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Local
Merger raises budget questions

BARRE — However it happens, the anticipated merger of the two-town, three-school Barre Supervisory Union has injected uncertainty into this year’s budget-building process.

How much to ask voters to spend on public education is always a question this time of year. Who will be doing the asking, for which schools, and when never are.

Until now.

Assuming the state Board of Education affirms last week’s provisional decision to merge the Barre, Barre Town and Spaulding High school districts when it meets on Nov. 28, only one of those new questions will be answered. The other two will have to wait on the results of a petitioned re-vote in Barre Town, where a structurally identical merger was resoundingly rejected for the third time two weeks ago.

Superintendent John Pandolfo acknowledged as much while meeting with three local school boards that likely won’t have the last word in budget deliberations no matter what Barre Town voters decide during the Jan. 8 re-vote.

Barely an hour after leaving the state board meeting, Pandolfo predicted the days of Barre and Barre Town voters separately approving budgets their centralized elementary schools and jointly approving a third spending plan for Spaulding High School are probably over.

“I would make the assumption that there is a single budget,” Pandolfo said of a yet-to-be-set spending plan that would finance pre-K-12 education in Barre and Barre Town.

Though Business Manager Lisa Perreault prepared and presented first drafts of budgets for both elementary schools, the Barre-based high school, and the supervisory union, she, like Pandolfo, predicted would be collapsed into a unified budget and presented to voters in both communities.

When?

Pandolfo said that isn’t nearly as clear and won’t be until after the results of the Jan. 8 re-vote are in.

A Town Meeting Day budget vote isn’t out of the question, but Pandolfo said sticking to that traditional schedule would require Barre Town voters to reverse their latest rejection of a merger that was overwhelmingly approved in Barre earlier this month.

That isn’t as simple as it sounds because the merger can’t just pass on Jan. 8, it must enjoy the support of at least 1,404 voters – two-thirds of the 2,106 voters who were on the opposite side of the issue Nov. 6.

Pandolfo didn’t speculate on the likelihood that would happen, but said if it did the path forward would be predictable and as many as three special elections in both communities could be avoided.

If the vote is reversed, articles of agreement drafted by a committee of city and town residents would be locked in, along with tax incentives and transitional assistance available to districts that voluntarily merge under Act 46.

Pandolfo said that would negate the need to warn a special election some time before the end of February to consider articles of agreement that are materially different from the ones that would otherwise be imposed under by the state.

It would also resolve questions about the size and composition of the new union school board, because the one that was elected on Nov. 6 would be seated and could conceivably warn a Town Meeting Day budget vote.

Though one of for Barre-only seats would have to be filled, the rest of the nine-member board – all but one of them members of one of the three existing boards – are ready to serve.

Or not.

If the Jan. 8 re-vote comes up short, that board will never be seated, and a new one would have to be elected before a budget could be finalized.

Under that scenario the new board could have as few as four members – two from the city and two from the town – who are all jointly elected by voters from both communities. That is the default proposal now under consideration and, barring locally approved amendment, would be part of the rules for running the new district.

School officials from both communities have argued a four-member board is insufficient given the size of the districts and the method of election is far less appealing than the one reflected in the failed proposal.

Under that plan, each community directly elects four members to the school board and jointly elect one member to fill an at-large seat.

Unless the re-vote reverses this month’s result, Pandolfo said city and town voters would likely face three special elections – one to amend the articles of agreement, another to elect a school board, and a third – possibly some time in May – to vote on a budget. None of those decisions could be made on the same day, or even in the same month.

Thought he draft budgets could soon be consolidated the separate proposals all reflect an 11.8 percent spike in health insurance costs and negotiated pay raises for faculty and staff. Both elementary school budgets contemplate a shift to budgeting $1 per square foot for preventative maintenance like the high school has for several years. That would add $158,000 to the bottom line of the budget for Barre Town Middle and Elementary School and $126,000 to the budget for Barre City Elementary and Middle School.

Pandolfo defended the change that was initially proposed because it is in keeping with the industry standard.

“If we’re moving to a single budget I think it absolutely makes sense that we are talking about building maintenance line items that reflect the same standard across all of our buildings,” he said.

Perreault said “equity” was a key goal of the budgeting process and explains several of the staffing proposals. One of them contemplates hiring a school resource officer and technology integrationist for Barre Town’s elementary school. Similar positions already exist at Spaulding and the elementary school in Barre.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Photo by Sarah Milligan  

Railroad fan

Damien Fullmer watches the model trains on display at the Annual Rails Model Railroad Show held in the Barre Auditorium on Saturday.


Local
Central Vermont Public Safety Authority
Dispatching plan placed on hold

MONTPELIER — The executive director of the Central Vermont Public Safety Authority tendered his resignation in the wake of a joint city council meeting that didn’t produce the clear signal members of the inter-municipal cooperative were hoping for.

A day after pitching the authority’s proposal to create a consolidated emergency communications center serving Barre, Montpelier and surrounding communities that now rely on separate, city-run dispatch centers, Francis “Paco” Aumand announced he will be stepping down after three years at the helm of the two-town authority.

Aumand’s resignation Thursday wasn’t directly tied to the lukewarm reception the regional dispatching plan received from Barre and Montpelier city councilors at a joint meeting the night before. However, Tom Golonka, chairman of the CVPSA board, said Friday the two weren’t completely unrelated.

Had the authority’s board received a green light to proceed with its plan — or even a hint one could be coming soon — Golonka said Aumand likely would have remained on to assist with implementation. Instead, the organization is still stalled at the same “crossroads” it was when it headed into Wednesday’s joint session.

In that respect, Aumand’s resignation wasn’t a surprise, because while he had vowed to the complete work on the plan and assist with its presentation last week, his status beyond this month had been uncertain since July.

“We’re sorry to see him go, but we knew it was coming,” Golonka said of Aumand, who has agreed to remain on through Dec. 21.

Aumand is expected to assist the board in debriefing from the joint session when it meets on Dec. 6 and facilitate a discussion of next steps, including its annual budget request, which must be finalized by the end of next month.

Golonka said no decisions with respect to a budget have been made, and it is possible the authority wouldn’t ask voters in Barre and Montpelier for any additional money for the next fiscal year. Aumand’s mid-fiscal-year exit will leave the board with some cash on hand, and at this stage, the board sees no need to fill the part-time vacancy.

There is frustration, because while the authority’s board wasn’t expecting both councils to enthusiastically embrace its proposal Wednesday night, it was hoping for more meaningful feedback that evening.

Though individual councilors’ reactions to the plan ranged from “dead on arrival” to “let’s do this yesterday,” most were somewhere in the middle.

Montpelier Mayor Anne Watson acknowledged the councils’ commentary wasn’t particularity helpful.

“I worry we haven’t been clear enough,” she said, suggesting both councils probably needed more time to consider the plan.

Barre Mayor Lucas Herring agreed, citing questions about operational costs that could be incurred if the single-site plan is pursued.

The joint meeting was deja vu all over again for the CVPSA board, which two years ago pitched a much different plan during a similar session.

At the time, the board received encouragement from both councils, though members raised questions about the details of a plan to assume financial and managerial responsibility for city-run dispatch centers and operate a single service out of two locations.

Had that plan been implemented, the board would have been in a position to answer many of the questions posed by councilors Wednesday night. Instead, at the urging of department heads, the board agreed to evaluate a single-site solution that is the focus of their latest plan. It’s one many believe would provide a superior service with state-of-the-art equipment and staffing levels neither city-run center provides.

However, department heads have recently questioned a proposal to lease a new facility and raised questions about the cost of staffing the centers that would be abandoned.

Golonka told councilors Wednesday night it was up to them to determine whether, and to what extent, additional staffing would be needed at their respective police departments if dispatchers are moved off site. He also echoed the frustration expressed by one supportive council member, who complained it was difficult for the authority to be responsive when the goalposts keep being moved.

Golonka said the plan reflects his board’s best effort to address issues that surfaced in the past two years, while plotting a path forward.

“I think we’ve explored every possible option for consolidating dispatch in central Vermont, and if you’re not even willing to consider it we might as well call it a day,” he said.

Golonka said Friday his thinking hadn’t changed and, barring additional input, he didn’t expect the board’s proposal would either.

“We don’t feel that we’re going to make any material changes to our plan unless we have clear and precise directions from the councils,” he said. “We’re kind of in a holding pattern until ‘regionalization’ takes hold, or until the cities give us more direction on what they’d like to see different.”

The board – a mix of appointed and elected members from Barre and Montpelier and two new representatives from the Capital Fire Mutual Aid System – doesn’t need an executive director to wait, Golonka said.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Local
Senior housing proposed on mall property

BERLIN — It isn’t “coming soon,” but a plan to develop 98 units of senior housing could be the next big thing at the Berlin Mall.

The first-of-its-kind proposal for Berlin was pitched to a short-handed Select Board this week and, if all goes well, could soon be before the Development Review Board.

Brad Dousevicz, of Dousevicz Inc., said initial design documents for the project, which will include a mix of independent and assisted living units, are complete and should be filed with the town in coming days.

Local approvals will be obtained before Dousevicz applies for a state land-use permit he will need to construct the four-story residential building on one of the undeveloped “out lots” on the mall property.

Dousevicz, whose company has developed more than 500 senior housing units in Vermont, plans to build on two-acre out lot located near the end of the mall’s entrance off Route 62. The lot is located on the south end of the mall, which is owned by Heidenberg Properties Group.

Cabot consultant Michael Rushman, director of marketing and strategic planning for the mall’s out-of-state owner, said the housing project Dousevicz wants to build on the undeveloped knoll overlooking Walmart’s outdoor garden center, is consistent with his client’s evolving vision for the property.

“Our vision is to create a vibrant town center where people of all ages live, work and play in a way that embraces community and celebrates life in central Vermont,” Rushman said. “This senior housing project perfectly fits with this plan.”

The “town center” concept is reflected in the recent work of town planning commissioners.

“This project is right in the ‘sweet spot’ that the Berlin master plan and zoning calls for,” Rushman said, who advocated for the changes on behalf of his client.

“It’s exciting because we’ve talked about a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly town center and this is certainly a big foundational stone for that,” he said of a proposal that would inject a significant residential component to what has historically been a property that is all about retail.

Rushman said the project responds to a statewide need for senior housing, and the location takes advantage of public water, public sewer and public transit, as well as proximity to full-service grocery store at Walmart and the Central Vermont Medical Center, which is located just across Fisher Road from the mall.

“It checks off a lot of boxes for an appropriate site for this kind of use,” he said.

Selectman Pete Kelley said he was intrigued by a project that contemplates construction of a four-story building served by an underground parking area.

“This is a long-term investment for them,” he said of Dousevicz Inc., which has developed and still operates several senior housing projects in Vermont.

The project contemplates three types of living accommodations – two of them licensed and one with specialized care.

Independent living units could be a convenient option for some seniors, while the assisted living component of the project would offer the same benefits in a secure, licensed setting where medication is administered and personal healthcare is coordinated.

A third component of the project would involve licensed “memory housing” specifically designed and staffed for seniors with Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory impairment.

Assuming Dousevicz can obtain the necessary regulatory approvals, the project is expected to create significant employment opportunities both during and after construction.

Meanwhile, Rushman said the mall’s owners have “several other irons in the fire” and are still actively courting a restaurant for an out lot located just off Route 62.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


Photo by Sarah Milligan  

Thanksgiving bounty

The Capital City Thanksgiving Farmers Market was held at Montpelier High School on Saturday. The gym was filled with fresh produce, meats, cheeses and other local crafts. Here, Chris Thompson, owner of Owl Hill Farm, weighs squash for John Clark.


Local
Local link to 'Whitey' Bulger murder

MONTPELIER — A former Capital City man is reportedly one of four suspects in the alleged prison-beating murder of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger. Sean McKinnon was among the suspects identified by prison officials at the Hazelton penitentiary in West Virginia where Bulger was killed Oct. 30, according to a New York Times report. Bulger was reportedly beaten to death with a padlock in a sock. McKinnon is serving an eight-year sentence for stealing 12 handguns from R&L Archery in Barre in March 2015 to trade for drugs in Connecticut.

According to court records, McKinnon stole a Jeep from Central Vermont Auto Sales and then broke into R&L Archery in the early hours of March 15, 2015, and stole 12 .22-caliber handguns. He then drove to Hartford, Connecticut, where he traded the guns for heroin and cocaine, returning to Vermont within hours of the burglary.

Two days later, federal and local law enforcement executed a search warrant at McKinnon’s Montpelier apartment, where they recovered a 20-gauge shotgun, about 45 bags of heroin, drug paraphernalia, several pry bars and ammunition, court records said.

McKinnon admitted to the burglary and trading the guns for drugs in Connecticut. He further admitted that he had traded guns for drugs with the same Connecticut drug dealer, court records added. McKinnon stated that among the previous trades were an SKS assault rifle, a .380-caliber handgun with a laser and several other pistols.

In federal court Jan. 4, 2016, McKinnon was sentenced to eight years in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Also, he was ordered to pay $3,790 to R&L Archery and its insurance carrier for costs associated with the burglary.

One of the guns from R&L Archery was recovered by the Hartford Police Department in Connecticut during an August 2015 traffic stop. The other 11 guns have not been recovered.

Previously, McKinnon was convicted of felony assault and robbery with a weapon in 2007. He has convictions for driving with a suspended license in 2008, giving false information to a police officer in 2008 and petty larceny in 2005.

Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos said he remembered assisting the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the case against McKinnon.

“It was a federal case, so therefore I can’t speak on it, but I personally participated on it, assisting ATF,” Facos said.

Facos said he was already aware “indirectly” as law enforcement of McKinnon’s theft of firearms and drug dealing.

“I can tell you that the involvement with the stolen firearms, there was a definite nexus to heroin and trafficking,” Facos said. “This was not his first time on the case.”

The report said Bulger died the day after he arrived at the prison, when inmates went to breakfast. The Associated Press reports he had previously been in a prison in Florida, with a stopover at a transfer facility in Oklahoma City.

“Sometime between 6 and 8 a.m., when prison staff members made rounds, cameras caught video images of at least two inmates rolling Mr. Bulger into a corner of his cell. He was beaten savagely with a padlock in a sock and was found wrapped in blankets, posed as if he was sleeping,” the report said.

The report said that following the discovery of Bulger’s body, four prisoners in the unit were immediately put in solitary confinement.

They included McKinnon, although the report stated: “There is no evidence connecting Mr. McKinnon to any crime family.”

The prisoners confined included Paul J. DeCologero, a member of a Massachusetts organized crime group that was accused of dismembering a teenage girl in the 1990, the report said. However, two former law enforcement officials said they knew of no rivalry or quarrel between Bulger’s criminal enterprise in Boston and the DeCologero crew.

Also confined was Bulger’s cellmate, Felix Wilson, 26, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, “serving a 30-month sentence after he was stopped riding his bicycle on the wrong side of the road and the police found a gun, according to court records,” the report said, adding that Wilson reportedly had an IQ of 82, and “there was no evidence that Mr. Wilson had ties to any crime family.”

Fotios (Freddy) Geas was the fourth man put in solitary confinement.

“Mr. Bulger was in the same unit at the prison as Fotios (Freddy) Geas, a mafia hit man from West Springfield, Mass., serving a life sentence for murder,” the report said. “Mr. Geas’s lawyer, Daniel D. Kelly, said that his client and Mr. DeCologero did not know each other before they went to prison, and that Mr. Geas and Mr. Bulger had never crossed paths.”

The death has raised questions about why a high-profile inmate like Bulger was placed in the general population in the West Virginia prison.

“What I don’t understand is why the Federal Bureau of Prisons would transfer a super high-publicity inmate, who is a known snitch, to general population of a high-security prison,” Cameron Lindsay, a former federal prison warden who now works as a jail security consultant, told the Associated Press in October. “You’ve got to be smarter than that.”

James “Whitey” Bulger, so-named for his head of white hair, was a crime boss and FBI informant who led the Winter Hill Gang in the Winter Hill district of Somerville, Boston, for decades.

After being tipped off about a pending indictment by his former FBI handler, Bulger fled Boston in 1994 and went into hiding for 16 years before his arrest in Santa Monica, California, in June 2011.

In 2013, he was convicted on 31 counts, including 11 murders, and for racketeering, money laundering, extortion and weapons charges, and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, plus five years.

stephen.mills

@timesargus.com


Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles.


BTA Hotspot

Wednesday

Mid-Week Movie: “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Hilarious Thanksgiving travel movie starring Steve Martin and John Candy. Bring a non-perishable food item or a donation for the Hardwick Area Food Pantry. 6 p.m. Highland Center for the Arts, 2875 Hardwick St., Greensboro, 533-9075.