Category Archives: local/regional

Get Moving on Vote by Mail!

Just as we were beginning to think Republican Governor Phil Scott deserved a lot of credit for his responsible handling of the Covid-19 crisis, he threatens to undo that goodwill by dragging his feet on Vote-By-Mail.

Secy. of State, Jim Condos has set forward a timely plan that would ensure all qualified Vermonters will have the opportunity to make their voice heard in the November election, but the Governor wants to postpone a decision as to whether or not to go ahead with the plan, until August. 

That would give the state barely three months to develop the protocols, notify counties of guidelines, distribute ballots, inform voters about the procedures, allow for the necessary learning curve to address unanticipated problems, receive and process returned ballots for counting, and present a conclusion scenario in which voters may have full confidence.

That’s a very tall order, and failure on any of these measures would mean utter chaos and bitter divisions at the worst possible time in our history.

Condos has said the governor must approve the plan in the coming days to give the Secretary of State’s Office enough time to set up the infrastructure needed to strengthen the early and absentee ballot apparatus.

…And what exactly does the Governor think will happen between now and August to obviate the need for distance voting?  Does he buy Donald Trump’s narrative that COVID-19 will somehow magically “go away” by then?  I give him credit for much more common sense than that.  At best we might have a brief respite before the next wave, but not only is there the responsibility to ensure that voters are kept safe, concern by voters, themselves, for their safety could in itself suppress participation.

True, it would probably be easier on his Republican cred right now to delay, delay, delay in the hope that somehow he will be spared this difficult decision; but he knows full well that what is required of any political leader in a time of crisis is a profile in courage, not party loyalty.

The Republican Party has developed a reputation for attempts at voter suppression. At this critical juncture, Governor Scott would do well to avoid that appearance, himself.

Calling on Governor Scott:

On May 1, Vermont is scheduled for a limited re-opening of some business interactions, despite the fact that we still have plenty of Coronavirus activity in evidence.

If I correctly understand the logic of this move, it stems from identification of Vermont as one of the nine states which had less than 1,000 identified cases of the virus, ignoring the proportion of virus/deaths to overall population. ?

I know we are all eager to resume “normal” living, but the testing piece is still far from adequate and the actual number of infections is likely exponentially greater than the 812 confirmed cases, so far.

We are told that there are so many unknowns about this unique virus that it is impossible to predict who might have it, how severe it might be and how it might manifest in any one individual.

I am sure Phil Scott is trying to be a responsible governor despite growing pressure to open the state, but I propose that he make one key demand of the Trump administration before the arbitrary May 1 deadline.? It’s a demand that is neither unreasonably large? nor without concrete purpose in addressing the information gap for the nation as a whole.

Having the second smallest population of any state, Vermont would be the ideal candidate for full testing of EVERY single resident, and contact tracing of all the resultant positives.  If if can’t be done for the 600,000 individuals in our little state, what hope is there of getting a handle on the vast unknown for the rest of the country?

So, Governor Scott, with all due respect, I ask you to make our cautious reentry to business activity contingent on getting help from the Feds to make this happen.  The profile on Coronavirus spread that such a state-limited study could yield would be invaluable to the country as a whole.

If ever there was a time to assert your independence while putting Vermont public interest first, it is now.

No April Foolishness

There’s no appetite for April Foolery around our house this year.? Every April 1, while my son was still home, it was a tradition for me to wake him up early, shouting, “Get up! Get up!? You’re late for school!” ? Even though it was an old gag, he fell for it most years, if only for the first few seconds before his mind cleared of sleep. ?

Today he lives and works in Montreal and, for the time being, we can only visit via FaceTime where the gag would be pretty much wasted.  I speak to him almost every day and am reassured that he and the cat are surviving his work-from home tenure in reasonably good spirits.

As of this afternoon, Vermont has 321 confirmed cases and sixteen deaths.  4,495 people have been tested, so far.

As of yesterday, the number of deaths was “only’ 13; so today’s death tally represents a single day increase of roughly 25%+…not great.

Still, we are in better shape (right now) than many other states; better enough so that Vermont Digger dared yesterday to ask if our “curve” was “flattening.  Monday, there were 256 cases and on Tuesday, there were 293 cases, an increase of just 37 new cases. Today’s increase represents just 28 new cases.

I already had to up the tally from 13 to 16. By the time I finish writing this brief diary, the stats may have changed and there may be no reason to be even cautiously optimistic.

Our son worries about us.  Even though my husband and I are generally pretty healthy, we are in the age bracket that has the most to fear from this disease.  I put myself in his place and remember how I would worry about my aging parents who lived far away in Chicago.

I worry about him, too.  Is he eating right and sleeping enough?  COVID-19 is fully prepared to take down young people as well as old.  I know he is observing social distancing and I feel for his stunted social life, being a young single male in the normally lively city environment. 

Fortunately, he has a great roommate and a sociable cat; so even without the internet, he won’t end up resorting to chats with the living room furniture.

For our part, down here in Vermont, my husband and I are finding a different kind of social distancing helpful; he, in his studio, and I, in the house.  With so much unrelenting togetherness forced upon us, a fair measure of “me-time” preserves the peace.  I can well imagine how difficult it is if you don’t have the luxury to go to separate spaces.

My friend Mary Beth, who lives alone with her cat in Tuscaloosa, is actually glad right now to be single.

She can’t imagine being confined to the house with any other human being for days unending! She chats with me and other friends via Skype, while working from home.  I think she’s writing about the Alabama experience from a northerner’s perspective.  Her neighbors provide quite a cast of characters and situations!

As I remind my 73-year-young husband, our job, is to observe strict social distancing, stay healthy and keep out of the way so that we do not complicate the already impossible lot of healthcare and essential service providers.  Not everyone will be able to manage that, so it doubley behooves those of us who can to do so.  

This is not the moment to climb a ladder or move a piano, if not absolutely necessary to rescue someone…and don’t let that “someone” be you!

Aged as we are, we are not the real victims of this thing.  As per usual, it is the poor and infirm who will inevitably pay the biggest price for the lack of preparation and poor response of our government.  Uniquely, though, scores of healthcare workers will join them this time as primary victims,.  

For the wealthiest nation in the world to fail so miserably in its duty of care is inexcusable…but there we are.

Does the Vermont Remote Worker Grant Program Earn Its Keep?

The Vermont Remote Worker Grant program is the latest “incentive” give-away to fall under the critical eye of Vermont’s intrepid state auditor, Doug Hoffer.

Auditor Hoffer has just released an audit report that suggests that the governor and enabling legislature have once again put the cart before the horse, failing to establish meaningful benchmarks and sufficiently detailed parameters to ensure that the program actually gives real value for the investment of tax dollars.

After evaluating the Agency’s “compliance with statutes and guidelines of the program, the report offers a summary of the “compliance and judgment” issues that were identified:

1 The Program used seven percent of its funds ($18,120) to reimburse grantees for security deposits, which are expenses that are also assets temporarily withheld and then returned by landlords if certain conditions are met. The Agency has no mechanism to recover these funds when grantees move and retrieve their deposits.

2 The Agency did not establish guidelines or caps for certain types of reimbursements. For example, one grantee enjoyed a prepaid year of high-speed internet. Another grantee received $5,000 for a 100-yard underground conduit for broadband cables, which adds value to the property and will not be recovered by the State at resale.

3 The Agency reimbursed some grantees for storage of possessions in Vermont covering storage periods prior to grant approval. 

4 The Agency did not verify the actual costs necessary for grantees to perform their jobs or whether such expenses were job-related.  

5 The Agency did not always exercise due diligence when verifying grantee claims. For example, the Agency permitted one grantee to sign as employee and employer, and it approved another grantee with inconsistent employer data.

While an audit report does not make recommendations, it does provide feedback on the existing program that should inform Legislative decisions about changes that might be needed to make it more effective; or if indeed it should be suspended altogether and the funding devoted to a different priority.

Mr. Hoffer’s findings are not encouraging.  It would seem that, urged on by Governor Scott, who has never met a growth incentive he can’t love, and in their haste to counter the narrative of a dwindling and aging Vermont workforce, the program’s framers too quickly seized upon an idea that was attractive on the surface but rather under-baked at its cored. Department of Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein seemed to anticipate problems, early on, and the bill’s co-sponsor, Becca Balint, agreed last year that the program was not really ready for prime-time:

“It’s disappointing we didn’t do a thorough enough job for her to have the information she needs, but I don’t find this alarming,” Balint said. “When you have committees that only meet from January to May, there are going to be details that need to be dealt with and parts of legislation that need to be tweaked.”

Balint added that she believes the committee will be able to get Goldstein the information she needs next year, before anyone submits an application for reimbursement.

“If she feels like she has not gotten enough guidance from us, I believe her,” she said. “It was really uncharted territory. She has tried her utmost best to make sure this can launch successfully.”

As for Goldstein, if she doesn’t get the details she needs in time for the program launch, she said, “we’re going to proceed with the ambiguity, because what other choice do we have but to follow the law?”

As for Goldstein, if she doesn’t get the details she needs in time for the program launch, she said, “we’re going to proceed with the ambiguity, because what other choice do we have but to follow the law?”

…And so, apparently, they did.

This is precisely why input from the auditor’s office is of timely value, even if it does give a less than flattering impression of one of the governor’s pet programs.

VermontPBS primetime impeachment hearings? To air is divine.

Longtime Public Broadcasting heavyweight journalist Bill Moyers and senior writer Michael Winship took out a full page ad in the New York Times last week urging PBS live up to what it once was and go the extra mile next week during the House impeachment hearings.

Moyers and Winship write: We believe that for the sake of the nation, public television should not only broadcast them live as they happen but repeat them in primetime so that Americans who work during the day have a chance to watch and judge for themselves Donald Trump’s guilt or innocence.” ?

The question is, does PBS dare to side with the Constitution or prefer the status quo. What should its mission be?

Vermonters can contact VermontPBS for a local answer and encourage our station officials to urge the national network to broadcast the hearings.

Moyers and Winship continue: During this present Constitutional crisis, the PBS Newshour and Frontline, as well as Washington Week in Review – which was around during those Watergate days — have done their best to keep up with day-to-day coverage of the bizarre developments of Trumpgate. Episodic coverage of the news, however, is not enough to get past the falsehoods and fraud that obstruct the truth in the news, especially when so many characters in the drama possess what Thomas Carlyle called ‘the talent of lying in a way that cannot be laid hold of.’” [added emphasis]

Put up your dukes! St. Albans vs. State Auditor

St. Albans City Manager, Dominic Cloud has picked an odd fight with State Auditor, Doug Hoffer over the findings of the auditor’s recent report on the City’s TIF district which identified multiple compliance issues.  

The controversy has seen City dignitaries, including Emerson Lynn, editor of the St. Albans Messenger join Mr. Cloud in circling the wagons of outraged denial with such fury that it invites comment.  Mr. Cloud has somehow enlisted the cooperation of VEPC (Vermont Economic Progress Council) to change the rules, after the fact; thus, bringing the City’s TIF decisions back into compliance.

That’s a pretty neat trick, one that many a private sector business would envy; but as a City taxpayer, I still have a few of questions.

The anger and vitriol exhibited by Mr. Cloud and his colleagues in their response to what is, after all, a professional opinion, is most unbecoming.  I have read the full report and see no cause for the tone of these responses.  

The City made some errors in administering its TIF.  VEPC’s decision to change the rules after the fact does not alter that simple fact.  We can choose to regard those as innocent errors rather than cynical manipulations to cheat the system, but it doesn’t help the situation to try and paint the auditor as some kind of villain. You know the old line about protesting too much?

The reason we have a State Auditor is that public entities in the same interest spheres as their economic “partners” (or clients) should not be relied upon to impartially judge the legal boundaries of how those “partners” manage the assets they have been given.  VEPC has rightly been characterized as a “partner” to the cities entrusted with TIF designation.  For that support, St. Albans City should rightly be grateful; but VEPC should not be in a position to arbitrarily move the boundary lines of compliance when one of its ‘clients’ oversteps. 

In any case, all of the issues raised by the audit report have not been resolved in the City’s favor.  VEPC has no jurisdiction over the taxes the City failed to pay for the Public Garage.  That issue has been conveniently omitted in the fevered reports of full exoneration.  What’s the story on that?

Phil Scott’s Vermont Climate Action Commission put in the shade by gov’s inaction

In a recent editorial the Times-Argus is shocked that Governor Scott: “In such hot times, this governor seems to have developed cold feet” over implementing the recommendation of his own climate action Commission. […] Now, two years later, we posit: What has this governor done in response to that commission’s hard work and recommendations? The answer is: Very little.

It is worth noting how low the bar is for a GOP governor that The Times-Argus finds the need to praise Governor Scott, crediting him for actually acknowledging the climate crisis, supporting the goals of the Paris accord on climate change and for forming his own 21-member study commission — two years ago.

The editorial praises the commission’s work, noting: […] the commission produced a report that recommended ways Vermont could reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also encouraging economic and job growth — a tenet of Scott’s administration. [ PDF of the 123-page Vermont Climate Action Commission report

Maybe they shouldn’t be surprised by Scott’s reluctance to expend any political capital to actually implement the plan.There were hints — big hints — from the start over his commitment to the goals and recommendations of his climate change commission. The editors might recall or might even have referenced Scott’s tortuously slow journey to be able to speak about the causes of climate change. In 2016 as a candidate he was pretty wobbly walking the line between denial and acknowledging man-made climate change. SevenDays: Speaking on WDEV’s “Open Mike” radio show in June, [then-Lieutenant Governor] said, “whether it’s man-made or not is almost immaterial.” At a Vermont PBS debate in July, he said the climate could be changing “for many different reasons.”

Scott’s language has evolved, meaning he got his foot out of his mouth after taking office and was at least making encouraging noises about support for climate change actions. But then a year into office his administration was found eliminating the term “climate change” from state documents with proposed changes to Act 250 — the environmental development law. Surprisingly few warning bells and whistles were sounded at this point.

So maybe the Times-Argus shouldn’t be so surprised that governor is getting “cold feet” about engaging the climate change commission’s recommendations. He likely had them all along. It ‘s becoming increasingly clear that while the Vermont Climate Action Commission did its job, the governor’s hidden agenda was for the commission to simply provide camouflaging fig leaves of commitment and action for the Scott administration, with little to none of either mandated in the end. Besides, fig leaf attire is so much more heat wave-friendly.

The game is afoot: Rebecca Holcombe to run for Gov.

After a short hiatus Governor Scott may have figured or simply hoped he could spend the summer back at Thunder Road happily racing his stock car around in circles. Now he may need to spend a little more time thinking about his upcoming reelection campaign as he just got a declared Democratic opponent.

Former Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe (a Democrat appointed by former Gov. Shumlin and retained by Gov. Scott) has declared she will be running for the party nomination to challenge Republican Scott — who has yet to formally say he will run.

“I’m running for governor to take the state in a new direction — to put my experience as a lifelong educator to work and make sure every Vermonter has an equal opportunity to succeed,” she said in a written statement.

SevenDays reports: Holcombe, who has not previously run for public office, was appointed secretary of education by Democratic governor Peter Shumlin in September 2013. When Scott chose to retain her in February 2017, the new GOP governor hailed her “fierce commitment to improving Vermont’s education system,” and she said it was “a privilege and an honor” to serve in his administration.

Those feelings had evidently changed by March 2018, when
Scott announced that Holcombe had resigned for “personal” reasons. The outgoing secretary declined repeated interview requests at the time and said only in a letter to colleagues, “It is time to move on.”

Although not a candidate in 2018, Holcombe wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Bennington Banner (and several other newspapers up and down the state) critical of Governor Scott’s “flawed” reelection campaign claim that he avoided $71 million dollars in tax rate increase. Holcombe rebutted Scott’s claim and warned about what she saw as his poor budgeting practices. She closed the piece back then sounding like the candidate she now is: You can’t drive it [state government] like a racecar, unless your goal is to beach on a rock. On the other hand, engaged and measured leadership, basic fairness, and attention to details of policy can yield better solutions. None of us can get everything we want, but if we work together, we can get what we need.

Others who may join the race according to SevenDays include Democratic Attorney General T.J. Donovan, Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, who was elected as a Progressive/Democrat; 2018 Democratic primary candidate Brenda Siegel could run again.

Maybe Holcombe won’t trouble Scott’s summer idyll at Thunder Road racetrack but she got a strategic first-one-in-the-race jump on  his potential  challengers next fall.

See you at the races Phil.

Fishing for answers: VT Commerce and Community Development survey

This June the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development ran an online survey that reached out to gather residents’ and non-residents’ opinions and for “insights on living, working and doing business in Vermont.” The idea, they say, was to measure the strengths, opportunities, and challenges the respondents faced and how the ACCD can help.?

Of course you can’t source everything in state but I found that two out-of-state companies are prominently involved in the survey. The ACCD contracted with — an “experience management company” co-headquartered in Provo, Utah; Seattle, Washington; and with offices in Dublin, Ireland — to run the roughly 20-question (fewer for non-residents) poll. Separately, the agency’s Think Vermont Ambassador website is powered by a second out-of- state company: out of Baltimore Maryland. Their list of services offers a variety of plans (named like healthcare plans) called Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum; fees start at $1,500 per month and run to $5,000 monthly for Platinum.

The agency’s survey contained a variety of questions along the lines of: name what you like and don’t like about Vermont lifestyle/business climate, and a series of multiple-choice rating questions about who is the most important audience for economic development marketing. But not too far in it feels as if they’ve baited a hook. Can you spot the prompt and possibly the ACCD’s preferred response here on question number four? 

At the end of the Vermont residents’ version of the survey participants were asked if they would care to join the “Think Vermont Ambassador Program.”

Think Vermont Ambassadors can, they say, “share national rankings and news coverage of Vermont’s thriving industries, game-changing entrepreneurs, socially responsible companies, vibrant communities, world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, education, culture and so much more. For anyone curious about getting an ambassadorship to Think Vermont by all means follow the link.

When launching Think Vermont, Governor Scott said the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s “Think Vermont will tell unique and positive stories about Vermonters and Vermont businesses.”

And, as we all know, nothing says “Think Vermont” more than hiring plenty of out-of-state businesses for prominent jobs.

St. Albans City Manager Objects to TIF Audit

St. Albans City Manager, Dominic Cloud takes umbrage at the TIF audit report generated by the Office of State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

In a public letter, Mr. Cloud expresses his displeasure at great length, finding even the factual title objectionable.  The City’s website omits the actual audit report, including only Mr. Cloud’s defensive arguments. St. Albans Messenger editor Emerson Lynn piled-on in a blistering editorial that appeared in the paper before the story of the audit report was even covered. Now that’s teamwork!

For its part, the City has made the curious decision to omit Mr. Hoffer’s audit report from their website while including Mr. Cloud’s angry response to the report.

Voters in St. Albans should not be expected to be familiar with the TIF statutes.  The information we received before voting did not address the possible conflicts associated with stretching TIF debt assigned for brownfield clean-up to pay for costs associated with developing a private hotel on the site.  Apparently, those disallowed uses were not even clearly stated in the City’s application for funding.  It should have therefore come as no surprise that a state audit would call them into question.

Mr. Cloud uses interactions by the City with it’s “partner” The Vermont Economic Progress Council, mostly after-the-fact, to deflect his responsibility for mismanagement of the TIF district.  According to statute, VEPEC is not supposed to be a ‘partner’ with the City, but rather an overseer,  charged with evaluating the City’s requests to utilize TIF funding in specific ways,, and with enforcement in the case of non-compliance.

Mr. Cloud insists that it is a “moot point” if the repayment terms were not clearly communicated to voters in a timely manner, because “… the City Council has ratified any irregularities related to the call of the meeting.”  Nice for the City Council, but how does that fix the information gap?

Objections to using $1 million of TIF debt to pay debt service on TIF debt and over $4 million of costs for a private hotel are not based on “arcane, technical questions” as Mr. Cloud says, but on statutes that may be rather easily understood in terms of the overarching purpose of TIF funding.  What is “arcane” is the baroque twist to the statutes that the City has employed to defeat that purpose. 

Wrong is wrong, period.

It is quite true that the audit highlights some shortcomings in the statutes governing TIF administration, which contributed to the problems in St. Albans.  That is one of the values of audits conducted on behalf of the public interest.

But no matter how much civic leaders may wish to lean on these shortcomings as excuses for mismanagement,  the inescapable fact remains that people entrusted by the public with responsibility beyond the scope of the average citizen, knowingly skated on the edge of legitimacy in interpreting the TIF regulations to their best advantage.  

Like more than a few other city taxpayers, I attended those informational meetings at City Hall and regrettably did not have the chops to raise pertinent questions at the right times; nor to recognize when we were not provided with all the information to cast an informed vote.  I had my suspicions and so voted against the TIF expenditures, but I can’t claim that my vote was informed by more than a hunch that it was all a little too good to be true.

We have little choice but to rely on the guidance of our paid City Manager and other professionals who are entrusted with administering the city’s resources. There is a duty of service on the part of those professionals, which no amount of deflection can undo.

Defenses expressed by the City Manager in his rebuttal concentrate only on deficiencies in the codification of TIF rules, but completely ignore the issues of obvious tax diversion, financial irregularities, cost overruns, no-bid contract awards, and sweetheart deals for private profit.  The practice seems to have been “do what you will and get permission later.”

Any one of those issues could possibly be excused as an error, but surely not all of them!  And when the City Manager goes ballistic at the criticism, it sounds a little like guilt speaking.

Dominic Cloud  accuses Auditor Hoffer of bias and suggest he should mind his own business,  But this is his business; it is the whole state’s business.  When Mr. Cloud got all creative with the rules, he essentially gamed the entire state’s Education Fund.

I love my hometown as much as the next guy, but I don’t think its fair for my neighbors in St. Albans TOWN, or Swanton or elsewhere in Vermont where they don’t enjoy the largesse of TIF funding, to be cheated of the taxes that were meant to be generated by the new City Public Parking Garage.  Built with TIF dollars, the parking garage essentially double-dipped on the Education Fund when it claimed  special status as a tax-free entity.  The implicit promise of TIF is that investments made with money withheld from the Education Fund ultimately will be returned two-fold by the taxes generated from new development, such as the City Public Parking Garage.  

Contrary to Mr. Cloud’s assertions, the audit did not apply novel interpretations of long standing rules.  According to the report, the auditor’s office consulted with the AGO when it came to interpretation of the statutes, and applied that guidance.  But even without that guidance, there is evidence in the record from which one might reach the same conclusions as are contained in the St. Albans audit.   In the case of Winooski’s TIF funded parking garage, the legislature rejected two efforts by that City to have the statutes  amended to make the parking garage tax exempt.  Why would the City of St. Albans be any different?

Outrage in the face of discovery doesn’t become our City Manager.  Dominic Cloud is a sophisticated business mind who understands these principles all too well.  

The question remains:  after all the egregious mismanagement of TIF funds, including a huge sum paid to a private agent in order to facilitate the sale of property to a private entity, will there be enough left in the TIF to fund the largest component that it was intended to support, ie. the Multi-Modal Connector, which has not yet even broken ground?

I, for one, would like to thank Auditor Hoffer for bringing this mess to our attention.  For TIF funding to return full value to the state, it must be rigorously patrolled against abuse.  Otherwise it is just welfare for developers at the expense of our children’s education.