MONTPELIER — It was not the usual mandate from a governor at an inaugural.
On Thursday, Phil Scott, the re-elected Republican incumbent, called on lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature to find common ground with him in seeking out answers to the challenges the state is facing and to inspire a renewed faith in government.
Scott made the comments at the State House after he took the oath of office for his second two-year term. He said Vermont can show the rest of the nation that it is possible to debate difficult issues and still remain civil.
“We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength,” he said during his 32-minute speech.
Scott laid out some broad policy goals designed to reverse the state’s demographic challenge, which he said has seen Vermont’s school population drop by 30,000 in the last 22 years while, in the last decade, the state’s workforce has shrunk by 15,000.
“Our stagnant population is threatening every service we deliver, every program we administer and every investment we hope to make,” he said.
During his first term as governor, the Republican Party had enough members in the Legislature to support the governor’s vetoes. In the November election though, the party lost ground, giving Democrats at least a theoretical veto-proof majority.
There were several areas toward that progress highlighted in the speech.
The governor said he wanted to work together with Democratic leaders to develop solutions to the key issues of the session.
“The good is in our hearts, it’s in our minds and it’s who we’ve always been,” said Scott. “Today, more than ever, it’s who America needs us to be. And to meet the challenges ahead, to best serve Vermonters, it’s who we have to be.”
Scott said all sides need to be flexible as they work together on programs to properly fund education and to create a long-term clean water fund.
The governor said the challenges affect virtually every aspect of life in Vermont. Both the governor and legislative leaders say they hope to find ways to work together.
“These trends not only mean fewer in our workforce and schools,” Scott said, “but fewer customers at businesses, ratepayers for utilities. ... And fewer to share the costs of state government, with ongoing needs in areas like transportation, building maintenance, public safety and human services.”
To help reverse this trend, Scott said he’ll propose a new affordable health care program for young people, back the construction of additional affordable housing units and support more money for early education programs.
He said all of this can be done without raising broad-based taxes.
“Vermonters elected me, and many of you, to ensure we don’t ask them to shoulder any more of the tax burden,” said Scott. “They’re doing their part. And it’s time for us to do ours.”
After the address, Democratic House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she welcomed the governor’s call for civility and agreed with him about many of the challenges Vermont is facing.
“The fact that he’s come to the table saying (that) ‘providing security for Vermont families is a good thing and we should all be working toward it’ — I’ll view as a positive step right now,” Johnson said.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, a Democrat and progressive, had a similar message.
“I certainly appreciated the call for us to work together to solve problems,” Ashe said. “He did acknowledge areas where we did work well together in the last session.”
While short on specifics, Scott said he wanted to make sure Vermont has the best educational system in the country, and build on the state’s healthy and safe environment.
He said his administration would outline plans to bring more people to Vermont, increase the stock of affordable housing, make health insurance more affordable for young people and improve the state’s child-care system.
During his budget address, scheduled for later this month, Scott said he would propose a long-term funding source for water quality initiatives using existing revenues.
He also proposed updating Vermont’s land-use planning system, known as Act 250. Proponents say the system helped ensure orderly development in the state, but critics call it needlessly restrictive and a drag on economic development.
He said his proposal would encourage growth in Vermont’s struggling downtowns.
Vermont Public Radio and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
BARRE — A massive ledge removal project that will close the northbound off ramp at Exit 6 for six weeks this summer will force roughly 1,400 vehicles a day to find different ways to get where they are going.
The project won’t be put out to bid for another two weeks and the work isn’t expected to begin before June 1, but representatives of the state Agency of Transportation are busy spreading the word about what to expect when it does.
Hoping to demystify the project and flag concerns that should be brought to the attention of prospective contractors VTrans representatives are in the midst of holding informational meetings in each of the four affected communities.
After meeting with select boards in Williamstown and Barre Town last month, Bruce Martin, who is managing the project for VTrans, and Natalie Boyle, who is be handling public outreach both before and during the work, briefed city councilors in Barre about what they should expect the summer and why.
The next stop is Berlin where they will attend a similar session scheduled in conjunction with next Thursday’s Select Board meeting.
“We’re doing the best we can to make this as painless as possible,” Boyle told councilors Tuesday night.
Concerns have predictably varied from one community to the next, though the need for the project can be traced to a July 2012 “rockfall” that spilled large pieces of fractured ledge along a 300-foot section of the northbound lane of I-89 near Exit 6.
Fortunately, Martin said, no one was injured in the rockfall which occurred in the middle of a summer afternoon. He said the outcome might have been different had it occurred at night when boulders in the road would have been harder to see, or in the winter when approaching motorists might have found stopping more difficult.
It’s why, Martin said, the project has been in the works since 2013 and is scheduled to be completed this summer.
At a minimum that will mean increased truck traffic in Barre, because Exit 5 in Williamstown isn’t considered a suitable option for large vehicles and northbound trucks won’t be able to get off Exit 6 while the work is underway.
Though Boyle said officials in Williamstown are worried some truck drivers will ignore that warning, the expectation is most will use Exit 7 in Berlin and the vast majority of them will travel down Route 62 to Barre and then double back on North Main Street to get where they were going in Barre Town.
Of the 1,400 vehicles a day that use the northbound off ramp at Exit 6, Martin said an average of 79 are tractor-trailer trucks and another 200 are box trucks.
The designated detour, which must rely solely on state routes, should bring them through Barre along with at least some of more than 1,100 other vehicles that would have the option use the Exit 5 off ramp in Williamstown. Those who choose that route would head down Route 64 and then take Route 14 to South Barre.
Route 63 – known locally as the “South Barre access road” – won’t be an option for much of the summer because Martin said it will be blocked with rock blasted off a 500-foot stretch of the ledge located along the off ramp.
Councilors expressed concerns ranging from noise the trucks might generate to the possibility some motorists who use the Exit 7 detour will bypass North Main Street and ignore the speed limit on Summer Street.
Those concerns was noted, as was Mayor Lucas Herring’s worry that truck drivers who try to use the detour when North Main Street is closed for the Barre Heritage Festival in July won’t have a safe way to get through the city.
Martin said that conflict could likely be accommodated by coordinating with the contractor. He noted the successful bidder will be required to re-open the northbound off ramp at Exit 6 for 72 hours staring the day before Independence Day in July.
According to Martin, a range of options for stabilizing a 1,400 foot long section of ledge were evaluated before the favored proposal – blasting and removing portions of the ledge, as well as trees and other vegetation – was selected. He said removing the rock is the surest way to deal with a section of ledge that was cut in a way where future rockfalls are expected and will reach the highway if they happen.
Though 900 feet of the ledge that has been flagged for removal is located along the interstate, Martin said the remaining 500 feet is along the off-ramp. That portion of the work is expected to take six weeks, will require the use of “rolling road blocks” to slow or stop traffic immediately before and after blasting.
With limited exceptions the southbound off ramp and both Exit 6 on ramps will not be affected by the project.
Next week’s hearing in Berlin is set for 7 p.m. at the municipal office building on Shed Road.
Once a contractor has been selected and the construction schedule is fixed, Boyle said an additional public informational meeting will be held. That, she said, would likely occur about two weeks before work starts.
Based on preliminary discussions, Martin said the project, which will involve the removal of roughly 43,000 cubic yards of material, is expected to start in mid-June.
MONTPELIER — The City Council slashed $50,000 from its proposed fiscal year 2020 budget after councilors’ concerns about the impact of the increase on the municipal property tax rate.
The reduction followed last week’s budget workshop that was opposed by two city councilors, Ashley Hill and Rosie Krueger, because of a budget goal to not exceed a 3.5 percent increase.
On Wednesday, the council voted 4-1 to approve a $14.473 million budget, with Hill voting against because she considered the increase still too high for low-income residents.
There will be a second public hearing on the budget on Jan. 24 when it will be warned for the Town Meeting Day ballot.
On Wednesday, the council approved a lower spending increase of about $370,000 on this year’s $13.9 million budget, an increase of 3.4 percent. That compares with an initial budget proposal last week that called for a $473,000 increase, an increase of 3.8 percent.
Based on projected revenues, financing the proposed budget would require raising just over $9.8 million in property taxes, an increase of 3.7 cents on the tax rate or 3.4 percent.
For the owner of a median-priced home in Montpelier — $228,000 — it would mean paying an extra $85 in taxes to fund city operations. That compares with a $98 increase proposed in the first draft of the budget last week.
This year, the council had the benefit of an interactive budget table that included a wish-list of priorities to consider. By placing a check mark against the listing, it automatically updated the overall spending and tax-rate increases.
The budget item cut was $55,000 for a new full-time Parks Department position.
Mayor Anne Watson proposed the cut, noting Parks Director Geoff Beyer is expected to retire at the end of June. Watson said she would prefer to wait until Beyer’s successor is appointed before adding another new position. Hill supported Watson’s proposal.
“I know that we need the position, but I also know that this increase, plus whatever the school increase is, is going to be significant for a number of people, and I don’t make this decision lightly,” Hill said. “But I feel it’s incumbent to be mindful that tax increases translate to increases in rents for renters and I think there are a lot of folks that rent in the city and just can’t absorb that increase.”
Hill said she hoped to be able to make the position a priority in next year’s budget.
Councilor Dona Bate opposed the cut, saying she was concerned that the Parks Department would be understaffed after Beyer left because he had also worked many unpaid hours to meet the needs of the job.
Bate noted the Parks Department would have to deal with the additional workload of the Emerald Ash Borer that will decimate the city’s elm trees, although the budget does include $67,000 for a new tree management position.
Other projects the parks director would be expected to manage include a proposed Confluence Park that will be part of the Taylor Street transit center and housing complex development, Bate added.
Beyer and Parks Commission member Dan Dickerson both spoke in favor of keeping the new park’s position in the budget.
Bate and councilor Jack McCullough opposed cutting the parks’ position, requiring Watson to cast the fourth vote to remove it from the budget.
Other budget adjustments included adding an additional $5,000 to the Montpelier Alive budget to support two major conferences on the arts and historic preservation in the city in the summer.
Requests by Councilor Glen Coburn Hutchenson to add $5,000 each to the ArtsSynergy Fund and for a new citizen survey failed to win council support.
“With all eyes on his agenda, Phil Scott asked – mostly non-specifically and yet quite hopefully – for progress. That’s not nothing. It’s necessary, and often understated.”
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