The Legislature this week: House raises minimum wage to $10.10

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House in March, in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House in March, in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle April 9, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Vermont is going to increase its hourly minimum wage.

Vermont legislators generally agreed that it was the right and ethical thing to do.

But when, and by how much, is still hanging in the air.

Under a House bill that won preliminary approval Tuesday, next year on January 1, 2015, a minimum wage worker could see his or her weekly pay check jump by roughly $40.

That’s the result of an increase in the minimum wage going from $8.73 to $10.10 an hour.

“Forty dollars in your pocket is not a theory,” said Representative Tom Stevens of Waterbury, speaking in the urgent tone of legislators who wanted to make a change.

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In the Legislature: Local control in wind siting unlikely

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Regional and local planners are expected to be the big losers in a bill to open up the siting process for ridgeline industrial wind projects.

Scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, the bill was rerouted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Tuesday as negotiations continued behind the scenes to strike a compromise and keep it alive.

“Unfortunately, regional planning is one of those things we’re probably not going to wind up with,” said Senator John Rodgers of Glover during a telephone interview Tuesday.

One of the stated purposes of the bill was “to strengthen the role of planning commissions and local selectboard and planning commissions in the siting review process for energy facilities by giving greater weight to their recommendations and plans.”

But at the end of the day, that’s not likely what’s going to happen.

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Advocates say Reach Up works and should not be cut

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Kate Kanelstein, in the second row at left, testified against imposing a three-year cutoff in the Reach Up program Monday at a Vermont Interactive Television hearing on the state budget. Beside her is Cindy Perron of Barton, who testified on health care. In the foreground at right, George Frisbee, commander of the Jay Peak Post of the American Legion, testifies against a proposed tax on break open tickets. Beside him is Harvey Robitaille, past commander of Legion Post 21 in Newport. Legion members attended the hearings at sites across the state to argue that the tax would cripple the charitable programs the Legion supports in Vermont. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 2-13-13

NEWPORT — Kate Kanelstein of the Vermont Workers Center was a bit apologetic when she sat in front of the camera during a statewide budget hearing Monday afternoon.

She had planned to bring several women who face the loss of their Reach Up benefits under the cutoff proposed by Governor Peter Shumlin.

But none of them could make it, she told the members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees who convened the hearing.

The women had encountered problems with child care, car troubles, sick family members, and one of them was in labor, Ms. Kanelstein said.

She used her few minutes on Vermont Interactive Television to read a statement from Reach Up participant Jess Ray of West Charleston.

But the explanations she offered the committee might serve as a quick summary of the problems that keep Reach Up participants, typically single mothers, out of the labor force.

Ms. Ray, for example, wrote that she is a mother of two, living with a boyfriend.  “Combined, we get $770 each month.  Our rent is $550 so after paying bills I usually end up with like $20 for everything else.  I love to sew and want to be a seamstress, but I would do pretty much anything if I could get a job.”

Ms. Ray went on the say that the arrival of her first child ended her career at a Barton nursing home five years ago.  “I went on Reach Up for the first time because I didn’t get any maternity leave with my job.”

They left Reach Up when her boyfriend got a job, but returned in less than a year because the company went bankrupt, she wrote.

“Then we got off again when I got a job at Thibault’s Market in Orleans but our car wasn’t inspectable and we didn’t have the money for the repairs so after about three months I couldn’t get there and lost that job, too.  As you can see we live on the edge and it’s really hard to get stable….  Living in West Charleston without transportation makes it incredibly difficult.”

“I also want to understand what you are basing these budget decisions on,” Ms. Ray told the legislators.  “Do you look at the real life situations of people in our communities?  I think that is where we should start.”

The decision in question is whether the Legislature should follow the Governor’s wishes and, on October 1, cut off all families who have been in the Reach Up program for three years.

According to Chris Curtis, a staff attorney with Vermont Legal Aid, 1,188 families would lose their benefits in October, of a total of about 6,400 families on the program.

Of that total, as of September last year, 315 families with 775 family members are in the Newport district of the Department of Children and Families, which oversees Reach Up.  Their benefits that month totaled $147,764, or about $470 a family.

The average Reach Up participant wouldn’t be affected by a three-year cutoff.  According to a state report, “the average amount of time that an individual in Reach Up receives case management services is approximately 24 months.”

But people who know the program in Newport are worried about the impact a cutoff would have.

“My biggest fear is the children,” said Mary Hamel, who runs a job site for Reach Up participants as associate director of employment and training for NECKA.

“Reach up is for families,” Ms. Hamel said.  “Cutting them off is taking away their rent money — the roof over a child’s head.  That concerns me.”

It concerns Mr. Curtis too.  People forced out of Reach Up may end up in the state’s emergency shelter program, he said, and that is already “an exploding part of state government.  What happens if you add another 1,200 families, just as the winter season arrives?”

Other branches of state government, including the Department of Corrections, may face a “ripple effect” from the Reach Up cuts, Mr. Curtis fears.  “Are we really saving any money here?”

His estimate is that the cuts will save Reach Up about $6-million.  “That’s huge to the families,” he said, “but to the General Fund it’s a relatively small amount.”

Mr. Curtis argues that the statistics show Reach Up works for most of the people who are forced to use it.  “The state of Vermont has invested a lot of resources into making this bridge out of poverty,” he argued.  “Why would we blow up that bridge?”

Since she set up a Reach Up work site for NECKA in 2008, Ms. Hamel said, “we have seen many success stories.”

NECKA provides jobs for 15 to 30 Reach Up participants, Ms. Hamel said.  Some work at the Parent Child Center in Newport, as a receptionist or a maintenance worker.  Others work at the cash register or keeping track of the inventory at NEKCA’s thrift store in Newport.

Reach Up has other partners who provide jobs in schools, municipalities and with nonprofit organizations.

The jobs go to Reach Up participants who can’t find work.  They pay nothing (outside of Reach Up benefit payments) but aim to help the participants learn job skills.

Younger Reach Up participants fulfill their job requirement by going to school.

The Governor’s proposal would permit families to take advantage of the full five years of benefits supported by federal block grants.  But there would be interruptions.  After three years, participants would be on their own for a year.  Then they could sign up for another year, be left on their own for a year, and come back to the program for a fifth and final year.

Efforts to reach Paul Dragon, director of the Reach Up program, were unsuccessful.  In his budget address to the Legislature, Governor Shumlin said “there is no better social program than a good paying job.  We will not allow vulnerable Vermonters, such as those who are disabled, to fall through the cracks, but we will ask those who can work to get the training and support they need and get a job.”

If the cutoff becomes law, Ms. Hamel said, “it will cause more homelessness, more hunger, more stress.

“I just don’t think it’s a great idea.  Maybe it’s a good idea to have a conversation about it, but I think it’s a bad thing to take the Governor’s plan seriously.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Legislators tour through Jay and Newport

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Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Bill Stenger, president of Jay Peak Resort, testifies before the combined forces of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee Tuesday at North Country Career Center in Newport. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 2-6-13

NEWPORT — A passel of state representatives on a bus tour of the Northeast Kingdom heard firsthand about the issues that will have to be addressed to help the area adjust to $500-million-worth of planned development.  One problem the area won’t have to address is an influx of 10,000 new jobs.

Bill Stenger, co-owner of Jay Peak Resort and one of the main forces behind the new investment, told the legislators that although there will be 10,000 jobs created in response to the investment, the total of direct jobs in Orleans County will be between 1,500 and 2,000.

The rest of the 10,000 figure will be a consequence of the economic activity created by the new business, and will ripple through the state and out into New England, Mr. Stenger explained.

He was the first witness to testify before a combined meeting of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Transportation Committee, supplemented by one or two members of the House Education Committee.

The legislators arrived for lunch at the North Country Career Center after taking a tour of Jay Peak and hearing the plans for economic development in the Northeast Kingdom proposed by Mr. Stenger and his partners.  They were accompanied on their journey by a group of high-ranking officials from the state agencies of Commerce and Community Development, and Transportation.

When they got to the Career Center the delegation found a crowd of around 90 people, including educators, local officials, business owners and interested citizens had already assembled.

Representative Bill Botzow of Pownal, chairman of the commerce committee, opened the meeting and gave Representative Mike Marcotte of Coventry, his vice-chairman, an opportunity to say a few words.

“I want to thank the legislators for coming up here.  We’re really proud of what we have here,” Representative Marcotte said.

He said of the work that must be done in connection with planned development, “they’re great challenges to have, but they’re challenges we have to meet.”

Mr. Stenger, who was the first witness, told the representatives that it was the “quality and character of the community” that inspired his plans.  Capital, he said, was the key to development, and the federal EB-5 visa program, which allows foreigners to get residency status in the U.S. in exchange for a job-creating investment, has provided an ideal source of capital.

He said the program has allowed Jay Peak to realize good ideas without the necessity of having a mortgage.

When the program got to the point where it needed to be renewed by Congress, Mr. Stenger said, he sat down with Senator Patrick Leahy, who was one of those behind the law, and Governor Peter Shumlin to think of what might be done if the law was extended.

They decided that it would make sense to bring in good new businesses and give them the opportunity to grow in the Northeast Kingdom.

When the bill reauthorizing the program was signed in September it opened a three-year window, Mr. Stenger said.

In those three years two new business, AnC Bio and Menck Windows, will have to be up and running.  Other ideas, such as a hotel and convention center in Newport and a redeveloped block in the city, will have to be substantially complete, he said.

He said that he and his partners have been working closely with educators around the area to make sure that people have the skills needed when it comes time to hire workers.

The issues that will need to be addressed as the current plans come to fruition include transportation, health care, housing, and education and training.

“All those elements are represented in this room,” Mr. Stenger said of those seated behind him.

“Keep our eye on us, because it’s been a long time since this part of Vermont has been a leader.  We’re going to do great work,” he concluded.

Before leaving the witness table Mr. Stenger, smiling broadly, said he was glad that whoever put together a list of projects for the Agency of Transportation included rebuilding Route 242, the road that serves Jay Peak.  “It made my day.”

Mr. Stenger was followed by superintendents Robert Kern of the North Country Supervisory Union, Chris Masson of the Essex North Supervisory Union, and Stephen Urgenson of the Orleans Central Supervisory Union.

Mr. Kern said that many of the schools in the area are old and need work if they are to accommodate an increased population of students.  He asked the legislators to consider providing help for school renovation, noting that Morgan has repeatedly voted down bonds because its voters feel they cannot pay for renovations on their own.

He also suggested that the state needs to provide demographic information to allow schools to make informed decisions about needs they will have to meet quickly.

Mr. Kern said he has no way of knowing how many new workers will be arriving or how many children they will bring with them.

Mr. Masson pleaded for consideration of spreading the development into the Canaan area.  The number of jobs in the community has dropped precipitously since Ethan Allen moved much of its production to its Orleans plant, he said.

Mr. Urgenson asked for a better communications infrastructure in the Northeast Kingdom.  Faster communications and better cell phone coverage will result in greater creativity, he argued.

Representing higher education, Penne Ciaraldi of Community College of Vermont, Ann Nygard of Lyndon State College, and Cindy Robillard of the Department of Labor outlined their efforts to create a partnership to develop job training programs in the Northeast Kingdom.

Ms. Nygard said educators have to build a “cradle to career pathway” for students.

Eileen Illuzzi, interim director of the Career Center, told how her school has worked to anticipate career opportunities.  She said the career center established its hospitality program three years earlier after a visit to Jay Peak.

“Hospitality is not a career choice, we need to make it a destination career,” she said.

She said the career center is “all about options.”  Even students who decide not to complete a two-year career program may have gained something.

Ms. Illuzzi told the story of a student who hoped to go to medical school.  When she fainted at the sight of blood during a visit to an operating room, it gave her a chance to reconsider her path, Ms. Illuzzi said.

The Menck Window company, a German firm, may want to consider working with the career center to create an apprenticeship program, Ms. Illuzzi said, something that accords with their national style.

Patricia Sears of the Newport City Renaissance Corporation gave a ringing endorsement of the city.

“This is Newport’s time, this is Vermont’s time, this is our time,” she declared.

She talked about opportunities that can be created by a planned foreign trade zone, which if approved by the federal government would greatly expand the possibilities of international trade in the area.

“We’re all on the path to awesome,” Ms. Sears announced.

Doug Morton of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association said his organization has conducted a number of studies of transportation needs in Orleans and Caledonia counties.  The studies could use revision, he acknowledged, but the basic information is still sound.

After the scheduled testimony, Mr. Botzow asked if any individuals wished to offer their opinions.  Nick Ecker-Racz of Glover stepped forward to tell the legislators that he thinks that an improved public transportation system ought to be part of their thinking.  He also warned against programs that involved excess regulation.

Finally Mr. Ecker-Racz cautioned the representatives that increased wealth in the community will inevitably result in an influx of drugs, including cocaine and heroin.  Programs should be put in place beginning in elementary school to guard against the problem.

Eleanor Leger of Charleston said she thinks that good local businesses will thrive in the new environment.  She expressed excitement about the proposed free trade zone, which she said could aid her business, Eden Ice Cider, which gets many of its bottling supplies from South America.

Reed Ogden of Barton warned against too eager acceptance of a Walmart scheduled for construction in Derby.  Studies, he said, show that every Walmart employee costs taxpayers $1,000 in support services due to the company’s low wages and benefits.  He acknowledged that the data behind that study was eight years old.

Mr. Ogden pointed to a community-sponsored for-profit store established in Saranac Lake, New York, as an example of an alternative way for people to buy the goods they need at a price they can afford.

Finally, Newport Mayor Paul Monette told the legislators that his city welcomes all the development.  He said that transportation was the only problem he could see.

He said that a bottleneck at the bottom of Main Street could be eliminated by building a roundabout.  Or a new bridge, which he suggested might have to go through the spot where Representative Marcotte’s store now stands, could serve as a bypass for traffic.

In concluding the meeting Mr. Botzow offered a kind of benediction.

“I think the future is bright,” he said.  “I hope in five, ten or 20 years we look back and say ‘we did it right.’”

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Why aren’t there more hydro projects?

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, May 30, 2012

This is part one of a series of articles about hydropower.

MONTPELIER — The Legislature gave a nudge this session to a renewable source of energy that roughly 70 years ago dominated Vermont’s rivers and ponds. As recently as 1940, hydropower supplied the state with 90 percent of its power needs.

But today hydropower is seldom mentioned in the push to acquire 20 percent of Vermont’s energy needs from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2017.

“Hydropower is the forgotten stepchild of the renewable energy movement,” says Lori Barg, who owns a business in Plainfield that designs and installs small hydro systems for towns and farms, and who gave testimony for the hydro bill that was signed into law recently by Governor Peter Shumlin.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill was Northeast Kingdom Senator Vince Illuzzi of Derby. Nearly ten years ago Senator Illuzzi spearheaded a failed attempt to get the state to buy hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River.

He has been pushing hydro ever since and, except for this year, striking out.

“It’s been a constant fight with ANR and water quality people,” he says. And in the Legislature there has been no middle ground with hydro projects, he adds: “Either you authorize them or you don’t.”

The bill that made it into law this year, S.148, intends to expedite the permit process for small and micro hydro developers. A small hydro is defined as a project that generates up to five megawatts (MW) of power, while a micro is one that is 100 kilowatts (KW) or less. There are 1,000 KW in a MW.

Estimates of Vermont potential for hydro projects are all over the map. According to the bill’s findings, they range from 25 MW to 434 MW. In a 2008 study, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) estimated there were 25 MW at 44 sites; whereas a year earlier the Department of Public Service (DPS) estimated there were 90 MW developable at 300 of the 1,200 existing dams, according to the bill’s findings.

In testimony on the bill before the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, Ms. Barg testified that Vermont has 400 MW of potential hydropower without building a single new dam.

So, the elephant in the room or the whale in the river is the question: Why isn’t hydro playing a larger, more important role in the renewable energy mix?

The reason, say a variety of sources, is the cost of permitting — a process that involves both state and federal agencies.

“Most hydroelectric projects require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The length and cost of the process of obtaining a FERC approval do not vary significantly with the capacity of the hydroelectric project,” says the bill’s findings. “However, the ability of a hydroelectric project to absorb this cost decreases as the capacity of the project grows smaller.”

To ease the permitting cost, S.148 authorizes the DPS commissioner to enter into an agreement, or what is known as a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with FERC that would enable Vermont agencies to prescreen proposed hydroelectric projects in the state.

The MOU would be comparable to one recently signed between Colorado and FERC “to streamline and simplify the authorization of small-scale hydropower projects.” But whereas the Colorado MOU focused mainly on agricultural irrigation canals, Vermont’s will deal with small dams and conduits.

The state must initiate negotiations with FERC by July 15, and recently the DPS assigned a staff person to the project, according to Andy Perchlik, who is the department’s director of Clean Energy Development Fund.

It may be too early to estimate how much money the new law will save those who develop small hydro projects, says Mr. Perchlik. The bill says the state will review the MOU once five projects have been permitted and are up and running.

For its part, says Mr. Perchlik, the state is expected to do “more hand holding” with developers and coordinate permit work among agencies. The department and ANR will put together a list of criteria that a project will have to meet and, once all the agencies have signed off, he adds, FERC will be able to move ahead.

Though some may see the legislation as a step forward, no one is saying it will stimulate hydro development or increase applications for small or micro hydro projects.

Since S.148 went into effect the phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook at the Department of Environmental Conservation, says Brian Fitzgerald, the department’s Streamflow Protection Coordinator.

“Realistically, there aren’t that many good projects out there,” he says.

If the MOU succeeds, Mr. Fitzgerald says the state will be able to offer “a new service” to small hydro projects. He says that by pre-screening environment issues, the state will be able to speed up the FERC review.

Still, he adds, when licensing a hydro project, the state is “allocating a public resource.” And that requires a permitting process “to be thorough and thoughtful.”

Mr. Fitzgerald says operating costs and the need to maintain minimum stream flows are the biggest obstacle for hydro developers. And while legislation to allow hydro owners to sell or net meter power back to utilities has improved the economic picture, he expects the new law will only help a few small hydro developers.

A 5 MW hydro is “a big project for Vermont,” he says.

Hydro projects are licensed for 30 years and, according to Mr. Fitzgerald, between three and five have been certified in the state during the last couple of years. But some say that the permitting process in Vermont takes so long that would-be developers get discouraged.

There are no tax credits but the state does offer grants for micro projects. Mr. Perchlik says the grants only kick in when the permits are nearly in hand.

“You need to prove you’ve got the permit,” he says.

When it comes to hydros, he adds, applications for financial aid are rare.

As the woman who founded the Plainfield business, Community Hydro, Ms. Barg believes projects should be rated initially by the impact they will have on the environment. That would enable those projects with low impact to clear the permit hurdle quicker.

She also believes there should be something like the IRS 1040 EZ form for hydro projects, which she says would make life easier for both the regulated and regulators. In her ideal list, developers would be required to go through a standard form and check off the statements that characterize their projects.

For example:

• “Utilizes for electric power generation only the water power potential of an existing dam”; or

• “Utilizes only a dam at which there is no significant existing upstream or downstream passage of fish.”

In testimony before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, she characterized the federal licensing process as onerous and expensive, regardless of size.

Still, she notes, that the MOU signed between Colorado and FERC has expedited the permit process in the Rocky Mountain state by licensing ten projects in a year and a half.

Big hydro projects like the one at James Bay in Quebec may have given hydro an indelible black eye. Senator Illuzzi says it alienated the public opinion by displacing native people and flooding thousands of acres of land. But local hydros, he argues, are viewed more benignly.

Still, when it comes to permitting, he says developers are caught between a “chicken-egg type of thing” as to who comes first, the state or FERC?

“It’s a colossal circuit that advances nothing,” he says.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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