BERLIN — It may not go far, but the Select Board here is wondering whether Central Vermont Medical Center can be persuaded to contribute something toward the day-to-day operations of the town.
Chairman Justin Lawrence floated the idea, which has been floated more than once before over the years, as the public portion of Monday night’s board meeting was coming to a close.
Hoping to spark a running discussion among board members, Lawrence requested a list of tax-exempt properties in town and described the regional hospital’s absence on the portion of the list for which the town receives payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) as “shocking.”
“I thought for some reason the Central Vermont Medical Center was on there,” he said.
The fact that it isn’t prompted Lawrence to note the hospital accounts for well over half the total value of all the exempt properties — roughly $78.5 million — for which the town receives no regular PILOT payments.
The hospital and its 62.4-acre campus alone are assessed at nearly $47 million. The list includes more than $1.5 million in additional CVMC property — pushing the total close to $50 million.
One property that isn’t listed is CVMC-owned Woodridge Nursing Home. When the nursing home was built in 1993 the town sent the hospital a tax bill for that portion of the property. A legal challenge ensued with the Vermont Supreme Court ultimately ruling in favor of the town in 1995. The hospital, justices concluded, was tax exempt, the nursing home was not.
The ruling quieted those who occasionally complained the hospital created a demand on municipal services without helping to pay for them.
CVMC’s subsequent agreement to contract with the Berlin Police Department to have an officer regularly assigned to the hospital between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. helped — generating more than $100,000 in annual revenue for the town while filling an identified need at the hospital.
However, the chronically shorthanded department’s inability to reliably cover those shifts prompted CVMC to sever the long-standing contractual relationship in 2017, in favor of retaining private security.
Monday night’s discussion was brief, short on specifics and reflected some guesswork.
Though Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont was listed among the exempt properties from which the town receives no regular revenue, Lawrence said he believed the company makes a “voluntary” contribution that might be as much as $50,000 a year.
Board members were told the town will receive nearly $135,000 in PILOT payments for nearly $31 million in state-owned property. Though there are 16 properties on that list most of the value — more than $21 million — is reflected in the assessment for the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital, which is located just up Fisher Road from CVMC. None of the rest of the properties are assessed at more than $1.5 million and most are under $1 million.
Though Lawrence didn’t focus his comments exclusively on the hospital, the list of exempt properties that don’t make PILOT payments is significantly shortened when you rule out more than 30 town-owned properties. Churches might also be a reach, but he didn’t necessarily rule them out.
Based purely on assessed value, Lawrence said, the real money might be generated by striking a deal with CVMC. That, he predicted, would take some prodding by the board.
“Nobody would ever just want to voluntarily write checks,” he said.
Selectman John Quinn III pointed to neighboring Northfield, where Norwich University makes annual PILOT payments to help underwrite the town’s emergency services and once paid for the purchase of a new ladder truck.
Lawrence said he would like to see a similar “public-private partnership” between the town and CVMC — particularly given the future role the medical center might play in Berlin’s fledgling “new town center.” He said the topic should be the subject of an ongoing conversation, and it might be worth inviting CVMC representatives to attend a future board meeting.
Town Administrator Vince Conti said he already has reached out to CVMC officials, and recently attended the first of what will be quarterly meetings.
Among the items discussed was the response time of the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department.
“They (CVMC officials) didn’t talk fondly of the fire department,” Conti said. “To be very transparent, the amount of time it takes them (volunteers) to respond they (CVMC) get a quicker response out of Barre.”
Board members defended the local department, noting there was a difference between a professional department that is staffed round-the-clock and volunteers who are summoned to the station in the event of an emergency, or, in many cases, false alarms.