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Local
Safe storage likely out of Senate gun bill, waiting periods uncertain

MONTPELIER — It looks as though a bill requiring safe storage for guns will not move forward in the Senate while a potential waiting period for gun purchases is still up in the air.

The Senate Judiciary Committee continued to hear testimony Wednesday on multiple gun bills. But the bill that has seen the most attention is one that would require a 48-hour waiting period on gun purchases. The bill would also require a gun to be stored safely when not in the immediate possession or control of its owner.

The committee held a public forum on the gun bills at Vermont Technical College in Randolph on Tuesday night. Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, one of the main sponsors of the bill and a member of the committee, said Wednesday multiple people told the committee there’s nothing wrong with keeping a loaded firearm at their bedside table.

“There’s a fairly common idea among gun owners that it should be OK to have a loaded weapon where a child could get it,” he said.

Baruth said based on the testimony he’s heard, the state isn’t ready for a safe storage law for gun ownership. Committee members have commented on how difficult such a provision would be to enforce. He said he would support the bill without that provision.

Baruth has heard testimony in support of a waiting period, specifically that it would create a “cooling off” time for people buying guns to do harm to themselves or to others. Opponents to the measure say people should have immediate access to guns to protect themselves and say waiting periods create an unnecessary roadblock toward a constitutional right.

Committee member Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, bristled during the discussion, saying he’d been “sold out”: He said the same people who supported an extreme risk protection order law are now asking for waiting periods on gun purchases.

“After having listened to victims’ advocates clearly telling us about five days after a breakup (being the most dangerous) in domestic violence situations, I went not just to this committee several times. I went to the governor’s office. I went to the speaker of the house. I’d been to the caucuses on both sides, and I begged and pleaded for us to come to unity and universally vote (on the orders),” he said.

Benning said he thinks a waiting period and safe storage requirement would place obstacles in the way of domestic violence victims. He said the bill assumes a given number of hours could impact a person’s decision.

Benning said he recently acquired a rifle from a family member that now hangs over his door frame. He said based on how the bill is written, he would be violating the law.

“I’ll tell ya, I’ve really reached the point where I say, ‘Come on and arrest me.’ This is going too far. I can’t for the life of me support any one of those provisions,” he said.

Benning said he would make similar comments to the Senate if the bill came to the floor.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the chairman of the committee, said he wasn’t sure how he was going to vote on the bill.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Rally for kids

A crowd cheers during a Rally For Kids outside the State House on Wednesday in Montpelier. The rally was part of the 25th annual Early Childhood Day at the Legislature, which is a day of advocacy, education and networking that brings together early childhood professionals, parents, employers and policymakers to focus on early childhood issues.


Local
Council peeks at plans for pool

BARRE — A new-look City Council got its first peek at conceptual plans to refurbish the city’s 70-year-old swimming pool this week and didn’t blink at a projected price tag that far exceeds what voters approved last year.

On a night when councilors welcomed newly elected members John Steinman and Teddy Waszazak aboard, a consultant who has worked behind the scenes for months provided a glimpse of what the aging pool complex could look like, as well as some sense of what those improvements will cost.

The city has a pending grant application for up to $350,000 in federal funding that would augment the $720,000 bond approved by voters last March. But councilors aren’t yet sweating the cost of the pool upgrade, which preliminary estimates indicate could easily exceed $1.1 million.

Neither is City Manager Steve Mackenzie, though he floated the very real possibility the “splash pad” that was pitched to voters as an out-of-pool amenity in the run-up to last year’s bond vote might need to be downsized or deferred.

“We have a budget challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” Mackenzie said, suggesting when the project is put out to bid this summer, the splash pad, which would create a new water element when the pool is closed, as well as repairs to the bathhouse roof be bid as alternates.

Mackenzie said the “core project” is refurbishing and reconfiguring the cracked concrete pool that was installed in 1949 and was losing an estimated 14,000 gallons of water a day last year.

According to preliminary estimates provided by consultant John Hickok, that work would include construction of a “beach entry” addition to the pool and could cost roughly $835,000.

The city has already secured a $24,000 grant, and Mackenzie is optimistic about its chances of receiving some, if not all, of the $350,000 it has requested from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“I have a reasonably high degree of confidence we can afford to do the base project,” he told councilors, while advocating for an a la carte approach with respect to the splash pad and bathhouse repairs.

Depending on the bid results and grant award, Mackenzie said it could be possible to install the splash pad and some initial features and add others in the future. At a minimum, he said, Hickok should include the extra amenity in the more detailed design work he’ll complete before the project is put out to bid in August.

“It makes sense to design it now,” Mackenzie said, noting that at worst, the city would have plans prepared for bid if another funding source was identified in the future.

Councilors aren’t yet writing off the splash pad that Michael Boutin has long lobbied for, but all agreed to treat that $200,000 component as an extra that might not fully materialize.

Members agreed refurbishing the pool is a must, as is replacing its subsurface mechanical room and all of the expensive equipment in it. The pumps and the filters are as old as the pool, and structural concerns flagged years ago by the city’s insurer have made bringing the mechanical room above ground a priority.

Those concerns have annually threatened the city’s ability to open the pool, something Mackenzie hopes to do for one last summer this year.

Hickok said that won’t interfere with construction that is tentatively slated to start in September, but will require yet another sign-off from the city’s insurer.

“If the pool is capable of opening this summer, it can,” he said.

Assuming there hasn’t been any additional structural deterioration, Mackenzie predicted that won’t be a problem.

Based on Hickok’s construction schedule, work on the pool will start in September, resume next spring and should be finished by late June of next year. That schedule coincides with the start of the pool season.

Councilors also agreed it’s mandatory to create a “beach level” entry to the pool to make it accessible to the city’s oldest and youngest residents and those with disabilities. It will cost an extra $110,000, according to Hickok’s preliminary estimates.

The zero-depth entry would be constructed as a narrow wing leading into the rectangular pool, which is three to 10 feet deep. Tentative plans include installing a climbing wall at the deep end of the pool and possibly replacing the slide.

david.delcore @timesargus.com


jebcas / Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo  

Good medicine

Delcey Avery, of Barre Town, chops scallions Wednesday at the North Barre Manor during a Good Food Good Medicine program. The Highgate nonprofit’s Winter Wellness Series is running free programs focusing on body systems and foods and herbs that can be used to help strengthen and support them. The program has worked for years to empower participants with the hands-on skills of gardening, cooking, nutrition, herbalism and leadership.


Local
Opponents sound off on gun bills

RANDOLPH — About 200 gun rights advocates traveled to Randolph Tuesday evening to weigh in on proposed gun legislation that they say violates their right to bear arms.

The death of a 23-year-old Essex man by suicide last year has many lawmakers pushing for a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases. Andrew Black took his own life hours after purchasing a firearm, and his parents — and many public health officials — say a waiting period will help protect Vermonters from acting impulsively on suicidal thoughts.

For Monkton resident Scott Chapman, the question before lawmakers this year boils down to this:

“What we have before us is a pure civil rights discussion of whether or not our right on the Second Amendment, and Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution, is a right as equal to our other individual rights,” Chapman told lawmakers at a public hearing Tuesday.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution couches the right to bear arms within the framework of a “well-regulated Militia.” But Article 16 of the Vermont Constitution is more unambiguous in its construction: “that the people have a right to bear arms for the defence (sic) of themselves and the State.”

It’s sacred language to gun rights advocates like Chapman, and he told lawmakers that they’re treading on gun rights in ways they wouldn’t dream of restricting other constitutional protections.

“How about the media here? How about they have a 48-hour waiting period to produce the 6 o’clock news and have to ask government permission to exercise their First Amendment rights?” Chapman said.

Chapman’s comments won him a round of applause from the crowd that turned out for a public hearing at Vermont Technical College, where opponents of proposed gun legislation vastly outnumbered supporters.

The 48-hour waiting period isn’t the only proposed gun bill in Montpelier this year. But it’s the one that appears to have the most momentum in the State House right now.

That’s because several prominent lawmakers, like Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, think it’ll help reduce suicide rates that are among the highest in New England.

“I personally support the waiting period provision, although I’m open to the length of duration,” Ashe said Tuesday.

Ashe said he rejects that idea that a waiting period constitutes a “restriction” on Vermonters’ right to bear arms.

“It doesn’t create any prohibition on particular gun purchases. It doesn’t create a class of people ineligible to purchase them,” Ashe said. “It says that there will be a brief pause between the time you go in and purchase the gun and when you take possession of it.”

Even if the 48-hour waiting period is a restriction, Christopher Ashley, of Norwich, told lawmakers there’s a legitimate public interest in imposing it.

Ashley said a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, called District of Columbia v. Heller, affirmed that people have a right to own a gun for self-defense.

“But it also ruled that this right is not unlimited, and the government can place reasonable restrictions on that right,” Ashley said Tuesday.

A law that could reduce the likelihood that someone will use a gun to harm themselves or others, Ashley said, is a worthy restriction.

“You have a right to weapons, but there’s a right too for the society to have reasonable rules to protect each other,” Ashley said. “And I regard S.22 as a reasonable effort to protect society as a whole.”

Many gun advocates who turned out for the public hearing on Tuesday rejected the notion that a waiting period would reduce suicide rates. But even those willing to concede the argument, like Monkton resident Justin Lindholm, said it still doesn’t warrant passage of the bill.

“You can’t just take away people’s rights to save a life here and there,” Lindholm said.

For other critics of the legislation, the opposition is rooted as much in economics as constitutional philosophy.

Devon Craig, with the Barre Fish and Game Club, said the organization has sponsored an annual gun show for the past 37 years.

“A waiting period would be the end of the gun show as it depends mostly on spontaneous buys,” Craig said. “And it would drastically affect the revenue to local business such as restaurants, hotels, motels and advertising services.”

Lawmakers last year passed the most sweeping gun legislation in Vermont’s history. The Senate Judiciary Committee could vote on this waiting period proposal as early as Friday.


Local
Energy efficiency charter change request provokes debate

MONTPELIER — A narrow vote supporting a charter change aimed at enforcing energy efficiency standards in Capital City buildings has sparked local backlash.

Article 14 on the Town Meeting Day ballot passed 986 to 928. After voter approval, charter changes must be approved by the Legislature. Preliminary discussion by the City Council proposed the buyer of a commercial or residential property would have to make upgrades to weatherize the building to reduce energy use.

It remains to be seen whether state lawmakers will approve the controversial request.

Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, D-Montpelier, is the ranking member of the House Government Operations Committee, which vets charter changes. He said the committee has not received nor discussed the charter change request.

“With the majority of charter changes, if this is what the community wants to do, if we feel it’s within the Constitution and our other statutes, we generally tend to approve things,” Kitzmiller said. “There are, of course, exceptions, but we come at it with a positive attitude and so does the Senate. The Senate is closer to a rubber stamp than the House is.”

Kitzmiller said he was ambivalent about the charter change request, having previously owned commercial property in the city, on Langdon Street, but said he would support the city’s request.

“I don’t think this idea is outrageous,” Kitzmiller said. “I can’t say that I’m confident in my own approval of it. I’m not sure how I feel about mandating certain levels of energy efficiency. In new buildings, yes, but in existing buildings, I’m not so sure.

“Regardless of my personal opinion, if my city wants to do this, I will support it,” he added.

The first sign of dissent in the community came at a recent City Council meeting, when Realtor Tim Heney complained the request was too vague and would be an expense passed on to tenants as higher rents. Heney also said there were more important upgrades needed for the city’s aging housing stock, such as replacing antiquated wiring that poses a fire hazard.

Steve Everett, who owns several residential and commercial properties, also is wary of the proposal.

“I think it’s a mistake to do it by legislation or regulations; I think it’s better done by incentives,” Everett said.

Everett said he’s already done as much as possible to insulate his buildings and install efficient heating systems, and was also considering other options, such as solar panels.

“But we did it because of incentives, not because someone said we had to do it,” Everett said. “I think more people are more encouraged by a carrot than a stick. If it’s going to cost you more money, it’s going to be passed along to the residents and/or tenants, whether they’re residential or commercial.

“There’s an issue of lack of affordable housing in the city, and it seems that most of the decisions that are made in terms of raising property taxes or whatever sort of defeats the purpose of making things affordable,” he added.

Census data shows there are 3,786 households in Montpelier, of which 2,091, or 55 percent, are owner-occupied while the remaining 1,695 households are rentals. There are also 256 commercial buildings in the city, of which eight are classified as industrial, such as granite sheds, according to the 2018 Montpelier Grand List.

Mayor Anne Watson has been a strong advocate for the city’s goal to be carbon emission-neutral by 2030.

Watson acknowledged the charter vote was close and noted landlords’ concerns. But she stressed the proposal was simply the beginning of a conversation about the city’s efforts to address energy use and climate change.

“I want to assure people that we will be going very slowly with this conversation,” Watson said. “We really are at the beginning of what this would look like. We’re intending to have some public meetings about it, and I think it might actually deserve some stand-alone meetings that are separate from council meetings.”

For Watson, there’s a positive trade-off when it comes investing in energy efficiency.

“There are ways to space out the payment and match it with how much you’re saving,” she said. “It can look like a lot of money upfront, sometimes, but part of our work is to figure out how to make that workable for homeowners.”

This includes offering rebates for energy-efficient homes and loans from the city’s revolving loan fund to finance building upgrades. Watson said the city hopes to partner with other agencies to leverage additional funds for efficiency programs.

Watson said VSECU offers low-interest loans for building weatherization. Efficiency Vermont can also help low-income tenants with high energy bills apply for free energy-efficient appliances, such as refrigerators, washing machines and heat pumps.

The Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee has teamed up with Efficiency Vermont to help the city’s landlords and tenants with energy efficiency projects. Services include free building walk-throughs to identify and prioritize projects and connect them to contractors for weatherization projects.

Committee chair Kate Stephenson said a city energy efficiency ordinance could follow other proposals in Vermont that require building upgrades but cap the amount of money spent. The committee is looking at funding sources for energy-efficiency programs in the city.

“What people seem to not take into consideration is that these improvements are also intended to save energy, so potentially the rent might increase but the utility costs could go down,” Stephenson said. “The math is going to pencil out differently on each building, but the intent of this ordinance is to make energy costs more affordable for renters.

“It’s also worth noting that, in an average year, there are only three to four multi-family buildings that change ownership in Montpelier, so if enacted, this would be slowly implemented over a long period of time,” she added.

Efficiency Vermont program manager Phoebe Howe noted building weatherization increases property values while saving energy and money and improves living conditions, particularly for low-income tenants.

“It helps building owners do something about their buildings and reduce energy burden, but also helps renters who don’t have much power over their living situations,” Howe said.

For Eileen Nooney at Capstone Community Action in Barre, who helps low-income people find affordable housing, “the devil is in the details” when determining how the charter change would affect her clients.

Nooney is concerned standards could drive up housing costs and be passed onto her clients as higher rents, above and beyond the value of federal and state housing vouchers.

“Now that person is on the hook for a larger portion of their rent,” Nooney said. “For each of these details, there’s another detail.”

Watson, however, remains optimistic lawmakers will pass the change since it would help the state achieve its own goal to reduce carbon emissions in absence of a carbon tax.

“My guess is that they’re looking for other alternatives, other ways to demonstrate that they’re trying to move on climate change,” Watson said. “Here’s an opportunity to have municipalities to be involved in energy efficiency. If we think we have the capacity to do that, then I don’t see why they would say no.”

Energy efficiency standards are one of three Montpelier charter changes that legislators are being asked to consider. One would allow non-citizens to vote in city elections and the other would ban single-use plastic shopping bags, drinking straws and take-out food containers.

Kitzmiller said his committee has already reviewed these proposals and expects the plastic ban will pass since there’s similar legislation in the works.

“So, the only question is, should we do a Montpelier charter change, or should we do it statewide?” Kitzmiller said of the plastic ban. “My feeling is that we should go ahead and do the Montpelier charter change, because who knows whether the statewide idea would gain traction.”

stephen.mills @timesargus.com


Rail

“Parents should also be aware of the type of social media behavior they are modeling for their children. Excessive posting, oversharing and obsessing over your physical appearance can set a bad example that children may emulate.”

Editorial, A4

In the news

The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony for the first time Wednesday on a bill that would mandate the release of data on extreme risk protection orders. A2

Author Katherine Paterson kicks off this week’s Talk of the Town. A3

Local police logs. A3


Scene
BTA Hotspot

Saturday

DANCE! Faculty/Student Works in Progress

A variety of dance forms presented by students and faculty of Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio. $5-$10 donation, 7 p.m. Contemporary Dance and Fitness Studio, 18 Langdon Street, 3rd floor walk-up, Montpelier, info@cdandfs.comcastbiz.net, 802-229-4676.