July 29, 2014

Plowing woes continue to plague the town

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Road salt still in short supply

March 13, 3008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The town of Williston will continue to scrape by with a small stockpile of road salt for the rest of the snow season.

Public Works Director Neil Boyden said the town has been unable to procure enough salt to handle much more than a single storm. The town, like other municipalities throughout Vermont and the rest of country, has for months been dealing with a salt shortage due to the unusually severe winter.

The situation hasn't improved since the shortage was first reported last month, Boyden said. The town has cut back on the amount of salt it spreads even as a steady stream of storms have marched across the Northeast.

"I've got to hand it to residents, though," Boyden said. "The community has been very understanding. We've had very few calls from people."

Salt this winter has become an expensive commodity. Boyden said under a Vermont Agency of Transportation contract that also helps supply individual towns, Williston pays $49 a ton. But salt at that price is scarce, so Williston has been buying it for as much as $75 a ton, Boyden said.

The town recently found a new supplier. But Boyden said he didn't want to disclose the name lest other towns hone in on the arrangement.

Road crews for the last several weeks have been spreading a half-and-half mixture of salt and sand. Williston is skipping applications altogether on less-traveled roads and concentrating on hazardous areas that include hills, curves and intersections.

The weather this year has shattered records and tested motorists' patience. In February, 43.3 inches of snow fell, exceeding the previous record set in 1958 by nearly 8 inches, according to National Weather Service office in South Burlington. Including last weekend's storm, 112.2 inches of snow had been recorded as of Monday, the seventh-snowiest season on record.

Aside from the sheer volume of snow, this winter has also been remarkable for the number of storms. Since a brief respite in early January, "it was like one day on, one day off or every other day," said Jason Neilson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service.

It all adds up to a budget-breaker for Williston. The town planned to spend $98,700 on salt in the 2007-08 fiscal year. As of last week, the town had spent $113,000.

Williston is still within its overtime budget for plow drivers, Boyden said. Many if not most of the storms have occurred during weekdays, a money-saver for the town, albeit a headache for commuters.

Relief from this seemingly endless winter may still be weeks away. The long-term forecast calls for precipitation in some form by mid-week and a potential snowstorm over the weekend, Neilson said.

Boyden noted the last date plows hit the road varies wildly from year to year. In 2006, snowplows were parked for the season on March 21. Last year, the final plowing took place April 16.

Late winter and early spring in Vermont can bring highly unpredictable — and surprisingly snowy — weather, Neilson said.

"It's not out of the question in March and April to have one big one with 10 to 12 inches or more," he said.

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Resident charged with embezzlement

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March 6, 2008

The Associated Press

A Williston man has been charged with embezzling more than $2.2 million from a captive insurance company where he was a senior vice president.

Kenneth MacKay, 36, is accused of using money from Willis Management to build a $1.9 million home, pay about $240,000 into college tuition savings plans for his five children and to buy a condominium in Florida.
MacKay, a former senior vice president at Willis, was arrested Monday after turning himself in to federal officials.

He was charged in federal court with engaging in a scheme to commit bank fraud, wire fraud and money laundering.

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Proposed park would bolster Williston’s recreation offerings

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March 6, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The vast open space by Allen Brook School will likely soon be the home of baseball, soccer and lacrosse games, as well as other recreational activities.

A task force of the Recreation Commission presented plans for a new park to the Williston Selectboard on Feb. 25. The proposed park will encompass 20 acres, about 10 of which will include baseball diamonds, multi-use fields, tennis courts and a field house, according to Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan.

"We're in the preliminary stages right now," Finnegan said. "As a commission, we kind of knew what we needed and what we wanted. But the setup could change."

Currently, the only fields where school and private sports teams can play and practice are located behind Williston Central School.

According to Finnegan, the idea for using the land near Allen Brook had been floating around since 1996, when the land was donated to the town.

"It's something we've had our eye on for a while," he said.

The land is part of the Mahan Farm property that was used to develop Maple Tree Place and Allen Brook School.

In the last five years, the Recreation Commission had been seriously considering a park and was recently able to get a preliminary design worked out.

Lamoureux & Dickinson, consulting engineers from Essex, drew up the first set of plans. There will be space for three Little League fields, a Babe Ruth field and one softball field. Three multi-use fields — for soccer, field hockey and lacrosse — will also be built, along with two tennis courts.

There could also be space for picnic tables, restrooms, a small field house and a public sledding hill, Finnegan said. All of the facilities will be able to be accessed from Williston's Bike Path. A spur of the path may also connect with Talcott Road.

The area not used for recreation facilities will be set aside for wetlands preservation. The plans also take into account a possible expansion of the elementary school. Space has been set aside if more permanent classrooms must be built, as well as for additional parking, which could also be used for the new park.

Finnegan said the park would be a joint venture between the town and the school. Some of the facilities, like the tennis courts, would be on school property.

When the Mahan property was given to the town, there were some restrictions that went along with it. The fields next to Allen Brook are for "passive recreation only," meaning they can't be developed into "impermeable surfaces" like basketball and tennis courts, Finnegan added. Those facilities would be placed adjacent to the school on Allen Brook property.

The recreation department will have $165,000 for park development in the next fiscal year. The money will be used to finalize plans, apply for permits and begin the first stage of construction, which could begin next spring.

Selectboard chairman Terry Macaig said the board took a "favorable view" of the proposal. Despite concerns of cost and space, the Selectboard also understood the need for newer recreation fields.

"We know the town needs new fields and new recreation facilities as we continue to grow," Macaig said. "I would say the board was impressed with what we were shown."

Recreation Committee member Mike Healey said while the park is very much in the planning stage, he is glad to see steps in the right direction.

"It's very much a work in progress," he said. "I like calling it more of a work in process."

Updating the plans

Healey said the task force — comprised of committee members Healey, Tim O'Brien, Jana Hamrell, Allen Brook Principal John Terko, Public Works Director Neil Boyden and Finnegan — looked at national and state standards for recreation fields and found Williston needed updating.

"Getting our ball fields up to standards is a big thing," Healey said. "It was one of the holes we noticed."

Finnegan said with so many different groups using the fields behind Williston Central School, they tend to get "abused." The soccer fields, in particular, get overused, he said.

"We're stressed in terms of our park facilities," Finnegan said. "Our need is for our multi-use fields. We try every year to get grass seeded in the problem areas, like around the goal posts, but the playing season is so short."

Adding new multi-use fields would allow the recreation department to rotate fields to alleviate overuse, and give the department time and space for maintenance, Finnegan said.

Many private and public clubs use the fields behind Williston Central School as well, but sometimes the recreation department can't provide for all groups due to lack of space. This will change with the new park, he added.

Next steps

Both Finnegan and Healey would like to see the two multi-use fields and the Little League baseball diamond closest to Allen Brook built first, with the rest being added in future years.

Finnegan does not have an estimate on the total cost of the new park since a final plan has not yet been developed.

At the Selectboard's urging, Finnegan and members of the Recreation Committee will meet with Town Planner Lee Nellis and Conservation Commissioner Carrie Deegan to discuss the plans. Finnegan said Nellis has ideas about how to change some of the field design for better traffic flow. From there, the committee will start working on a possible new design.

"Once we get the conceptual design, we'll start applying for permits," Finnegan said.
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Sales tax revenue continues to decline

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March 6, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Local sales tax revenue continued to slump during the holiday shopping season, dropping by 23 percent over the same quarter last year and finishing 2007 with the lowest annual total since Williston started collecting the levy.

Proceeds for the quarter ending Dec. 31 totaled $692,273, recently released figures from the Vermont Tax Department show. That's down $202,101 from the same quarter in 2006. For the calendar year, the town received $2,511,946, more than a half-million dollars less than the previous year.

Since 2002, Williston has collected a 1 percent local option tax that is tacked onto the state's 6 percent sales tax. The levy has allowed the town to greatly reduce reliance on property taxes to fund the municipal budget.

But changes last year in state rules apparently hurt municipalities that levy the tax. Starting on Jan. 1, 2007, Vermont exempted clothing and began to tax beer and Internet sales.

Perhaps more significantly for Williston, the tax is now based on a purchase's destination. The town now gets no revenue from items bought here but shipped elsewhere.

In the current fiscal year, Williston raised the property tax rate by a penny and used budget reserves to fund the anticipated sales tax shortfall caused by the rule changes. Town officials are projecting proceeds will fall again in the fiscal year starting July 1, likely resulting in another small property tax hike and further withdrawal from reserves.

"There's about a $250,000 difference projected," said Susan Lamb, Williston's finance director. "So it has to come from somewhere."

Same-quarter sales tax revenue fell in each quarter of 2007. The downturn was especially remarkable considering that same-quarter revenue had risen in all but one of the previous 14 quarters. Sales tax proceeds, which vary considerably from quarter to quarter within a given year, did hit their high point in 2007's final three months.

The current national economic downturn does not appear to be affecting local sales tax collections. Sales tax proceeds statewide were actually up during the fourth quarter, with increases for each of the three months ranging from 3 percent to 5 percent, according to George Phillips, policy analyst with the Vermont Tax Department.

Sales taxes are problematic revenue sources for local governments, said Jeff Carr, president of Economic & Policy Resources Inc. in Williston.

"When the economy slows, then tax revenue slows," he said. "And that usually comes at the worst possible time for the community."

Another issue is that residents get used to receiving services they don't pay for, Carr said, noting that most sales taxes in a regional shopping destination like Williston are paid by non-residents. At its peak, the local option tax funded more than 40 percent of Williston's municipal budget; that number in the coming fiscal year is an estimated 35 percent.

Carr said residents should ask themselves if it is wise to receive "a dollar's worth of services for 60 cents in property taxes."

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire disputed Carr's assessment. He said the town has in fact used sales tax proceeds to defray expenses — additional police officers and fire trucks, for example —
associated with being a regional shopping destination.

Carr, who is also chairman of the Essex Selectboard, said that town learned about the dangers of relying on one big revenue source when the IBM plant was reappraised at a fraction of its former value. That caused a big boost in property taxes for everyone else.

He said Williston should consider investing some sales tax revenue into economic development efforts instead of using it all to reduce property taxes.

McGuire said the town has plans to fund infrastructure that would help maintain a healthy commercial sector — and keep sales tax revenue flowing. He pointed to Taft Corners' designation as a growth center and a proposal to build grid streets as two such measures.

"In the long run, it will maintain the vitality and the viability of our businesses," he said.
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Town Meeting voters unanimously approve joining CCTA

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Town Manager, Williston and CVU School Boards explain budgets

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

In a resounding chorus of "yeas," Williston voters approved the town's membership in the Chittenden County Transportation Authority. The vote was taken at Monday night's Town Meeting at the Williston Central School auditorium.

Townspeople also heard from Town Manager Rick McGuire about the municipal budget, and from Darlene Worth and Jeanne Jensen of the Williston School Board and Champlain Valley Union High School Board on their respective budgets. The town and Williston School budgets were approved at the polls on Tuesday. Numbers for the CVU budget, which is voted on by residents of the four towns served by the high school, had not been released by press deadline.

By approving the CCTA membership, Williston will soon see a fixed route service between Essex Junction and the University Mall in South Burlington via Routes 2 and 2A, according to CCTA General Manager Chris Cole. Eight stops along the route will be in Williston.

McGuire told the crowd of more than 100 people that joining the CCTA saved the town money in the long run, and gives the community a seat on the CCTA Board, which will allow for input on policy matters.

The cost to the town will be $170,000, about $5,000 cheaper than what the town pays for services this year as a nonmember, McGuire said.

"The town recommends that we vote yes on the article," he said before the vote.

Cole told the gathered voters that by joining CCTA the town would get benches and bus shelters —
serviced by CCTA — as well as additional advantages.

"We're a membership organization," Cole said. "Our job is to make members happy."

A few people asked questions while others praised CCTA's accomplishments in public transportation. One voter asked how CCTA knew what constituted a good bus route, going on to suggest a few alternatives the transportation group could look into.

"That's the beauty of joining CCTA, you get a spot on the board," Cole said.

Residents at the town meeting unanimously voted "yes" on Article 5 – becoming a member of CCTA. Cole gave a pleased nod of approval to McGuire after the vote was taken.

After the vote, McGuire spoke to the crowd about the municipal budget, giving voters a last-minute chance to review the numbers before the following day's election. The proposed municipal budget was $7.6 million, a 5 percent increase from last year.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, McGuire gave examples of how and why service costs change and budgets increase every year, as well as what exactly is being offered to residents in their town budgets. He used an example of winter maintenance, the costs of which vary with the severity of the weather, to illustrate rising costs and service demand, which includes services such as plowing routes, truck repairs and hourly and overtime pay. McGuire was quick to say it was just one example of how the town figures in service and recourse costs.

"We work from the ground up," he said. "As I said in the beginning, it's all an estimate."

After McGuire spoke, members of the Williston and CVU School Boards explained what went into the rising costs of both budgets. Williston School Board Chairwoman Worth highlighted that adding all-day kindergarten and extending the school day did not add huge costs. The proposed Williston School Budget came to $16.24 million, a 3.7 percent increase and the lowest increase in the past several years.

CVU School Board Chair Jeanne Jensen also spoke about changes in the high school's proposed budget. The budget came to $20.7 million and represents a 4.7 percent increase. Jensen said the budget allowed for additional staffing and enhancement of programs already in place.
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Voters back budgets, elect political veterans

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Incumbents triumph in local races

March 6, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Williston voters chose experience over fresh perspectives on Tuesday, re-electing incumbents to the Selectboard and School Board. But in the Democratic primary, residents liked the senator from Illinois who promises to take the country in a different direction.

On the ballot were four contested races for local offices and a host of other candidates running unopposed. The marquee match-up, however, pitted Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York against Barack Obama. He was picked by 60 percent of Williston residents who cast Democratic ballots.

Town Clerk Deb Beckett said the primary is what produced an unusually high turnout for a non-presidential election. Forty-seven percent of Williston's 6,880 registered voters cast ballots, nearly double the participation in the last local election.

"It was definitely the primary that drove this one," Beckett said.

In the contest for a two-year seat on the Selectboard, Chris Roy, a lawyer who has considerable civic experience, triumphed over Joel Klein, a television producer who moved from Los Angeles last year. The vote was 1,506-1,264.

The race featured a testy exchange of advertisements in last week's Observer. Roy boasted that he was "One of Us, for all of Us," an apparent reference to the fact he has lived in Williston for 15 years while his opponent is a new resident. Klein countered with an advertisement asserting that he didn't need to be born in Williston to understand the issues.

Both Roy and Klein waited in person on Tuesday for results to be posted at the Williston Armory. When it was clear Roy had won, the men shook hands.

"Life's too short to get worked up about that stuff," Roy said afterward.

He said he formulated the advertisement before he knew who his opponent would be. The slogan, Roy said, was intended to point out that he would work for all residents.

Klein said he felt good about his first run for public office.

"It was extremely positive," he said. "Obviously, I didn't win, but I got to meet a lot of people and made a lot of new friends."

Klein added that he ran for office to become more involved in his new hometown, and the campaign accomplished that goal.

The other Selectboard contest, this one for a three-year seat, pitted incumbent Judy Sassorossi against Bob Blankenheim, a first-time candidate and business executive. Sassorossi trounced her opponent, 1,850-844.

That race also included controversy. Blankenheim is among the 37 residents suing to overturn an agreement between the town and Chittenden Solid Waste District that would permit construction of a landfill near his home.

Sassorossi raised questions about Blankenheim's allegiance. Blankenheim pointed out that Sassorossi was on the Planning Commission when it voted not to require the developer of his subdivision to tell future homeowners about the proposed landfill.

Candidates waged a quieter —
and much closer — contest for a three-year seat on the Williston School Board. Incumbent Darlene Worth was re-elected by a narrow margin over Abby Klein, a veteran teacher and children's book author who is married to Joel Klein. The vote was 1,353-1,244.

In the final contested race, veteran lister Linda Ladd won easily over newcomer Charles Coney, 1,571-826.

It was the first time in years that there had been so many races for local offices. The past few elections included few if any contested seats.

But not all voters were happy with the choices. Some said they didn't know much about the local candidates; others noted the number of unopposed candidates.

"I was a little disappointed that there were a lot of uncontested races," said Williston resident Paul Angstman. "There just wasn't that many people running."

CONTESTED RACES
Selectboard, 2-year seat
Joel Klein 46%
Christopher Roy 54%

Selectboard, 3-year seat
Robert Blankenheim 31%
Judith Sassorossi 69%

Williston School Board, 3-year seat
Abby Klein 48%
Darlene Worth 52%

Lister
Charles Coney 34%
Linda Ladd 66%

U.S. Presidential Primary
Democrats

Hillary Clinton 39%
Barack Obama 60%

Republicans
Mike Huckabee 13%
John McCain 71%
Ron Paul 8%

UNCONTESTED RACES
Williston School Board, 2-year seat
Holly Rouelle 2,492 votes

CVU High School Board, 3-year seat
David Rath 2,489 votes

Town Clerk, 3-year term
Deb Beckett 2,684 votes

Town treasurer
Deb Beckett 2,671 votes

Lister, 2-year term
Gerald Huetz 2,389 votes

Library Trustee, 5-year term
Patricia Mardeusz 2,538 votes

Champlain Water District representative, 3-year term
Donald Phillips 2,524 votes

Town Constable, 1-year term
Kermit Laclair 2,582 votes

[Read more...]

VOTING BUDGET

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Town, school budgets win easy approval

March 6, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

This year's referendum on town and school spending produced a surprisingly affirmative reply.

Williston's municipal and school budgets passed by substantial margins. Voters approved the municipal budget, 2,033-913. The Williston School District's budget was OK'd, 1,783 to 1,145.

The tally for Champlain Valley Union High School's budget was not available by press deadline on Wednesday. Residents from Williston and the other three towns that send students to the school cast ballots, but a malfunctioning vote-counting machine delayed results.

The approvals came a year after voters rejected the Williston school budget and barely passed the municipal budget. Officials reacted to this year's easy wins with excitement and a touch of relief.

"It's great for the school and great for the community," said Walter Nardelli, who as district principal oversees both Williston Central and Allen Brook schools. "We put together what we thought was a good budget and we needed the town to believe in the budget and that's what happened."

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire thought austere spending and better explanations helped the municipal budget win approval.

"First, the budget increase was lower than the previous year," he said. "Secondly, we made an effort to explain the budget in a different way."

McGuire and other town officials had emphasized what services cost and pointed out that the monthly payment for municipal property taxes was lower than many residents' cable television bills.

Interviews at the polls revealed mixed opinions on municipal and school budgets.

Williston resident Priscilla Dube said she believes her tax dollars are efficiently spent and so had no problem voting for the town and school budgets.

"Certainly, the town needs all the services it provides like police and firefighters," she said.

Others felt spending could be more frugal.

"The school budget always seems a little high to me," said Jeff Carlson, a former Williston police officer. "Taxes are high and teacher salaries are high. They get raises beyond the rate of inflation and beyond what the rest of us get every year."

Though he opposed the Williston school budget, Carlson said he voted for the municipal budget as well as bonds to pay for roof repairs at Williston Central School and to buy school buses.

The $7.6 million municipal budget represented a 5 percent spending hike. The budget included only one new position, although it did include increased hours for two existing employees.

A separate ballot item for a $489,500 bond to pay for a fire engine also won approval, albeit by a relatively close, 1,596-1,375 margin.

The $16.2 million Williston school budget bumped spending by 3.7 percent. New expenditures included an all-day kindergarten program and a longer school day.

Voters were also asked to approve separate ballot items for bonds to fund new school buses ($187,000) and to repair Williston Central School's roof ($480,000). Both easily passed.

The proposed $20.7 million budget for Champlain Valley Union High School equaled a 4.7 percent increase. The budget includes $175,000 for new staff.

Staff writer Tim Simard contributed to this story.

TOWN AND SCHOOL BUDGETS

Municipal budget ($7.6 million)

Yes: 69% No: 31%

Williston School District budget ($16.24 million)

Yes: 61%   No: 39%

CVU High School budget ($20.7 million)

Unavailable at press deadline

OTHER VOTES

FIRE ENGINE BOND
Yes: 54% No: 46%

SCHOOL BUS PURCHASE

Yes: 62%   No: 38%

ROOF REPAIRS

Yes: 72%   No: 28%

[Read more...]