August 28, 2014

Heavy snow raises plowing expenses

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Town has already spent half of budget

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Incessant snow has melted much of Williston's plowing budget with months of winter weather still to go.

Counting the most recent storm, roughly half of the money set aside for clearing and salting the town's roads has been spent, according to Public Works Director Neil Boyden.

Blame the snowiest December in recent years. According to the National Weather Service in South Burlington, 45.3 inches of snow fell during the month, making it the fourth snowiest December on record.

"Busy" was Boyden's one-word assessment of the season so far. The town used plows to clear or salt roads 22 times in December alone.

Boyden is still tallying numbers from the most recent snowfall. But as of Dec. 28, the town had used 49 percent of its total salt budget, or about 1,000 tons. Salt usage closely mirrors what is going on with the overall plowing budget.

Williston budgeted almost $388,300 for plowing in the 2007-08 fiscal year. The budget includes expenses for labor, equipment and fuel as well as salt and sand.

That money pays for clearing 75 miles of roads and 8.5 miles of sidewalks in Williston. The town has a fleet of seven full-sized plows and a sidewalk plow. It also contracts with private companies to clear smaller streets the big trucks can't reach.

This snow season has been marked by a couple of large storms and many smaller snowfalls. The National Weather Service reported a total of 55.4 inches of snow as of Jan. 2.

The biggest single-day snowfall occurred on Dec. 16, when 11.9 inches were recorded at the airport in South Burlington. But a stream of smaller storms has kept plow drivers working steadily, especially compared to the previous year.

Williston snowplows hit the road only four times in December 2006, Boyden said. Through Jan. 2, plows had been out 32 times this season.

As a result, the town has used half of its plowing budget in a little more than a quarter of the snow season, which runs from mid-November to mid-April. Boyden said if the plowing budget is exhausted before the season ends he will make cuts in other areas.

There may be relief in sight. The three-month forecast calls for normal snowfall and temperatures, said Donny Dumont, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. The average annual snowfall in the Burlington area is 81.2 inches.

Boyden said things tend to even out over a long winter, so he's hopeful this will be a front-loaded snow season.

"Lots of times you have a snowy start at the beginning of the season and much less on the tail end," he said.

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Grid street engineers hit the road

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Taft Corners project inches forward

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

It will be a long road to build the short streets needed to ease traffic congestion around Taft Corners. But Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden said the job has to start somewhere.

The town plans to construct a series of grid streets that will link existing roadways around the congested commercial area. A contractor has now been hired to help plan – but not build – the first part of the project.

The engineering work includes a new 1/3-mile-long street that will connect U.S. 2 at Helena Drive to Trader Lane, the access road for the Hannaford supermarket, and a smaller street that links Trader Lane with Harvest Lane. The work will also include drawing up plans for the extension of a smaller existing street off Vermont 2A, Wright Avenue, so it too connects with Trader Lane.

Essex Junction-based Lamoureux & Dickinson Consulting Engineers Inc. will be paid $37,820 for the project, which will include design and survey work as well as identifying rights-of-way, easements and wetlands.

Many hurdles stand in the way of actually constructing the grid streets. The work is expected to cost around $4 million. That doesn't include an estimated $15 million to widen the Interstate 89 underpass, which is considered a key component of the overall plan because it is a traffic choke point.

The town of Williston has just $474,000 set aside from impact fees that developers have paid over the years to help defray the cost of transportation improvements. And state and federal funding for new roads has dried up in recent years.

So the town is banking on new development to pay much of the tab, in particular Finney Crossing, a massive residential and retail project just east of Taft Corners. But with a slumping housing market and a potential recession it is uncertain when – and even if –
that project will be built.

Boyden acknowledged that spending money on engineering work could be considered a gamble because of uncertain funding for grid streets. But he is confident the obstacles can be overcome.

"This is going to be a lengthy process, one that needs to be done sooner rather than later," he said. "The economy is going to turn around."

Besides, Boyden noted, it will take an estimated two to three years to get all the plans and permits in place. He hopes the town can complete construction within the next decade.

Meanwhile, at least the engineering will be done, Boyden said. The contract with Lamoureux & Dickinson calls for completion of the work in March.
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Deal in offing for war protesters?

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Community service reportedly proposed

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Protesters arrested during a raucous anti-war demonstration in Williston could have charges against them dropped in exchange for completing community service, according to one of the protesters.

The deal was offered by Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan before protesters were due to appear in court earlier this month, said Matt Howard, one of 13 people arrested on trespassing charges during the Nov. 30, 2007 demonstration.

Howard said he was present for the pre-hearing talk with Donovan, who addressed defendants just before the Jan. 7 court session commenced. Charges against Howard, a former Marine who served in Iraq, and one other protester were later dismissed by the judge because their information was missing on an affidavit.

Donovan confirmed that snafu but declined to provide details about the deal other than to say he made an offer that the defendants are still considering.

"My rules of professional responsibility don't allow me to discuss negotiations," he said.

Howard's account of the deal could not be confirmed with other sources. Several protesters contacted for this story did not return phone messages.

The demonstration targeted two military recruiting offices in Maple Tree Place. It was organized by students at Mount Mansfield Union High School to protest recruitment in schools but also attracted adults who oppose the Iraq war.

About 75 participants first marched to the combined U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine recruiting office at the shopping center. But after finding it closed, demonstrators drifted over to the nearby Vermont Army National Guard office.

Protesters at first massed in front of the building, brandishing signs and shouting slogans. Then many of the participants entered the recruiting office.

Some harangued military personnel while others sat in a circle on the floor. Police eventually told them to leave or be arrested. Thirteen refused and were cited for trespassing.

The proposed deal for protesters was first reported by Peter Freyne in his "Inside Track" column published in the Jan. 16 edition of Seven Days. Freyne, citing unnamed sources, said protesters were told charges would be dropped if they agreed to 15 hours of community service or a charitable donation of $50 to $100.

Howard said the Seven Days account was accurate except for the charitable donation, which he said was not part of the deal.

Donovan was sympathetic to the protesters' cause during the pre-court meeting, according to Howard. He said that Donovan, a Democrat elected in 2006, was even willing to let anti-war activities count toward the proposed community service.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Donovan seemed less tolerant of the protesters' tactics.

He said some sort of penalty was in order as he tries to balance the protesters' free speech rights and the rights of recruiters and the general public to go about their business.

"The law has to be enforced," Donovan said. "With that comes my exercise of discretion in my role as state's attorney."

Under Vermont law, trespassing is punishable by three months in jail and/or a $500 fine.

Donovan said he considers several factors when determining the appropriate punishment for protesters. He looks at whether a protest involved violence, caused property damage or impeded business.

He said the protest clearly disrupted the recruiting office and blocked traffic. Donovan, who traveled to Williston to see the protest for himself, said a potential recruit who was visiting the National Guard office that day was harassed.

"For me, that crossed the line," he said.

James Marc Leas, a South Burlington lawyer who participated in the protest but was not arrested, said having the charges dropped could be considered a "victory" for demonstrators. But he thought government officials such as military recruiters have an obligation to listen before police are called in.

"We should have the right to petition our government officials … We should not have to go as far as being arrested to be heard," Leas said.

Donovan acknowledged the protesters' right to voice their views, but he added that there are limits.

"Freedom of speech is not an absolute right," Donovan said. "You can regulate the time, manner and place of the speech."

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Feb. 4. Donovan said his offer remains on the table until then.

[Read more...]

Colorful candidates to run for election

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Voters to find many new names on March ballot

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A Hollywood producer. A nationally known children's author. A business executive who is suing the town.

Each is running for a town office in what promises to be the most interesting election in years.

Williston has struggled in the past few years to attract candidates. Last year, there were no contests among those running for 13 positions.

But when this year's filing period expired on Monday, four contests emerged for the local election in March. There are a total of five first-time candidates.

"Previous years' ballots were full of empty spaces," said Town Clerk Deb Beckett, who herself will run unopposed for another three-year term. "This is really exciting. You have someone for every office."

This year's races include a mix of veteran incumbents and first-time candidates with widely divergent backgrounds.

The newcomers include a Williston couple who relocated here from Los Angeles last summer.

Joel Klein is running for a two-year term on the Selectboard. His wife, Abby Klein, is seeking a seat on the Williston School Board. Neither has held elected office before, but both said they are looking to become more involved in their new hometown.

Joel Klein is a reality show producer. His past credits include "Fear Factor," a prime-time hit on NBC that tests contestants' courage and viewers' stomachs for gross-out stunts.

"I made a lot of people eat cockroaches and jump out of airplanes – things like that," Klein said.

Since moving to Williston, Klein said he has taught a filmmaking course at Burlington College and worked with Shelburne-based Population Media Center. He said he continues to pursue writing projects for television.

He will run against Christopher Roy, an attorney with the law firm Downs Rachlin Martin. Roy submitted his petition for office just hours before the Monday deadline.

Roy currently serves on the Williston Recreation Committee and twice ran unsuccessfully for the Selectboard in the 1990s. He is also a former member of the Vermont Environmental Board and writes "Right to the Point," a column with a conservative slant in the Observer.

Roy said he knew little about his opponent. When told of Klein's background in television, he joked that he was OK with the competition "as long as he doesn't make me eat bugs."

The other contested Selectboard race, this one for a three-year seat, pits incumbent Judy Sassorossi against Robert Blankenheim.

Blankenheim is vice president of operations/general manager at IntraPac Inc. in Plattsburgh, N.Y. The company produces packaging for the personal care market. This is his first try for public office.

He is among the 37 Williston residents suing to nullify an agreement between the town and the Chittenden Solid Waste District. The agreement permits operation of the current transfer station off Redmond Road in Williston and a proposed landfill at the site. If the landfill is built, the residents assert, it will pollute the environment and cause home values to plummet in their Ledgewood Drive neighborhood, which is about a half-mile away.

Blankenheim is also unhappy with the proposed municipal budget, which calls for a 5 percent spending increase. He said building the budget around a set spending increase contradicts principles used in the private sector. He said the town should start from scratch each year and justify each expenditure.

"I'm absolutely appalled with the way they do budgets," Blankenheim said.

Other races

There will be one contested seat and one incumbent running unopposed for the Williston School Board.

Abby Klein squares off against incumbent Darlene Worth for a three-year term. Holly Rouelle, another incumbent, will run uncontested for a two-year term.

Klein is the author of the children's book series "Ready Freddy," published by Scholastic. The 13-book series, distributed in schools and libraries throughout the U.S., has made Klein a nationally recognized children's author, said Jill Coffrin, youth services librarian at Dorothy Alling Memorial Library in Williston.

Klein said she taught in Los Angeles public schools for nearly two decades. She currently teaches in South Burlington. She said her background will help her contribute to the School Board.

The final contested race also involves another relative newcomer to Williston. Charles Coney is seeking a three-year term as lister. He is running against incumbent Linda Ladd.

Coney moved here from New York City in 2005 after retiring from his job as a certified public accountant. His work experience also includes selling real estate for several years.

He now works part-time at the Williams-Sonoma store in Burlington. He is also a volunteer at the Flynn Center and at St. Michael's College.

But Coney said he still has time to spare, so he wants to contribute to the community. Coney said he is familiar with what listers do –
overseeing property appraisals and hearing grievances – through his accounting and real estate background.

There is one other new candidate on the ballot. David Rath will run for a three-year term on the Champlain Valley Union High School Board. He will occupy the seat being vacated by Sarita Austin.

Rath served for eight years on the governing board for Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol before moving to Williston in 1999. He is an attorney who works in Hinesburg.

Rath said he was recruited by Williston's four-member contingent on the CVU board. He said he is ready to serve again years after his stint at Mt. Abraham.

"It's enjoyable work," he said. "I have the experience, and it's something in which community members should be involved."

SIDEBAR

Bountiful ballot

Here are the candidates running in the March 4 election:

Selectboard, three-year term

Robert Blankenheim

Judith Sassorossi*

Selectboard, two-year term

Joel Klein

Christopher Roy

Williston School Board, three-year term

Abby Klein

Darlene Worth*

Williston School Board, two-year term

Holly Rouelle*

Champlain Valley Union High School Board, three-year term

David Rath

Town Clerk, three-year term

Deb Beckett*

Town Treasurer, three-year term

Deb Beckett*

Lister, three-year term

Charles Coney

Linda Ladd*

Lister, two-year term

Gerald Huetz*

Library Trustee, five-year term

Patricia Mardeusz*

Champlain Water District representative, three-year term

Donald Phillips*

Town Constable, one-year term

Kermit Laclair*

Note: * denotes incumbent

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Budget changes aimed at skeptical voters

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Town emphasizes cost of services

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Amid eroding support for municipal spending, town officials have altered the budget this year so it better reflects how tax money is spent.

The margin of approval for Williston's budgets has narrowed over the past several years. Just 53 percent of voters approved last year's budget, the smallest margin in five years.

So Town Manager Rick McGuire and the Williston Selectboard have taken two steps to ensure this year's spending plan passes muster with voters.

First, the board directed McGuire to keep the budget increase at or below 5 percent. The proposed $7.6 million budget represents exactly a 5 percent spending hike, a reversal of the double-digit increases of recent years.

Second, McGuire has changed how expenditures are accounted for in the budget. An effort has been made to ensure all expenses related to a given department are shown under that department's budget.

The changes are subtle. But McGuire said they will allow residents to better make the connection between the services they receive and how much they cost.

Is he worried that the budget won't pass this year after barely winning approval in 2006?

"Worried may be a little strong," McGuire said. "It's certainly something we are aware of and it's a concern."

The changes may be so small they are unnoticed by voters. As in past years, municipal spending is detailed in hundreds of line items spread out over scores of pages that make up the budget.

But on closer inspection, voters will see one big change and several smaller alterations from previous years.

The biggest change involves accounting for employee benefits, insurance and building maintenance. Those expenses are now attributed to individual departments instead of being lumped under general administration, as was the practice in previous years. That means budgets for each department show how much is really being spent.

McGuire also instructed department heads to organize expenses in categories of services residents commonly use. So in the library budget, for example, line items reflect expenses for reference services and special programs.

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi said she is confident that voters recognize that the town is frugal when it comes to spending their tax dollars, regardless of how the budget is arranged.

  "I think (the changes) make it clear what we provide for essential services," she said. "Williston does not provide a lot of frilly services."

She said some voters reject all budgets no matter what the spending level. But based on balloting in recent years, voters throughout Williston have become increasingly skeptical of municipal spending.

Last year, when 53 percent of voters favored the budget, it passed by 109 votes. In 2006, 57 percent of voters approved the budget.

The margin was slightly smaller in 2005, with 55 percent approving the municipal budget. The high-water mark was in 2004, when 77 percent voted in favor of the budget. That was the year that education funding reform reduced the overall property tax rate.

The municipal budget changes this year were driven by more than an effort to garner voter support. For example, McGuire said it made little sense to group employee benefits under general administration. He said that category should be reserved for expenses that support all town departments.

He also noted that municipalities throughout the nation increasingly are trying to clarify budgets by better tracking how expenses relate to services.

The budget changes will eventually allow the town to accurately evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each service. A study to do that would be labor-intensive, McGuire noted, and the budget needs more tweaking before one could be conducted.

"This reorganization of the budget is a building block toward this goal," he said. "But we are nowhere near to achieving that."

The Selectboard will hold a public hearing on the municipal budget on Thursday, Jan. 10 in the Town Hall meeting room. The session begins at 7 p.m.

SIDEBAR

HEAD: Declining support

The municipal budget has passed by increasingly small margins in recent years. Here are the results since 2003:

Year                         Approval margin             Percent in favor

2007                         109 votes                         53

2006                         195 votes                         57

2005                         132 votes                         55

2004                         1,214 votes                         77

2003                         286 votes                         60

[Read more...]

2007: A year of loose ends

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Ongoing and undecided issues dominate news

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The year just passed was marked by issues that generated lots of debate but were ultimately left in limbo.

Alternatives to the long-delayed Circumferential Highway were studied but no design was selected. A decision is expected this year.

Dozens of people attended public meetings to discuss an ordinance change that would have allowed hunting on public lands. But in the end the Selectboard delayed a decision.

Voters rejected a much-debated proposal to add ambulance service. But the issue is bound to come up again as Williston grows and its population ages.

Other developments pointed to fiscal belt-tightening this year for both the municipal government and the school system. Williston voters rejected a school budget that boosted spending by nearly 7 percent, then approved a scaled-back spending plan. And proceeds from the local sales tax that funds much of the municipal budget dropped for the first time since the levy was enacted five years ago.

The year did have a happy ending of sorts. The Old Brick Church, one of Williston's beloved historical buildings, was hit by lightning in the spring, igniting a blaze that damaged but didn't destroy the structure. Just before Christmas a new bell tower was lowered into place, restoring the church to its former glory.

Here is a recap of the five most significant stories of 2007:

1) Circ study inconclusive

The decades-long saga of the Circumferential Highway continued with the release of a massive study that looked at different ways to reduce congestion in and around Williston.

The study, which ran thousands of pages, considered a total of 10 options, which are variations on three major alternatives: build the Circ as originally designed, a limited access highway between Interstate 89 and Vermont 117; widen Vermont 2A and add roundabouts; or build a hybrid that combines parts of each approach.

But the study didn't pick a preferred alternative, which critics derided as an attempt to delay the inevitable controversy that a decision would bring. State highway officials said they were being especially careful to get public input during every step of the process so they could defend the decision should environmental groups again sue to stop construction.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional office weighed in, saying it wanted one of the 2A alternatives selected because they would have the least impact on wetlands. EPA headquarters has yet to make a final ruling on the wetlands issue.

The selection of a preferred alternative is expected early this year.

2) School budget, ambulance service rejected

Voters in March sent a message of fiscal restraint to their local government, resoundingly rejecting a $15.9 million Williston school budget and funding for an ambulance service.

Fifty-six percent of voters were against the school budget; 62 percent opposed the ambulance service. Williston's municipal budget passed, albeit by a narrow margin.

The ambulance measure would have paid for six new town employees to staff the service as well as one new and one used ambulance. The service's annual budget, including debt payments on the vehicles, would have been $447,884.

Voters also didn't like the proposed budget for Williston Central and Allen Brook schools, which represented a 7 percent spending increase. When it was pared by $300,000, the budget passed by a 73-vote margin.

The defeat marked the second time in the past four years that voters have rejected a school budget. In 2003, voters twice turned down budgets before finally approving a much-reduced spending plan.

The Williston School Board is now discussing the coming fiscal year's budget. The initial proposal calls for a $16.3 million budget, a 3.9 percent spending increase.

3) Sales tax revenue dropping

A change in the law governing sales tax collections did not seem to hurt a major source of state revenue. But when it came to municipalities like Williston that tack on a 1 percent local sales tax, the change seemed to have a big impact.

The town saw same-quarter revenue fall in each of 2007's first three quarters even while the state was reporting modest revenue increases from its 6 percent sales tax. Third-quarter revenue from Williston's local option sales tax dropped by 17 percent over the same quarter in 2006.

Those figures represented a stark reversal for the town, which had seen revenue rise each year since the tax was enacted in 2002. The levy funds about 40 percent of the municipal budget and has allowed the town to greatly reduce its municipal property tax rate.

On Jan. 1, 2007 the state changed rules governing what and who was subject to the sales tax. Taxes are now levied based on a purchase's destination, so items bought here but delivered elsewhere are no longer subject to Williston's local sales tax. That may account for much of the drop in revenue.

The town boosted property taxes to cope with the loss of sales tax revenue. More property tax increases could be in the offing for the coming fiscal year.

The revenue picture will become clearer in February, when sales tax figures for 2007's final quarter are released. Those numbers are critical because the fourth quarter, which includes the holiday shopping season, usually accounts for more than a third of Williston's annual sales tax revenue.

4) Firearm ordinance creates controversy

Hunters, hikers and property owners engaged in a sometimes heated debate over rules regulating firearm use in Williston last year. But in the end the ordinance remained unchanged.

The current ordinance bans firearm discharges north of Interstate 89 and allows guns to be fired south of the highway. There are exceptions: firearm use is permitted in a small section of North Williston, while guns are forbidden in recreation areas south of I-89.

A proposal to change that later provision so that hunters could use some town-owned land generated vocal opposition from many who live near or hike in those areas, particularly around Brownell Mountain.

The debate drew sizeable crowds during hearings on the proposal. At the Selectboard's direction, the original proposal was revised with rules that further restricted firearms and banned their use altogether on town-owned land.

But the board delayed action after hunters complained that the new rules would forbid hunting on their own land and conflict with state law. Board members suggested they may revisit the issue this year.

5) Church hit by lightning

Lightning struck the Old Brick Church in June, sparking a fire that damaged the church's bell tower. But a quick response by the Williston Fire Department spared the rest of the 175-year-old building.

Some good luck helped firefighters extinguish the blaze before it destroyed the entire church. Williston Fire Chief Ken Morton was on his way to a mutual aid call in another town when he spotted the fire. The subsequent quick response from firefighters from Williston and surrounding towns helped put out the fire within eight minutes.

Williston Public Works Director Neil Boyden led the subsequent effort to construct a new bell tower and repair other damage. The total cost, which includes electrical problems not caused by the fire, exceeded $200,000, but much of it will be covered by insurance, Boyden said.

On Dec. 20, a crane lowered the new bell tower into place. Exterior painting will be done this spring.

[Read more...]