Of course we would want to have the very best protection for our environment,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee. “I think it’s not a bad idea if we make the requirements stronger. The question is always what is the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the bottom line.”

The committee’s work schedule is tight for the upcoming legislative session, Lyons added; climate change and water oversight are big topics on the agenda.

Encouraging waste reduction would be easier under local control, Moreau said, since the nonprofit solid waste district has no financial incentive to ignore new waste reduction technologies that come along. Local control is possible through other avenues, however, like franchising, Moreau said; if the District allowed companies to bid for trash collection, it could maintain control over the trash, requiring new technologies to be used prior to landfilling.

Moreau said if those reasons were not issues, economics would be the primary remaining driver for the push for the local landfill.

“If it just came down to economics, I have no idea where this county would come down,” Moreau said.

Some in the county have already decided. The Williston Neighborhood Coalition, a resident organization formed to oppose the project, announced last week they have received the first of what they hope will be many funding grants. New England Grassroots Environmental Fund awarded the group $1,500.

Those funds, and any others, will be put toward one purpose, according to Craig Abrahams, one of the coalition’s founders: “To fight the landfill.”

[Read more...]

State to begin HIV rapid testing

Share

Chittenden County has 43 percent of Vt. HIV cases

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Vermonters soon will have more access to rapid testing for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Local experts say the option may increase the number of people who get tested, accelerating medical attention for carriers and decreasing the likelihood of their infecting others.

The State of Vermont Department of Health plans to begin a rapid HIV testing program before the end of the year, according to Rob Lunn, director of the state Department of Health HIV/AIDS/Sexually Transmitted Diseases program. Current tests offered through state-sponsored sites require a two-week wait for results; the rapid test, an oral swab, yields results in 20 minutes.

Lunn said staff training is scheduled this week. He expects at least one state-sponsored site in Burlington will begin rapid testing before the year’s end, with expansion to more sites in 2007.

The wider availability of the testing – 25 years after AIDS was first documented in the United States – may help increase the number of people who seek testing, some local officials think.

Vermont CARES, a Burlington-based provider of services to HIV-positive individuals, has been the only agency in the state offering rapid testing. The organization first offered the service on World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) a year ago. Prior to rapid testing, Vermont CARES had only one or two HIV-positive diagnoses each year, according to Kelly Brigham, program director. Since last December, the agency has seen six HIV-positive diagnoses. The state, during the same time period in more than 40 locations, has had only one positive diagnosis, according to Matthew Pettengill, the state’s HIV/AIDS Surveillance Coordinator.

“I think a lot of people didn’t want to wait two weeks,” Brigham said. “Word is getting out – (the rapid test is) oral, no blood involved, free, completely anonymous. The goal is to reduce any barriers to people getting tested.”

As of the end of September, 438 Vermonters were known to be living with HIV or AIDS, according to the state’s HIV/AIDS surveillance program. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates another 25 percent, or 110 Vermonters, are HIV-positive but do not know it. Forty-three percent of Vermonters living with HIV/AIDS reside in Chittenden County.

Brigham, who has worked at Vermont CARES for five years, said she’s observed more people moving to Vermont already HIV-positive than people being diagnosed in-state.

That is the case with Jan Lund, 43, who was diagnosed HIV-positive in Connecticut 20 years ago. A former resident of Williston and Burlington, Lund now lives in Kirby, Vt., and volunteers for Vermont CARES. Serving on the agency’s speakers’ bureau at schools and in homeless shelters, Lund said she believes there still are misconceptions about HIV/AIDS in Vermont.

“There’s a lot of preconceptions about whether somebody is HIV positive just by the way they look,” Lund said. “…There’s still a lot of confusion as to the different ways you can catch HIV.”

In Vermont, 82 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are men, according to state data; 18 percent are women. Among men, sex with men is the most common cited way of exposure (58 percent); among women, heterosexual contact was the most frequent (44 percent). For both genders, intravenous drug use accounted for 12 percent of transmissions.

Brigham said another misconception is that people are not dying from AIDS.

Of the approximately 125 clients Vermont CARES serves each year – and the agency is just one of several Vermont AIDS services organizations – between 10 and 20 clients die each year, Brigham said.

Still, many people, like Lund, live with a positive diagnosis for years. Services therefore need to reflect that reality. Brigham said many clients struggle with low incomes as well. Housing is a top concern among a number of clients, Brigham said, especially in Chittenden County where affordable housing options are lacking.

Lund said her limited financial resources have not hindered the quality of her medical care, but have affected the ease of access to care. When she lived in Chittenden County, she had to take two or three buses to get to her doctor’s appointments, she said.

“Being on HIV medications, that’s a struggle because you get tired really easy,” Lund said.

Vermont has one of the lowest incidence rates of HIV and AIDS in the country; as of 2004, Vermont ranked 48th in the nation with 3.2 AIDS cases per 100,000 people.

Lund said it is hard to know why Vermont’s HIV/AIDS incidence rate is so low. Even with other sexually transmitted diseases, state director Lunn said, Vermont’s rates are lower than surrounding rural states like New Hampshire and Maine.

“I don’t think we can say why Vermont is different, we just are,” he said.

According to United Nations data, about 39.5 million people are living with HIV globally. Nearly 10 percent of those were new infections in the last year. An estimated 2.9 million people died of AIDS around the world in 2006.

HIV/AIDS Resources

[Read more...]

Whitney Hill ownership changing

Share

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

New ownership is in the offing for Williston’s oldest senior apartment complex.

Whitney Hill Homestead is currently owned by a partnership formed when the 44-unit complex was built in the early 1990s. The partnership includes Housing Vermont, a statewide organization, and Williston Elder Housing, a community-based nonprofit.

But now that partnership is in the process of transferring ownership to Cathedral Square Corp., a Burlington-based nonprofit that manages and develops affordable housing throughout Vermont. Cathedral Square has overseen the day-to-day management of Whitney Hill since it was built.

In a letter to the town, Kenn Sassorossi, president of Williston Elder Housing, said Cathedral Square would be the ideal owner.

“We want to assure you that Whitney Hill will remain an affordable housing resource,” Sassorossi wrote. “The affordability restrictions put in place by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board will remain in effect. More importantly, the nonprofit Cathedral Square Corporation is in the best position to operate Whitney Hill – not just to comply with the rent and occupancy requirements – but also meet the needs of our seniors.”

Williston Elder Housing considered becoming the sole owner of Whitney Hill, Sassorossi said in an interview. But the organization concluded residents would be better served by Cathedral Square because it has the financial resources and expertise to operate the complex.

“Our hearts said yes but our heads said no,” he said.

The sale will simplify ownership and allow debt on the project to be refinanced at a lower interest rate, Sassorossi said. It will also provide more money for upkeep.

Williston Elder Housing always contemplated eventually selling the complex, he said. When Whitney Hill was built, Merchants Bank invested in the project and received tax credits under a federal low-income housing program. The bank has now met the program’s obligations, clearing the way for a sale.

Cathedral Square Corp. also manages Eagle Crest and Falcon Manor, two newer senior apartments complexes in Williston. Representatives from the nonprofit could not be reached for comment.

A task force from Williston Federated Church explored ways to bring affordable senior housing to town in the 1980s. Whitney Hill Homestead resulted from the group’s efforts.

The complex, the first of its kind in Williston, is an independent living facility exclusively for people 55 and older. Apartments have one or two bedrooms and rent for between $572 and $895 per month.

Twenty-nine of the units rent for the lower amount and fit the official definition of affordable housing, Sassorossi said. Those units will continue to be affordable, he said, most into perpetuity.

Whitney Hill, located off U.S. 2 in Williston Village, was designed to mimic an extended farmhouse, with porches, courtyards and common areas. Most apartments have outside entrances that face open spaces. The complex offers a variety of recreational, cultural and social activities.

The announcement of Cathedral Square’s pending acquisition of Whitney Hill came as the housing development celebrated its 15th anniversary on Friday. The original residents – 10 are still there – were recognized during the event.

Among them was Dot Howe. In an interview Monday, Howe said she enjoys the atmosphere of Whitney Hill, which offers the camaraderie of a relatively small number of residents and the privacy of a rural setting.

“It’s just a nice place to be,” Howe said. “As long as you can drive, you can go anywhere.”

Sassorossi said tenants will see no change as a result of the ownership transfer, noting that most know of Cathedral Square through its onsite property manager.

“From the residents’ perspective it will be a seamless transition,” he said.

The sale was originally slated to be completed next month. But problems with renewing a state stormwater discharge permit will delay the closing, Sassorossi said. He now expects the sale to be completed by the end of 2007.

[Read more...]

Town takes step toward growth center designation

Share

Program could help pay for new streets

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston has moved closer to receiving growth center designation, a state program that could help the town pay for infrastructure improvements around Taft Corners.

The Vermont Downtown Development Board last week designated part of Williston Village as a village center. The area includes the portion of the village closest to U.S. 2 between Old Stage and North Williston roads.

The approval “is an important step” on the way to getting growth center designation for the Taft Corners area, said Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis.

If Williston wins approval as a growth center, the town could become eligible to use tax increment financing to pay for improvements such as new roads. Town officials have proposed a series of grid streets around Taft Corners to better handle current traffic and future growth.

Tax increment financing is a mechanism for financing debt for infrastructure improvements. Public projects such as new roads increase the value of property and attract more development. The additional property taxes generated by the growth are used to repay the debt.

The program also relaxes rules under Act 250, the state’s land-use law, allowing developers to more easily receive permits for projects in the designated area.
Williston’s pattern of development has been atypical for a Vermont town. The central village has little commercial development. Meanwhile, the area two miles away around Taft Corners has become a regional shopping destination.

That configuration may make it tougher for the town to qualify for the growth center designation. The law requires growth centers to be contiguous with village centers.

The program permits exceptions for towns with geographic or natural barriers between two areas. In Williston, town officials hope the state will consider the wetlands along the two-mile stretch of U.S. 2 to be such a barrier.

Joss Besse, coordinator for the Vermont Downtown Program, said it would be “premature” to say if Williston’s unusual configuration will prevent it from receiving growth center designation. The program’s governing board has yet to finalize rules.

The village center designation comes with its own benefits. It allows property owners in the district who improve or renovate their buildings to qualify for tax breaks.

The provision, however, may have a limited effect in Williston because it applies only to property used for commercial purposes. Only a handful of businesses exist in the village.

Though property owners converting a residence to commercial use could qualify for the tax breaks, strict zoning permits only certain types of businesses in the village and so would likely limit growth.

The law establishing the growth center program was passed by the Vermont Legislature during the 2005-06 session. The bill was written in part by Sen. Ginny Lyons-D, Chittenden County, a Williston resident who chairs the Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

The program is intended to prevent sprawl by maintaining the state’s historic pattern of development, which concentrates growth around villages and keeps open land in outlying areas.

Williston’s interest in the program could be considered ironic. After all, the Taft Corners area is often cited as a prime example of sprawl.

But Nellis pointed out that the town has made strides in recent years to prevent sprawl by encouraging dense, environmentally friendly development around Taft Corners while limiting growth elsewhere.

“Whatever you might think of the past, that was then and this is now,” Nellis said.

The growth center program is competitive, limiting the number of towns that can qualify for financial incentives. South Burlington and Colchester are among the towns that have expressed an interest, Besse said.

The Downtown Development Board will hold a public hearing on the program on Monday, Dec. 11 at 1 p.m. at the National Life Building in Montpelier.

Comments at the hearing will help guide the rule-making process for the program, Besse said. The goal, he said is to start accepting applications by March.

[Read more...]

School budget draft: $15.8 million

Share

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

School administrators introduced the baseline budget for the 2007-2008 school year to the Williston School Board last week.

The draft budget stands at $15.85 million, up about 7 percent over this year’s budget. Administrators consider this a “baseline” budget because it includes no new programs or positions outside of what is required by special education laws.

The final budget for Williston School District approved by voters last March for the current academic year was a 7.55 percent increase over the previous year. Williston School District serves students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. A separate budget is built for Champlain Valley Union High School, the public high school available to Williston residents.

Over the next five weeks, the Williston School Board will learn about potential additions. An aggressive renovation of the upstairs bathrooms at Williston Central School, for example, will be on the list of considerations, as will a new set of safety measures including a card entry system and security cameras. This week parent representatives of Families as Partners, a parent-teacher organization, are expected to give their feedback on how to prioritize potential budget additions. Teachers and administrators also will prioritize the list prior to the board making final decisions next month.

About 50 percent of the draft budget increase is in salaries and benefits outside of special education. Annual salary increases for staff like librarians, nurses and custodians are set by a contract that went into effect last year. The coming year’s teachers’ contract is under negotiation; the current contract is set to expire in June. A 5.88 percent increase for teacher salaries and benefits in the budget is an estimate only based on past years.

The other approximately 50 percent of the draft budget increase is in special education programs and staffing, which include contracted salary increases and additional paraprofessional educators and a new position.

“It is not a blip,” District Principal Walter Nardelli told the board, explaining that the number of students with learning and physical disabilities in Williston schools is growing. “It’s two years (in a row) we’ve seen the same numbers. Where other schools have 5 or 10 at the most in EEE we have over 40.”

EEE is Early Essential Education, a federally mandated preschool program for students with disabilities. Williston’s EEE population is disproportionately higher than other schools in the supervisory union, though no one can be certain why, beyond speculation of the program’s strong reputation.

When the number of children enrolled in EEE increases in one year, it is a multi-year commitment to increases in special education spending. As the students leave preschool, many still require the same services in kindergarten, and minimally into first grade. First grade and beyond, because they are full-day programs, unlike preschool and kindergarten, create increased demand.

“There’s a rippling effect as they come through the system,” Nardelli said.

Special education is on the agenda of the Board’s Dec. 14 meeting. On Jan. 4, the board is scheduled to prioritize potential budget additions. Revenue and tax implications will be the focus of the Jan. 11 school board meeting; the board expects to adopt a new budget at its Jan. 18 meeting.

[Read more...]