June 18, 2019

School budget, safety proposal defeated

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston voters on Tuesday rejected the proposed local school budget and soundly defeated a proposal to expand fire and emergency medical services. Just 24 percent of registered Williston voters handed down those decisions to the other 76 percent.

The $7.2 million town budget squeaked through and Chittenden South Supervisory Union towns endorsed the $19.6 million budget for Champlain Valley Union High School. A host of town and school officials, all running unopposed, were elected.

“It’s really shocking,” outgoing Williston School Board member Andy Bishop said of the defeat of the Williston schools’ budget Tuesday night.

Board member Darlene Worth agreed the results were “a big disappointment” and said the new board – which convenes next Wednesday at 5 p.m. – will have to go “back to the drawing board.”

“(We’ll be) trying to figure out what to do without destroying programs, and trying to get the people in who are dissatisfied,” Worth said.

Roughly half of the proposed budget increases came in staff salary and benefit increases, while about half were in special education services.

“I don’t see how we can cut special education,” Worth said. “Everything will have to be on the table. That could mean class sizes increasing if there had to be significant cuts.”

The proposed $15.9 million budget was a 6.1 percent increase over the current budget in the amount spent per student. Due to a recommended accounting change (Medicaid-related expenses were listed for the first time in the expense side of the budget, even though there is an equal amount in revenue to offset it), the overall budget increase appeared to be 7 percent. Last year, Williston voters approved a 7.5 percent increase by a 69-vote margin. This week 56 percent of voters rejected the budget, 720-912.

The Williston School Board will schedule another vote for April or May, Worth said, and meetings to gather more input.

Some voters offered their thoughts as they left the polls Tuesday evening.

Giving a thumbs-down gesture with both hands, Williston native Marc Lemire said he voted no to everything.

“We’ve just got to stop raising our taxes, that’s all,” he said.

A man who preferred to remain anonymous said tax increases are “a hard pill to swallow,” but that he supported the school budget.

“I heard some of the presentation by the school last night (at town meeting) and I was impressed,” he said.

After the results were posted, resident Sue Powers told CVU School Board member Meg Hart-Smith and Williston School Board member Andy Bishop why she thought the local school budget failed.

“You don’t listen,” Powers told them. “So what’s the point?”

“Have you come to any school board meetings?” Bishop asked her.

“Yes, years ago,” Powers responded.

“Now, have you come to any of these school board meetings?” Bishop asked, emphasizing the word “these.”

Powers said she had not.

“Then we can’t be listening if you don’t show up,” Bishop told her.

For taxpayers who don’t have their own health insurance, Powers told them, teacher health benefits in particular are “a raw spot.”

“I think it’s ridiculous the percentage teachers have to pay,” Powers told Bishop and Hart-Smith. “They should pay much more.”

Under the current contract for Chittenden South Supervisory Union teachers, including Williston and CVU High School, teachers contribute ten percent of the premium cost of a one-person, two-person or family medical insurance policy. The current contract expires in June. A new contract has been under negotiation since November, but neither teachers nor school board members may publicly discuss how those negotiations are progressing according to an agreement, Bishop said, though they can listen to input.

Williston was the only school budget this week to face defeat in the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. Though Williston saw a higher proposed budget increase than neighboring towns, Williston also is the only town in the supervisory union without declining enrollment.

This is only the second year in at least the last 30 – if not in Williston’s entire history – that Williston voters rejected the school budget. In 2003, when the state saw a record number of school budget rejections in part due to the state’s education funding law, Williston voters twice voted down the budget.

Fire/EMS Proposal

By a more than 3-2 margin, Williston voters rejected Town Article 9 which, had it been approved, would have authorized the town to create its own ambulance service and add six full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians to the town payroll.

“I’m sick of paying taxes,” lifelong Williston resident David Martel said, adding that he voted “no” to everything. “They could have bought an ambulance for the cupola they put on that fire (building).”

Martel was referring to the new fire and rescue station on U.S. Route 2 that is toward the end of construction.

Martel, who has teenagers, said he’ll never be able to retire in Williston nor will his kids be able to afford to live here. Town decisions – from the kind of desks and computer monitors purchased for town employees to amenities in the new public safety buildings — are like having “champagne taste on a McDonald’s salary,” he said.

Sarah Bunning, who lived in St. George seven years before moving to Williston more than a year ago, said she supported the fire and EMS proposal.

“I think Williston, as it’s growing, needs more of a fire and rescue presence,” Bunning said.

Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton said 200-300 people passing by the Fire/EMS information table this week were asked if they wanted to volunteer to be a firefighter or first responder.

“Goose egg. Nobody. Not a single person put their name down,” Morton said. “I hope in those cases they went in and voted yes for Article 9 because if you can’t serve on the fire department or EMS and you also don’t support having at least a baseline staff…” he trailed off.

Currently full-time firefighters cover fire calls Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; volunteer firefighters handle calls nights and weekends. Williston on-call first responders volunteer for shifts to respond to medical calls nights and weekends and some weekdays. St. Michael’s Rescue provides Williston’s primary ambulance service.

A federal grant would pay all of the salaries for the first two years, and part of the salaries in years three to five. The remainder of the initiative was to be paid for by ambulance service revenue and property taxes. In the initiative’s most expensive year, town officials estimate it would cost homeowners $20 per $100,000 of a home’s assessed value.

Tuesday’s vote may not be the last word, however. Under state law any resident may request reconsideration – either an identical or modified proposal — with a petition of 5 percent of registered voters. In this case, that’s 340 voters. There is no required margin to reverse the vote; a simple majority could carry it.

[Read more…]

Potholes or new pavement?

Transportation chief promotes road repairs

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Neale Lunderville is on a mission.

Lunderville, who heads the Vermont Agency of Transportation, has for the past few months visited local media outlets to spread word of Gov. Jim Douglas’s road maintenance initiative.

“ Vermont’s Road to Affordability” calls for the state to give maintenance of existing bridges, culverts and pavement priority over new road projects.

Lunderville sat down with the Observer for an hour-long interview covering that topic and local concerns such as the Circumferential Highway and the long-delayed Williston park-and-ride. Here are some excerpts:

Observer: Can you update us on the status of the Circumferential Highway? The last we knew the consultant working on the environmental review had delayed choosing a design.

Lunderville: They are continuing to do all the different studies of those alternatives. We anticipate there being a draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) in the coming months.

Observer: Can you hazard a closer guess about when that will be completed?

Lunderville: For the draft, no (chuckles). We anticipate it will be out before summer. That’s as close as I’ll get.

Observer: We wondered because the reason for the delay seemed a little vague.

Lunderville: In some ways, the Environmental Impact Statement is a lot more than just a study of the environmental factors. It is a litigation defense document. We’re studying everything so closely and in such a detailed way because we know that we’re going to end up in court having to defend this.

Observer: How do you know that?

Lunderville: At every stage of this – I’m going back in history – we’ve had a lawsuit. And the recent history is a great teacher for that.

The out-of-state environmental groups will come back once again and try to challenge us on the Environmental Impact Statement no matter how much we study this. They will want to try to stop this project as they have on an ongoing basis throughout the life of it.

So we’re studying everything. Every piece is being done in a detailed, technically complete way so that when we end up before the judge again we’ll be able to defend the final alternative.

Observer: The Williston park and ride facility closed in 1995 because its location near the interstate created a traffic hazard. But wasn’t it a mistake to close it without having a plan to open another one in Williston?

Lunderville: Park and rides are very important all around the state. We’re looking to really double the number of spots we have out there.

I’m from the area and, believe me, I know a park and ride in Williston is very important. The Richmond park and ride gets a lot of use, and I think some of the use they get is probably folks from Williston that might go to a Williston park and ride.

So you look at these things in balance: Do you want to expand Richmond or build one in Williston? I know broadly, in the agency, park and rides are a priority because they are being well utilized. Certainly, Richmond is at 106 percent capacity. So you know we could take some of the pressure off that by doing some other projects.

Observer: Williston officials complain that grants and funding for things such as paving projects have failed to keep up with increasing costs of asphalt and other materials. Does the state recognize the problem and are there plans to increase funding?

Lunderville: I think there is a recognition that construction costs are going up faster than our revenue is going up. That said, our overall transportation budget proposed for fiscal year ‘08 is going down 4 percent. So we’re not playing with a whole lot more money inside of our budget.

But some areas are going up. In fact, a lot of our line items reflect our realigned priorities to focus on system preservation, to focus on maintenance.

Certainly, towns do a big part of that. That’s why, to the extent we could, we tried to keep that at least level funded.

Observer: The Williston exit to Interstate 89 seems to be working smoothly since the state added a lane on the ramp. But town officials have said the state really needed to also add a lane on Vermont 2A. The problem is the overpass is too narrow, so it would need to be widened to accommodate the extra lane. Is there any talk of taking this project on, with its estimated $20 million cost?

Lunderville: The short answer is no. New, big projects like that are ones we have to look at and evaluate very carefully. We don’t have the money.

The root of our whole Road to Affordability proposal is we have an infrastructure that is deteriorating faster than our ability to fix it. We have to put our existing maintenance needs in balance with new projects like the one you mentioned.

Observer: Is there a number attached to the governor’s road maintenance initiative? In other words, how much money do you want to shift from maintenance to road building?

Lunderville: Our bridge and culvert maintenance efforts are going to be increased 89 percent in the budget the governor proposed. And our maintenance efforts overall are being increased.

We’ve got all these bridges, these culverts, these roads that we have to take care of. We have to fix them, we have to do the preventative maintenance on them, and it hasn’t been done. And this is not a problem that happened overnight. It developed over 20 or 30 years.

Observer: You’ve got a Legislature filled with people from towns that have projects they’d really like to see completed. How realistic is it to expect you’re going to get a budget that’s going to fit these new priorities?

Lunderville: It’s that kind of thinking that got us into the problem we’re in today. That said, I’ve had great response from the Legislature.

The House and Senate committees understand the real challenges our infrastructure is facing around the state. While there are district-by-district concerns about projects, I think they are beginning to understand that we need to take a more system-wide perspective on the problem and make the sacrifices today.

We’re not saying to build no new projects. We’re saying let’s get the balance right.

If we don’t make those hard decisions today, in five or 10 years, we’re not going to have any money to spend on any projects outside of fixing the failures on our existing system.

[Read more…]

Selectboard: Two seats, two familiar faces

Compiled by Kim Howard
Observer staff

Selectboard candidates Jeff Fehrs and Ted Kenney are well acquainted with the responsibilities of Selectboard members; both have served one or more terms in Williston.

The Selectboard is a five member elected board. The board is responsible for setting the town policy direction, passing ordinances, setting the tax rate, reviewing the budget, and supervising the Town Manager, among other tasks. The budget before the voters this year is $7.25 million.

What follows are edited responses to questions posed to the candidates; their full responses can be found at www.willistonobserver.com

Jeff Fehrs

Running for: Three-year term

Selectboard experience: 8-9 years

Williston resident: 20 years

Personal passion others may not know about: bicycling, skiing, hockey

What unique contributions have you made to the Selectboard?

All Selectboard members contribute something unique. Perhaps mine is trying to ensure we make sound, well-informed decisions. I tend to ask a lot of questions. I do this because I am both interested but also want to make sure I fully understand an issue. At times I play the role of “devil’s advocate” to help ensure we understand the various sides of an issue. As a Selectboard member, I think of myself as being socially progressive but fiscally conservative. Hopefully I have helped Williston provide the services residents want or need while keeping our municipal property tax reasonable.

What is one issue that has yet to receive sufficient public attention that the Selectboard should tackle in the coming year or two?

One big issue is I feel is below most residents’ radar-screen is stormwater. My understanding is at least some, perhaps most, developments will be required to build and maintain expensive stormwater treatment/retention facilities. It sounds like the overall costs could be staggering. Williston will need to make decisions about who pays and how much – should we let each development deal directly with the state, or should we create some sort of new utility that will combine resources and jointly deal with the state, or some other option?

What responsibility does the Town of Williston have to actively seek creation of affordable housing options?

Legally, probably none. Morally, I believe the Town needs to be proactively involved. Overall, Williston benefits from being a diverse community. I hear stories about new town staff not being able to afford to live in Williston, which just isn’t right. Or folks having to drive to Williston to work in retail. Our Town Plan already identifies affordable housing as a priority, now we need to make sure we provide appropriate incentives or other tools to encourage, if not facilitate actual projects.

What responsibility do you believe Williston residents have to reduce the volume of trash they produce?

First, I need to disclose I work for the Solid Waste Program within the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. 

Overall, all Vermonters need to reduce the trash they generate. The amount of trash we generate is increasing and this trend needs to change. Everyone needs to buy and live more responsibly, reuse more, recycle more, compost more, etc. But that said, there is only so much we as individuals can do and we also need government to do more. Municipalities and/or solid waste districts can improve programs, and the state and federal government needs to take more of a leadership role. Ideas like a national bottle bill or packaging reduction legislation need to stop being just ideas and become policy.

What is one vote you have cast while a member of the Selectboard that you would now cast differently and why?

Probably there is more than one … 

In 2001 (I believe it was then), I voted to adopt the Town Comprehensive Plan because I supported the process used to develop the Plan, and to support the Town staff and residents who had spent countless hours working on it. I don’t regret my vote, but I wonder if I should have voted “no.” I still worry about the Plan’s vision for the Taft Corners area. The vision is supposed to include a pedestrian friendly downtown, but I worry the reality is the density, types of development, and resulting traffic means the area will be anything but pedestrian friendly or feel like a downtown.

What else should Williston residents know about this election?

Williston needs more folks willing to run for the Selectboard.  On the one hand, it made my life easier running unopposed.  But on the other, I believe Williston suffered overall because having candidates running against each other brings out the issues, good discussion, and hopefully good election results. But that said, I also believe both Ted and myself are running for the right reasons – we are interested and experienced, we ask questions, we vote “no” when appropriate, and most important, we act in residents’ and the Town’s best interest.

Ted Kenney

Running for: Two-year term

Selectboard experience: Two years

Williston resident: Eight (raised in neighboring Richmond)

Hobby/personal passion others may not know about: Star Trek; Batman comic books

What unique contributions have you made to the Selectboard?

 I am hesitant to talk of “unique contributions” because, thanks to the two chairpersons I have served under, the Selectboard blends different perspectives and talents very well. I hope I contribute some unique experiences through prior service on the Planning Commission and the School Board, and my on-going attempts to listen more than I talk. 

What is one issue that has yet to receive sufficient public attention that the Selectboard should tackle in the coming year or two?

Our ability to plan and keep a sustainable town budget. It’s tempting to agree to fund every good idea that comes along. The aspect of these good ideas that always needs additional public attention is how much new spending will be called for year after year if they are approved. 

What responsibility does the Town of Williston have to actively seek creation of affordable housing options?

The town has a major responsibility to provide opportunities for developers to create affordable housing. With the salary of the average Williston police officer, firefighter, or municipal employee, buying a home in the town you serve is nearly impossible. We need more housing to meet the needs of middle-income families. The Selectboard recently heard from Williston Interfaith Affordable Housing Task Force about a planning grant that would study the viability of this kind of development. I am favorably disposed to the grant and to the concept in general. 

What responsibility do you believe Williston residents have to reduce the volume of trash they produce?

 We have the same, major responsibility everyone on earth has. We have to have a better ratio of trash to recycling for multiple reasons. 

What is one vote you have cast while a member of the Selectboard that you would now cast differently and why?

There may be many. The one I immediately think of is my vote to make it illegal for Williston firefighters to smoke tobacco while off-duty. Last year, I lost my mother, a 50-year cigarette smoker, to emphysema. My dad, a smoker since his early teens, died of cancer in 2001. I do not smoke (although I do have a cigar about four times a year), and I am vehemently opposed to smoking. But smoking is legal. I should have voted in favor of job-related performance standards that, if met, qualify the employee for continued employment. I should not have voted to restrict an employees’ off-duty freedom to engage in otherwise legal behavior. 

What else should Williston residents know about this election?

I was very torn about whether Williston should fund its own ambulance service or continue with our combination of advanced first aid from Williston-based EMT “First Responders” and ambulance transport by St. Michael’s College Rescue. The federal funding we would receive for an ambulance will only last a few years; the town will have to pay the entire cost of the service thereafter. The benefit of getting to the emergency room faster is very significant; the permanent increase to our property taxes would be very significant, too. I am curious to see how the vote turns out on Town Meeting Day.

[Read more…]

School Board candidates face moral and fiscal decisions

Compiled by Kim Howard
Observer staff

When Holly Rouelle and Deb Baker-Moody were elected to the Williston School Board on March 7 last year, they could not have foreseen that a month later they would have a front seat at one of Williston’s biggest controversies of 2006.

For five hours on April 3 they, along with colleagues Marty Sundby and Andy Bishop, sat before an impassioned group of more than 250 people, dozens giving testimony on a school administrator’s decision to postpone speakers from Outright Vermont, a local gay youth organization.

April 3 was Rouelle and Baker-Moody’s second school board meeting.

School board members often work with seemingly little attention from the public, if typical school board meeting attendance is any indication. Yet these public officials have enormous responsibilities.

Just as with last April, they must listen and act when parents, students or other members of the community express anything from minor concern to outrage over a procedure or a decision, an action or lack of action on the part of any given teacher or administrator.

They also are responsible for overseeing enormous budgets. The Williston School District budget proposed for next year is nearly $16 million. The Champlain Valley Union High School budget – of which Williston pays 35 percent — tops $19 million. Both are more than double the town budget.

Four candidates are running for four positions – two each on the CVU High School Board of Directors and the Williston School Board of Directors. What follows are edited responses to questions posed to the candidates.

Champlain Valley Union High School (CVU) Board of Directors

Two candidates running for two positions


Running for: Three-year term

Williston resident: almost 10 years

Children: Kate, a CVU junior; Ben, a CVU grad and freshman at Crane School of Music

Profession: Construction & customer liaison for Homestead Design, Inc.

Hobbies: Music, gardening, sudoku

Experience: 3 years CVU School Board; 2 years Williston School Board

Of your time on CVU board, what are you most proud of the board having accomplished?

…We’ve completed the $18.4 million dollar expansion and renovation of the building (on time and under budget …) and we’ve hired Sean McMannon as Principal…

What is the biggest issue the CVU board will face in the next three years? How should the board address it?

After years of enrollment increases, CVU is forecasted to lose 100 students in the next five years. We need to plan now for the impact on our budget and program. We need to maintain and enhance the quality of a CVU education with less revenue while being responsible to the taxpayers of our community. … The board needs to hear from the public regarding their priorities for CVU’s future.

Teacher contracts for 2007-2008 and beyond are under negotiation. Considering salaries and benefits, are CSSU teachers fairly paid, overpaid or underpaid for what they are asked to do?

CVU is filled with quality educators, many with advanced degrees, and each year we ask more from our teachers and schools. I believe that the salary level of our teachers is commensurate with their education and the demands of their jobs. However, I believe that teacher benefits, particularly health care, need to more closely match those of the surrounding community. Increased co-payments and additional contributions for family coverage should be phased in.

What is your stance on the Education Commissioner’s proposal to reduce the number of school boards in Vermont?

(Our) Supervisory Union has seven boards serving five towns and six schools while South Burlington has one board serving their city and five schools. Clearly the way we operate places greater demands on our administrative staff but at the same time it creates an opportunity for greater involvement by community members. … We also have five unique communities and there are logistical and “control” issues that would need to be sorted out before the kind of union board we have overseeing CVU could work for all of our schools. Individual assessments, tax rates, and Common Level of Appraisals in each town complicate the financial aspect of consolidation. …I hope more residents will weigh in with their thoughts and attend our meetings – 7 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at CVU.


Running for: Three-year term

Williston resident: 11 years

Children: 2 children at CVU, a junior and a freshman

Profession: Financial operations manager at IBM

Hobbies: Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and my fabulous mother/daughter book group!

Experience: 4-1/2 years on CVU Board

Of your time on the CVU board, what are you most proud of the board having accomplished?

Having served on the facilities committee during the renovation project, I am most proud of our ability to deliver the $18.4M project on time and under budget.

What is the biggest issue the CVU board will face in the next three years? How should the board address it?

In the next three years CVU will begin to experience the declining enrollment now being felt in Shelburne, Hinesburg and Charlotte. The challenge for the board will be to reduce costs while continuing to provide the same high quality education we provide today. Over the next year, the board must work with the community, students and school leadership to find ways to balance priorities while protecting taxpayers

Teacher contracts for 2007-2008 and beyond are under negotiation. Considering salaries and benefits, are CSSU teachers fairly paid, overpaid or underpaid for what they are asked to do?

This summer, the Vermont Business Roundtable published a report on school costs. According to the report, school teachers in Vermont are not overpaid compared to their peers nationwide; in fact we are ranked 30th out of the 50 states. We ask a lot of our teachers: at CVU a teacher sees on average 125 students each semester. In addition, they serve on committees, participate in professional development, coach clubs or sports and are alert to the health and wellbeing of the students they see each day. On the other hand, the rate of salary increase of 4, 5 or even 6 percent is unaffordable to the community, and I do believe teachers need to contribute to the cost of health insurance as most Vermonters already do.

What is your stance on the Education Commissioner’s proposal to reduce the number of school boards in Vermont?

In theory I support the Commissioner’s proposal. In the CVU School board we already have a successful working model of a Supervisory Union board. The CVU board is made up of representatives from four of our communities; each member representing his or her community but first and foremost working toward the good of students. I do have concerns about the implementation of his suggestion: specifically, how the tax rate will be affected and how we will ensure continued community involvement in school governance. As Chairman of the CVU Board, I intend to take an active role in influencing these decisions.

Williston School District Board of Directors

Two candidates running for two positions



Running for: Two-year term

Williston resident: almost three years

Children: Sophia, 2nd grade, Williston Central School; Nicholas, four years old

Profession: Stay at home mom; previously a medical assistant for 7 years in a San Francisco doctor’s office

Hobbies: knitting, skiing, gardening, music, do-it-yourself home improver, spending time with family and friends

Why are you running?

I am running for the school board to become more involved in my community, specifically my children’s education.

Qualifications: I am passionately involved in my children’s education.

Although this is my first experience in local government, I feel this is a fantastic opportunity to educate myself as well as better my community. I did also serve on the board of my daughter’s preschool in San Francisco, Calif.

What about Williston schools would you most like to see change?

I would like to continue to unify as well as equalize Williston Central School and Allen Brook School.

Teacher contracts for 2007-2008 and beyond are under negotiation. Considering salaries and benefits, are CSSU teachers fairly paid, overpaid or underpaid for what they are asked to do?

I do feel that CSSU teachers are fairly paid and I also support the teachers. It is my understanding that a negotiations team is working on the teachers’ contracts and I believe they will come to a fair agreement.

One year from now, Williston school officials must present a long-term plan for Allen Brook School to the Development Review Board. That school’s trailers are permitted only through 2010. Do you support building onto Allen Brook, moving Williston or St. George students to other schools with declining enrollment, or some other solution?

At this time, I believe the best way to handle the ABS trailer situation would be to add permanent space onto Allen Brook School. There are so many different and wonderful programs being offered to our children, we simply need more space for these opportunities to take place.



Running for: Three-year term

Williston resident: 8 years

Children: Cortney 1st grade and Kyle 2nd grade, both at Allen Brook School

Profession: Vermont State Aviation Operations Officer/MEDEVAC Instructor Pilot

Hobby: Home improvement

Why are you running?

When my children became school aged, I felt it was time to … get involved with their lives and our schools. … Working on the school budget committee helped me understand the process of funding our schools. … I decided to run and seize the opportunity to continue to give back to our exceptional community.
What are your qualifications?

I qualify as a teacher; however my classroom is slightly different. As an instructor pilot, my classroom is a cockpit and differs greatly from conventional classrooms, however the fundamentals of learning are the same. Budget management and many years working in the information technology field further qualifies me. I’m an excellent listener and rapidly turn thoughts into action. Also, I am currently serving on the Williston schools facilities committee.

What about Williston schools would you most like to see change?

I feel CSSU should continue the process of revamping the technology within the schools.

Teacher contracts for 2007-2008 and beyond are under negotiation. Considering salaries and benefits, are CSSU teachers fairly paid, overpaid or underpaid for what they are asked to do?

Our teachers are asked to do a great deal for our children and our community. Without a doubt CSSU cadre are some of the finest in the state and I feel they should be compensated accordingly. On the other hand, the State of Vermont needs to take a harder look at how we are funding schools. The burden of property taxes is oppressive and it needs to be dealt with now. Property taxes are increasing much faster than the incomes that people are earning to pay the bills. Act 60 should be reworked; maybe changing the mix of taxes that pay for schools—rather than reliance on property taxes, the money could come from income tax.

One year from now, Williston school officials must present a long-term plan for Allen Brook School to the Development Review Board. That school’s trailers are permitted only through 2010. Do you support building onto Allen Brook, moving Williston or St. George students to other schools with declining enrollment, or some other solution?

I support completing the other half of ABS, depending on how we fund it.

[Read more…]

Sales tax revenue sets record

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Sales tax revenue flowed into town coffers at a record rate in the final quarter of 2006, putting Williston on pace to easily meet budget projections for a key source of municipal funding.

The town received $894,374 from the tax for the three-month period ending Dec. 31, according to state figures released last week. Williston adds a 1 percent local option tax to the state’s 6 percent levy on sales.

But town officials aren’t exactly celebrating, despite the fact that the latest number is the highest quarterly total since the town enacted the tax five years ago. They are wary of the often volatile revenue source and of new rules that could alter how much Williston collects for the last half of the fiscal year ending June 30.

“The problem is the change in state law,” said Town Manager Rick McGuire. “If we didn’t have that, I could probably give you a pretty good estimate.”

McGuire was referring to rules governing what is taxed and whether an item is subject to the town’s 1 percent levy. Starting Jan. 1, new state regulations exempted some items that were formerly taxed and taxed items that had been exempt.

More significantly, the state has signed on to a national effort to standardize sales tax collections. Taxes are now based on a purchase’s destination.

Under the rules, when someone buys an item in Williston but has it shipped elsewhere, Williston cannot collect the local tax. But when an item is purchased in another town and shipped here, Williston receives its 1 percent cut.

How the new rules will affect sales tax revenue is especially important to Williston, which is one of only a handful of towns in Vermont authorized to collect a local option tax.

Sales tax revenue accounts for about 40 percent of the town’s current $6.7 million municipal budget. The tax has been a boon for homeowners, allowing the town to greatly reduce its municipal property tax rate.

The town projected it would receive $2,650,000 in sales tax revenue for the fiscal year. With the final two quarters still to go, Williston has received $1,713,481.

If the town enjoyed another quarter like the last, it would nearly meet the projection with three months still to go in the fiscal year. But figures show a steep decline in sales tax revenue each year from the fourth quarter, which includes the holiday shopping season, to the following three-month period, a slow time for most retailers.

For example, in the first quarter of 2006, the local levy brought in $275,628 less than the previous quarter. Quarter-to-quarter comparisons in previous years show similar revenue decreases.

Still, Susan Lamb, Williston’s finance director, was cautiously optimistic that the town would meet revenue projections. Williston finished each of the previous four fiscal years with a surplus of sales tax revenue. And the town collected about $1.3 million from the local option tax in last year’s final two quarters.

“We’re pretty confident we’ll reach the budget amount,” Lamb said. “But of course you never know for sure, so you have to be conservative.”

[Read more…]

Williston man faces domestic violence charges

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

A Williston father, recreation basketball coach and public access television show host pleaded innocent last week to charges of domestic violence allegedly spanning the last nine years.

Kaseen S. Smith, 31, of Williston was arrested on Feb. 20 on charges of aggravated domestic assault, aggravated sexual assault, and domestic assault. While Williston Police Detective Michael Lavoie was fingerprinting him, Smith also allegedly assaulted the officer in an attempt to get his gun; he was charged with aggravated assault of a police officer.

Smith pleaded innocent to all charges at his arraignment last week, and is being held without bail. Smith was previously charged with a domestic assault in Binghamton, N.Y., on May 6, 1998, according to a police affidavit.

Smith was a basketball coach with Williston Recreation this fall, according to Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan. Finnegan said the department found no flags on Smith in a Vermont criminal background check.

“(Smith) was very highly regarded among the coaches and the kids playing on his team,” Finnegan said. “So (the allegations) came as a shock to everybody.”

On his Web site, Smith says he has his own public access television show “KA Live.”

On Jan. 22, Smith’s girlfriend removed their two children from Williston Central School, and fled the Williston home she’d shared with Smith, his legal wife, and six other children, according to the police affidavit. (The Williston Observer does not name survivors of domestic violence.) Smith reported the girlfriend missing the same day, and later reported she had kidnapped the children; the woman is in hiding, according to police.

“The victim fears for her life and has taken measures to be safe,” the affidavit reads.

In a 16-page affidavit, police reported details of interviews with the girlfriend, as well as Smith’s legal wife, a caseworker from the Department of Children and Families, and two of the girlfriend’s former co-workers, among others.

Interviews with witnesses indicate Smith was extremely controlling, according to the police affidavit.

“Smith would attempt to control her every movement,” the police document reports a witness said. Each day at work, the girlfriend had three breaks. “The accused Kaseen Smith would require her to call him at the beginning of each break, and have her stay on the phone until the end of each break.”

The abuse, which allegedly had gone on over nine years, had become “much more violent and more frequent,” the girlfriend told police in a phone interview, according to the affidavit. “Acts such as not closing the cupboard cabinet correctly, or not answering the phone quick(ly) enough were some examples given of what disappointed the accused.”

“(She) described events that started with pushes and escalated to harder pushes to the head, and eventually became severe beatings to the head…and extreme emotional abuse,” the affidavit reads. She was hit with his hands, the affidavit continues, walking sticks, and small exercise weights.

The accused also allegedly forced her to stand in a corner where the children could see her; forced her to eat her own contact lenses; forced her to eat old food until she threw up; poured candle wax on her; put out cigars on her; and poured maple syrup on her nude body and forced her to go into the woods.

Last month, the girlfriend sought refuge through Women Helping Battered Women and later contacted the Department of Children and Families to report the abuse. The Department of Children and Families removed the six remaining children, ages 1 to 10 last week, Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick said. A representative from the Department of Children and Families said she cannot comment on the case.

Dimmick, who conducted the police investigation, said police are still seeking witnesses.

“She’s been in Williston for a few years here; people may have seen things,” Dimmick said. “When people read the paper and see this woman was a victim of domestic violence, I’m hoping that people who’ve seen her with injuries … can hone in on time frames.”

Witnesses, such as the ones who’ve already come forward, are critical in home violence cases, Dimmick said, so the case is not one person’s word against another’s.

Dimmick said Williston police have “zero tolerance” for domestic violence.

“Domestic violence at any level is simply not to be tolerated,” he said by phone while on vacation earlier this week. “Any report of domestic violence can get quick attention. We know there are victims out there that need help. When a victim makes a choice to come forward, it’s an enormously difficult one. And they have to know that people are there and are going to stand with them and they’re not going to be alone.”

Dimmick also stressed that people in Williston need to know that home violence happens not only in this town, but in every town in Vermont.

“Be cognizant of it,” Dimmick said. “When you see something that bothers you, inquire if you’re comfortable, or report suspected abuse.”

Chittenden County State’s Attorney’s Office Deputy Peter Bevere said a bail hearing has not been set in Smith’s case.

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Projects squeeze in under town growth quota

Williston caps new housing at 80 units per year

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Development Review Board last week doled out most of the remaining housing allowed under Williston’s growth control rules, effectively barring new proposals for big subdivisions for the next seven years.

The board, at its Feb. 27 session, allocated a total of 129 units to six projects. Four of the subdivisions are for people who want to add a second house on their property; the others are one large and one small project by developer Al Senecal.

Town regulations limit new housing construction to 80 units a year. Larger developments must be built over multiple years to fit under the cap.

With the newly approved phasing, there are only 96 units left to be allocated through the 2014-15 fiscal year, according to Town Planner Lee Nellis. The starting point was 785 units, which was based on how many homes could be served by new sewer capacity the town acquired in 2004.

Town officials have in the past occasionally fretted about reaching a point when all available housing under the phasing system had been used up. They worried that could mean a desirable project would have to be rejected.

But Nellis said that allocating most of the housing in advance is both a logical and desirable result of Williston’s growth-control system.

“That’s how we manage growth,” he said. “So we now know what is going to happen and when it is going to happen.”

Nellis pointed out that the vast majority of the units already allocated – nearly 600 – are located near Taft Corners. The town’s Comprehensive Plan calls for housing to be densely clustered within walking distance of shops and services in the commercial district.

“The thing is the (housing projects) that came are desirable,” Nellis said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have approved them. There’s no rational reason to wait until something else comes in.”

Phasing is just one part of Williston’s multi-step review process for subdivisions. Those proposing larger projects must undergo a pre-application review, obtain phasing, receive preliminary approval and then final approval.

The purpose of phasing is to “ensure that residential growth is consistent with the town’s capacity for planned, orderly and sensible expansion of its services,” Williston’s subdivision regulations state.

The rules grew out of town and school officials’ concerns that Williston’s rapid growth was overwhelming its ability to provide municipal services and to accommodate enrollment growth.

The town at first set a quota of 80 housing units a year. That number was later lowered to 65 units, but has now been raised back to 80.

The two subdivisions proposed by Senecal, who owns Omega Electric Construction and is the developer of Taft Farms Village Center, would be located on North Williston Road and at the Williston Driving Range just east of Taft Corners.

The driving range project, to be built over seven years, was allocated 118 of 128 requested units; the North Williston Road project received a 7-unit allocation to be constructed over three years.

(Disclosure: The Williston Observer leases office space from Senecal in Taft Farms Village Center.)

The other projects receiving an allocation were two-lot subdivisions on Oak Hill, South Brownell, Williston and South roads.

Though town rules may prevent future proposals for housing, new home construction will not stop anytime soon. Hundreds of units have been allocated in previous years, mostly around Taft Corners.

Among the projects in that category is Finney Crossing, a 354-unit residential and commercial development, and The Hamlet, a 110-unit subdivision that includes affordable housing. The Hamlet has won final approval; Finney Crossing is still navigating the town’s review process.

When those projects are combined with the Senecal proposal and numerous smaller, previously approved subdivisions, the lineup for residential development is nearly complete for the next seven years. The remaining allocation could be used by several small subdivisions or one larger one.

“One more project could wipe us out, essentially,” Nellis said.

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Warehouse plan replaces soccer proposal

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

After failing to score with a soccer facility, a local developer now wants to construct an industrial building at the same site.

Al Senecal has filed plans with the town for a 28,800-square-foot structure on Commerce Street and a 5,000-square foot addition to an existing building used by his business, Omega Electric Construction.

The project’s application indicates the new building could accommodate both warehousing and light industrial uses.

Senecal said he may lease the new building. If not, he might use it for Omega Electric, which has a shop where equipment and tools are stored at the Commerce Street site as well as administrative offices on Omega Drive, a side street off South Brownell Road.

“We could get the business back under one roof,” he said.

(Disclosure: The Williston Observer leases office space from Senecal in Taft Farms Village Center.)

The project represents a second attempt to develop the site by Senecal. He won town approval in November 2005 for an indoor soccer facility, but never built it after failing to find a long-term tenant that would have made the million-dollar building financially viable.

He wanted to build a 33,600-square-foot structure that would have housed multiple indoor soccer fields. The facility could have provided additional playing space for the thousands of children and adults who participate in Chittenden County soccer programs.

Senecal talked with Far Post Soccer Club, whose lease at Williston Sports & Fitness Edge was set to expire. But Senecal and the club could not reach an agreement, and Far Post eventually moved to the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction.

The arrangement announced last May called for Far Post and Nordic Spirit, the area’s two largest soccer clubs, to share a building and merge their indoor leagues while keeping other parts of the organizations separate.

Senecal said he felt he was in the running to sign a lease with Far Post but he simply couldn’t match the price offered by the Champlain Valley Exposition. “I just think the deal with the other facility was too good to be true,” he said.

John Adams, Williston’s development review planner, said he was still reviewing the application but did not foresee any major problem with Senecal’s new proposal.

One potential area of debate is traffic. The town had required Senecal to add a turn lane on Commerce Street where it meets busy U.S. 2 as a condition of approval for the soccer facility. The application for the new project asserts that it will generate less than half as many peak-hour trips, so widening the road is no longer necessary.

The Development Review Board is scheduled to consider Senecal’s site plan application at its March 13 session. The hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 p.m.

Senecal acknowledged that drawing up plans and gaining town approval for the scrapped soccer facility cost him “a bit of money.” But now he’s ready to move on to another idea.

“That’s money over the dam,” he said.

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Town meeting offers potluck of opinions

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Ruth Painter, an organizer of what she says is “probably the first annual” pre-town meeting potluck, said about 50 people attended the event. Painter, a 53-year Williston resident, said the old town meeting used to be held all day and people would break for lunch together between the school meeting and the town meeting.

“This is an opportunity to resurrect that, an opportunity for people to talk with their neighbors,” she said.

Painter, along with residents Jean Hopkins and Carol Burbank had the idea for the potluck, which was held at 6 p.m. in Williston Central School’s dining room, and featured three enchilada casseroles and other fare. She said the supper was a chance to talk about local issues, but also just to get together.

“The people that I was sitting with were reminiscing,” Painter said. “I think they were just enjoying the fact that we were all together.”

An additional 75 people made their way to the school on Monday to hear about the town and school budgets, and a proposed ambulance service and additional fire/rescue staff for Williston.

Williston School Board member Darlene Worth started out the meeting by recognizing outgoing School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby with a hug and a large bouquet of flowers. Sundby has been chairwoman for about 13 years.

Three notable articles from the town warning were passed by voice vote, two of them related to tax payments. The due dates of property tax payments were bumped up by several days to accommodate the change in the tax prebate system. And voters chose to have the tax prebate delivered “pro rata” instead of “in order.” This fiscal year, income sensitivity prebates or rebates on property taxes will not be sent directly to individuals. Instead, the payment will be sent from the state to the town, which will then take the amount off people’s tax bills. Voters decided to make the payments “pro rata,” which means that the amount of the prebate or rebate will be spread evenly as a discount on all three property tax payments. In addition, the due dates for tax bills for the upcoming fiscal year were pushed forward to Aug. 20, Nov. 15, and Feb. 15.

The other article that was passed had to do with increasing the maximum veteran’s property tax exemption from the current $20,000 to $40,000. The measure offers tax assistance to disabled veterans. Williston currently has nine veterans receiving the $20,000 exemption, Town Clerk Deb Beckett explained. She said the impact on the town was about $5,400.


Worth led the discussion of the proposed $15.9 million school budget. Several questions were raised from the floor regarding the 7 percent budget increase.

Six-year resident Phil Ronco said that it was unrealistic to expect people to approve a 7 percent increase in the budget, when people in town are not getting comparable raises each year.

“I look at everything that’s going on in Williston,” Ronco said. “I think that the whole spending is out of touch with people’s financial situations.”

The $7.2 million town budget went largely unquestioned. However, Town Manager Rick McGuire pointed out one unknown in the budget, the change in the 1 percent local option tax. The rules governing how the tax is collected changed Jan. 1, and McGuire admitted that although the town anticipated in the budget that revenue from the tax would increase this year to about $2.7 million, officials are unsure if that will actually happen.

“It’s a huge question mark,” McGuire said.


Fire Chief Ken Morton took to the podium at about 10:30 p.m. and due to the late hour, proceeded quickly through his presentation on a proposed ambulance service and fire/rescue staff. Morton had hoped that the six additional staff would fill in the gaps in coverage for the town.

About 100 residents remained for the presentation. One of them, Bill Skiff Jr., was skeptical of the proposal, a sentiment that was to be borne out by a majority of voters at the polls the next day.

“It’s nice that there’s a grant,” Skiff said. “My thinking is, just because something is on sale doesn’t mean you should buy it. … If you want a Cadillac ambulance you’re going to have to pay a Cadillac tax bill. It’s hard for me to write that check three times a year.”

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Preschool lottery system flawed, parent says

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Vickie Durgin would love for her son Hayden, 2, to attend the Early Essential Education preschool program at Allen Brook School next year.

The part-time preschool is free to participants. And the buses that pick up and drop off the children are convenient for working parents like her, the Williston resident said.

But when she called two weeks ago to add Hayden’s name to the lottery list, she was told the deadline had passed, though the lottery wasn’t scheduled until after March 9.

“I was told I was the fourth or fifth person already turned away,” Durgin said. When she asked where the deadline was advertised, Durgin said, she was told it was on the school’s Web site.

“How was I supposed to know to go to the Web site to find this out?” Durgin said. “If it’s a free program to taxpayers, then everybody should be allowed the opportunity to have their child in (the lottery).”

Students meet for 2.5 hours three days a week – either mornings or afternoons, but EEE, as it is known informally in school circles, is not a typical preschool program.

The purpose of EEE is to provide special education services to children ages three to five who have developmental delays in speech, language, motor, and/or social/emotional skills. In order to best serve those students, however, same-age peers without disabilities also are included in the classroom. About half of the more than 50 enrolled students have disabilities, and half do not. About a dozen additional students with disabilities are served at home or through one-day playgroups.

“Peers” are chosen by lottery since there are more parents interested than there are spaces, according to Carter Smith, Williston schools director of special education. For the 2007-08 school year, 40 students are signed up for a lottery of 14 spaces. (The remaining peer spaces go to returning peers who have not yet entered kindergarten; once a peer is accepted, the spot is guaranteed the following year as well.)

Smith said in the 10 to 15 years he’s been involved with the program the school always has advertised through word of mouth. He added, however, that from a “fairness standpoint” that might need to change.

“We may decide to change our process in subsequent years,” Smith said this week. “I know there have been some people who’ve called and said they didn’t know (the lottery list) was closed.”

Smith said the level of interest in the program among parents of potential peers speaks not just to the program’s reputation of quality, but also suggests there might be a need for more such programs in the community. Money alone couldn’t be the driver, he said, since the EEE program is only 7.5 hours a week; any child needing care outside of those hours would need his or her parents to pay for a full-time daycare slot anyway.

Durgin agrees it is not money that drove her interest in Hayden attending EEE. A daycare provider, Durgin already is home with her kids.

“I want my son to listen to somebody else, to follow somebody else’s directions,” she said. “Here I’m the teacher, I’m the person who sets the boundaries … So for me it’s … to know he’s ready because he’s following somebody else’s directions.”

Durgin said she does not want the school to reopen the lottery process for Hayden, but she does want the school to consider how to better advertise its availability in the future.

“I don’t know how many other people are out there that know they’ve missed (the deadline),” Durgin said.

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