MONTPELIER — Those concerned the state hasn’t gone far enough to address $4.5 billion in unfunded pension and retiree health care liabilities hope they’ll find traction this year with the Legislature.
Earlier this week, the Vermont Business Roundtable released a report, readable online at bit.ly/0118pension, offering options lawmakers can pursue that the group believes will put Vermont’s teachers, state employees, retired state employees, as well as taxpayers, in a better position to weather an economic downturn.
With the report’s release, the Roundtable also held a news conference at the State House. It was lightly attended, and while some of that likely had to do with other goings-on, pension and health care obligations haven’t been a hot topic around the Capitol building, according to Lisa Ventriss, president of the group.
“Nevertheless, it’s gotten to the point where our state’s net worth is now in a negative posture, our bond rating has been reduced and the liabilities keep growing, so we simply cannot do nothing. We can’t adopt that policy option. We have to do something, and we think we’ve got some good recommendations that will benefit not just future beneficiaries of the plans but taxpayers, as well,” said Ventriss.
The report offers five recommendations. One is start conducting annual “stress tests” of the pension system that would look at how the funds perform during hard economic times. Other initiatives include: improving governance and transparency; exploring cost-sharing policies; creating a defined contribution, hybrid or other plans for new public employees; and developing an amortization plan for retiree health care plans.
“We put them all out there because I think at the end of the day all of those, or a variation, should be done, but I think the one that needs to be done first this year is the stress test for all of the retirement plans,” said David Coates, retired managing partner at KPMG, who worked on the report. “It’s a test that determines whether the state can pay the obligations in the future.”
Coates said risk assessment done by the Vermont state treasurer doesn’t go far enough.
According to Ventriss, only one legislator attended the news conference. That was Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, who said, in response to the briefing, she had decided to draft a bill calling for the implementation of a stress test.
Browning said last session, she and Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, introduced two bills dealing with the pension issue that went nowhere. One, according to a memo she shared with the Rutland Herald, was H.649 that would “change the division of the cost of the Actuarially Determined Contribution between the state and the employees and teachers in terms of the pensions.” The other, H.447, “imposes a tax of 1% on the retirement allowance of retired state employees and teachers and a tax of 1% on premiums paid for any retiree who received post-employment benefits but does not receive a retirement allowance.” Funds from the tax would have gone toward paying down the unfunded liability.
Ventriss said the subject matter is quite dense and difficult to follow for people who don’t track financial matters. The numbers also are quite intimidating, “but this is also a topic that wades into sacred cow territory, as well, because these are benefit programs that have been in place for a very long time and people don’t want to change,” she said. “Change is hard for people, and so I think that could be another reason, as well.”
The Roundtable plans to continue to push lawmakers for action, and to make a case to the public.
“We’re kind of like a bug flying around, and we’re going to hit a windshield, and that windshield is going to be an economic event that’s outside of anybody’s control,” said Roundtable member, John Pelletier, director of The Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College. “It will either be a recession that’s going to dramatically reduce tax revenue, as it always does in the state because we’re so heavily dependent on income taxes, or it’s going to be a dramatic market break.”
Not all parties agree with the Roundtable’s outlook.
“After an initial review, I was surprised to see a lack of acknowledgment of the numerous steps this office has taken over the last 15 years to help address the funding challenges presented in the report,” wrote State Treasurer Beth Pearce in an email. She said her office’s annual report, readable at bit.ly/0117Annual, outlines what’s been done by her office.
“Collectively, these actions, since 2005, are estimated to save $1.5 billion in costs associated with pension and (other post employment benefits) liabilities over time. Included in these actions were increases to employer contributions for both state employees and teachers, as well as benefit changes which increased the retirement age for newer employees,” Pearce wrote.
Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-NEA, the state’s teachers’ union, said Friday the steps the state has taken on this are adequate.
“We fundamentally disagree with the annual gnashing of teeth that the Vermont Business Roundtable has over the pension,” he said. “The pensions are serious, the underfunding as we know, and have known, was mostly the result of the state shirking its responsibility for almost a decade, and policy makers have acknowledged that.”
Allen said the Vermont-NEA believes the Roundtable would like to see the pension system replaced with something more like a 401k plan.
“We look at this, and we see these same people have been saying the same thing, and it’s clear to us their agenda is to dismantle the defined benefit program that’s been in place for decades, and it’s disheartening, but not surprising,” he said.
He said the stress test the Roundtable is calling for is a “red herring.”
“There is a group of anti-public pension think tanks that peddle these so-called ‘stress tests,’” said Allen. “We trust the treasurer; we trust the trustees of the retirement system; we trust the Joint Fiscal Office; we trust the administration; we trust folks who look at these things who give a real picture of where we are.”
Ventriss said the Roundtable has been talking about this since at least 2008, and its members understand getting lawmakers to move will be a slow process.
“It’s the second year of a biennium, everybody is going to want to get out early and campaign for re-election, so this year might be, again, an education year. But if we can begin peeling off some of these recommendations and get some legislative champions and some community stakeholders who are interested in advancing these options, then that would be a win,” she said.
BARRE — A longtime advocate for affordable housing and the homeless has been appointed as the new executive director of the Good Samaritan Haven.
News of the appointment of Rick DeAngelis on Thursday came in a release from the homeless shelter’s board of directors, which DeAngelis joined in 2017 and was its chairman before his appointment.
“Rick has a wealth of knowledge of effective housing and service strategies as well as firsthand experience of working with people in need as Montpelier’s Town Service Officer for many years,” said Melissa Battah, the new board chair.
DeAngelis replaces Rob Farrell, who had been in the position since May and previously worked as the shelter’s program director for nine months. DeAngelis said Farrell resigned “because he needed a more robust benefits package than we could offer at this time.”
The Good Samaritan Haven is central Vermont’s only year-round homeless shelter with 30 beds and also operates winter overflow shelters at the Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre with 14 beds and the Bethany Church in Montpelier with 20 beds.
The Good Samaritan Haven also has partnered with Another Way on Barre Street in Montpelier, a peer-led nonprofit that helps support the homeless, unemployed or people suffering with addiction or mental health problems and provides a daytime facility to help keep the homeless warm, along with evening warming shelters at local churches.
DeAngelis joined the board of Another Way in 2010 and served as its chairman for five years, during which he helped complete a $750,000 renovation of the facility and helped raise funding for phase two of the project.
DeAngelis is also a member of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee, which was launched last year to meet the needs of a growing homeless population in the city.
His appointment to the position at Good Samaritan Haven also marks the end of a significant stretch for DeAngelis as an associate housing director with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in Montpelier, a position he has held since 1993. He has been intimately involved in supporting nonprofit affordable housing programs throughout the state.
“Time for a change, after 26 years,” DeAngelis said. “I’ve done a lot of housing stuff over the years.”
DeAngelis said he had been managing the VCHB’s housing stewardship program for the last five years, overseeing 14,000 units of housing that require constant monitoring and attention.
“I’m very proud of my time there, but it was a convergence of things and Good Sam needs stability,” DeAngelis said, adding that he felt the need to step in to continue ongoing work and future plans for the shelter organization. “So, I’m not going to do this forever – I’m too old for that – but I can give them a good amount of time to continue with the progress and make sure that we have stable management, and then at some point, we’ll find someone else.”
DeAngelis said he will start in the position part-time for about six weeks before working full-time.
Judi Joy, shelter and volunteer manager at the Good Samaritan, said she was thrilled about DeAngelis’ appointment.
“I’m really sad that Rob (Farrell) is leaving, because I really loved working with Rob ... he has such heart,” Joy said. “I don’t know Rick (DeAngelis) very well, but I know he is committed to the cause ... and I think it will be wonderful working with him.”
Ken Russell, chairman of the Montpelier Homelessness Task Force Committee, also welcomed DeAngelis’ appointment.
“I think Rick does fantastic work and he’s been at this a long time,” Russell said. “Throughout this whole process as we’ve emerged, he’s been a real stalwart presence, bringing wisdom and expertise and a clear-eyed view of the challenges faced by the different organizations involved.
“He’s realistic and I think it’s a fantastic thing for everyone, all round,” he added.
From 1987 to 1993, DeAngelis was the first executive director of the former Central Vermont Community Land Trust, which became Downstreet Housing and Community Development. During his time there, the organization bought and rehabilitated 100 units of multi-family rental housing, including the North Branch and Barre Street apartment complexes in Montpelier and focused on the housing needs of low-income families and people with special housing needs.
DeAngelis previously worked as housing staff with Pine Street Inn in Boston from 1983 to 1986, providing a range of emergency shelter and transitional services for men and women.
Other voluntary work he has done included: being the Montpelier Town Services Officer from 2009 to 2017, helping individuals with extreme support services’ needs; being a member of the Montpelier Housing Task Force from 1999 to 2008; serving on the board and fundraising for Central Vermont Habitat for Humanity from 1995 to 2004; and hosting a weekly meditation group with Montpelier Mindfulness Community.
MORETOWN — Parents say they weren’t told the extent of an incident Thursday where a school bus with children on board slid off a snowy road and was hanging halfway down an embankment.
School officials say they also weren’t told the extent of the incident, placing blame for a “serious communication breakdown” on the bus company, First Student.
The bus was traveling west on Moretown Common Road Thursday morning when it went up a steep, curved section of hill. The bus lost traction and slid backward and then off the roadway. It came to a stop after it started to go down an embankment and the bottom of the bus caught the edge of the road. Police and fire crews responded to the scene.
The incident was reported to police at about 7:50 a.m. Moretown Elementary School Principal Mandy Couturier sent out an email to parents at around 8:30 a.m., saying buses had been delayed due to weather, but the children were safe. Couturier sent out another email at about 9:20 a.m. saying all students had arrived at the school.
Vermont State Police sent out a news release about the incident at 2:15 p.m.
Harwood Unified Union School District Superintendent Brigid Nease sent out an email at 3:10 p.m., saying she had been told the bus has slid into a ditch and all of the school district’s safety protocols were followed. She told parents police and fire were dispatched to the scene because the back end of the bus was hanging over a drop-off. Parents have said this was the first time they were told by school officials the extent of the incident. Some already had been filled in by their children when they were picked up from school.
Nease told parents there were 24 students on the bus and eight of them had been picked up by their parents while the rest were taken to school in a different bus.
Sasha Bianchi’s 8- and 5-year-old daughters were on the bus.
“I did not know my kids were in that situation. They sent an email at 8:30 a.m., which is a full hour after my kids should be arriving at school, saying a bus had been delayed. But they didn’t say what the bus number was, so I didn’t know if it was relevant to me or not,” Bianchi said.
She said the experience scared her children and they told her other kids were crying. She said older students had cellphones so they could call their parents, but the younger kids had to sit and wait.
“I think they were comforted by police, but in all this time I don’t know this is happening to my kids. I wish I had known. I would have liked to have known and had the choice to come pick them up, but I didn’t have that choice. I was just at work thinking my kids were at school,” Bianchi said.
She said she wants an alert system for the parents of the students involved to tell them what’s happening in a situation like this.
Shannon Towndrow’s 8-year-old son also was on the bus. Towndrow said her son is a special needs student because he has autism, anxiety and dyspraxia. She said the bus driver knows this, and he and emergency responders tried to keep him calm, but her son reacts to changes in his routine. Because of the incident with the bus, Towndrow said her son had to be restrained 10 times by school staff on Thursday.
She said her son did not take the bus to school Friday, but was instead taken by his parents because he told her he was afraid and didn’t want want to end up in a ditch again.
Because school officials didn’t know the extent of the incident meant school staff didn’t know, either. Some teachers at the school took to social media to say they wish they had known so they could have properly support the students impacted.
“His one-on-worker didn’t know,” Towndrow said. “The person who spends all day with him (didn’t know) he was internalizing this. He was an anxious mess all day.”
Police reported no one was injured, but Towndrow contends while no one may have been physically hurt, the students’ mental health was certainly impacted.
Superintendent Nease sent out a detailed statement Friday afternoon, stating First Student, the bus company the school district uses, was to blame for the break down in communication. She said after she sent out her email Thursday afternoon she started seeing social media posts about the bus and saw a photograph of the incident for the first time.
“My heart sank. Obviously, this was hardly a bus ‘stuck in a ditch.’ The physical and emotional safety of our students is the most important part of my job and I take it very seriously and do everything I can to make the best decisions,” she said.
Jennifer Mitchell, a location manager with First Student, sent Nease a message Friday saying the bus company “failed in providing the district with accurate, timely information.” Mitchell told Nease there was a breakdown in communication between the bus driver and dispatch. She apologized on behalf of the company.
Nease said she was told that because no collision occurred, First Student didn’t consider the incident an accident so the school district’s accident protocol was not followed.
Nease said the incident is still under investigation by her, police and by the bus company.
Going forward she said she, as well as the impacted school’s principal, will be notified any time a bus is stopped or delayed and that notification will include a picture of the situation, if it’s safe to take one, and a specific description.
EAST CALAIS — Despite a year-long battle, the General Store on Route 14 has closed — but efforts already are underway to reopen it.
Lesley Lapan ran the store for 12 years before financial difficulties forced her to close at Christmas — and despite a GoFundMe campaign by local residents that raised more than $12,000.
In a Front Porch Forum posting this week, the community was informed that the Preservation Trust of Vermont has been working with a group of Calais residents to form the East Calais Community Trust.
“ECCT is a nonprofit corporation organized to purchase the building that houses the store,” the social media post stated. “While we are saddened that the store is temporarily closed, ECCT is committed to having a successful store in the building.
“You will be hearing from us during the next few months to ask for your support and ideas for making the old Dwinell General Store a successful present-day business that once again serves East Calais and the surrounding communities,” the post added.
Community leaders involved in efforts to re-open the store said they hoped they can build the same kind of support that led to the recent successful shareholder buyout of the Maple Corner Store, now known as the Maple Corner Community Store, after longtime owners Artie and Nancy Toulis were unable to sell the business and the community rallied to save it from closure.
Denise Wheeler, chairwoman of the Calais Select Board, said there had been concerted efforts to raise funds and grants to reopen the East Calais General Store.
“Currently, we’re fundraising, and the goal is to raise $200,000, and do some remodeling and pay for closing costs,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said it was hoped to keep Lapan involved in re-opening the store.
“She’s an important part of the community and it was really sad for us, and for her, when she had to close,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said community members involved remained busy with the capital campaign and would be holding community forums to discuss the project, beginning in late spring.
“Everybody would like to see the store up and running,” Wheeler said. “We’ve talked about Wi-Fi cafés, maybe a local farmer’s market ... we hope to really get the community involved and have a lot of local produce for sale.”
Wheeler said there was still “a big question mark” over whether the store would continue to offer gasoline sales, which had to be shut down because the state required remediation work to remove and replace an old underground tank.
Wheeler said there were still some necessary formal steps that needed to be completed, such as state approval of a nonprofit organization. In the meantime, Wheeler said the Preservation Trust of Vermont would act as the fiscal agent for the store and was accepting donations towards the project.
“Until we have our state 501 ©(3), people can still donate to the Preservation Trust and it gets credited to us, but it’s tax deductible ... and you can do it online,” Wheeler said.
“Calais is unique ... we have a co-op in Adamant, we have the Maple Corner Store, which is a for-profit shareholder thing, and we’re looking just to be a nonprofit. So, we want to work cooperatively with everyone else in town,” she added.
Lapan said she was disappointed that she had to close the store, but said she was hopeful it could be reopened as a community enterprise.
“I hope, for the community’s sake, that something like that does happen,” Lapan said. “I tried and I couldn’t make it, and I’m very appreciative of all the efforts people made to help me try to make it, but it just didn’t happen.
“I hate the fact that the community doesn’t have a store anymore, so I think it would be awesome if somebody could come in and get it going again,” she added.
Lapan said country stores are essential to support communities in times of local need, especially in difficult weather conditions.
“In the summertime and fall, it’s no big deal, but in the wintertime and mud season, that’s when people are going to have to drive 20 miles to get a loaf of bread,” Lapan said.
For more information about the East Calais Community Trust capital campaign, call Wheeler at 456-8730.
Get jazzed up to celebrate with Barre’s Jazzercise crowd. A8
U.S. officials are looking into allegations that all three of Tesla’s electric vehicle models can suddenly accelerate on their own. B4
Ski historian Greg Morrill shares some vintage skiing footage at a “Home Movie Night” at the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum in Stowe on Jan. 23. C1
Spice on Snow
The Spice on Snow Festival, Montpelier’s standout winter music weekend, celebrates a decade of musical entertainment Jan. 23-26. D1