Barrett defeats Franklin for state’s attorney nomination

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Jennifer Barrett.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Jennifer Barrett. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle August 27, 2014

Jennifer Barrett was a clear victor in the Orleans County State’s Attorney’s race in the Republican PrimaryTuesday evening, and Paul Lefebvre won as a Republican nominee for the House district that covers parts of Essex County, Caledonia County, and Westmore in Orleans County.

Ms. Barrett had 953 votes to incumbent Alan Franklin’s 656 in the Chronicle’s unofficial election night results.

Mr. Franklin was overwhelmed by a strong challenge from his former deputy.  Ms. Barrett won in all but one of Orleans County’s 19 towns.

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Illuzzi and Hoffer seek state auditor’s job

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Don’t forget to vote today: Your vote counts.

copyright the Chronicle 10-31-2012

by Joseph Gresser

Of all the offices voters will fill in statewide voting on November 6, it likely that the one most citizens know least about is the position of auditor of accounts.

The race for this obscure job has taken on a higher profile this year, at least in the Northeast Kingdom, because Vince Illuzzi, who has long served as a state senator representing Orleans and Essex counties, is giving up his seat to run against Doug Hoffer for the job.

Despite any increased interest in the contest, it is likely that most voters have only a vague idea of what duties the winner will have to perform.  One might assume that the auditor checks the books of state government to make sure everything adds up.

But, according to both Mr. Illuzzi and Mr. Hoffer, that assumption is not quite correct.  In fact, that task has for some years now been performed by an accounting firm with which the state contracts.  At present the multinational firm, KPMG, has the state’s accounting business.

Doug Hoffer. Photo by Joseph Gresser

In telephone interviews both candidates said that it makes sense to have KPMG or a similar company check over the state financial statement and the “single audit” required by the federal government to keep track of funds sent to the state from Washington.

The reason, the two men agreed, is that regulations covering the reporting of federal funds change every year and a large company that works for several states can more easily handle the burden of keeping abreast of those changes than can a small office in Vermont.

Mr. Hoffer said it might be possible to have a couple of employees in the auditor’s office assigned to follow those changes.  But, he asked, what would happen if they decided to look for a different job and took their knowledge with them?

As things stand, the two major audits take up about half of the budget of the auditor’s office, $1.8-million.  The other half of its money, and the majority of the department’s attention, goes to what are called compliance audits.

According to Mr. Hoffer, that shift took place during the terms of Ed Flanagan in the 1990s and was part of a national trend among state auditors who started to take a closer look at the efficiency of government agencies and programs.

Both Mr. Illuzzi and Mr. Hoffer said they would continue to focus the energies of the auditor’s office on compliance audits.  Each agreed that such audits are essential to make sure that money is spent in the way intended by the Legislature, and to find ways to make state government more efficient.

Mr. Illuzzi pointed to recent press accounts concerning a new computer program intended to run the state’s court system.  The program, which he said cost around $3-million, is not working as expected.

An investigation of how that program and the non-functional $17-million information technology system at the Department of Motor Vehicles were purchased might help avoid similar wasteful spending in the future, Mr. Illuzzi said.

While the state can try to recover some of the money paid out for these systems, he said, it may be difficult to recover much for a variety of reasons.

Both Mr. Illuzzi and Mr. Hoffer argue that he would be the better person to carry out such investigations.

Mr. Hoffer points to his experience working as a consultant with the auditor’s office during the time Mr. Flanagan held the position.  He said he is temperamentally suited to the job, and is “hardwired to never go beyond the data.”

He acquired that trait while working for Burlington’s Community Economic Development Office during the administrations of Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle.  In that time he had to make many presentations to community groups about controversial projects.

By never venturing beyond where the figures took him, Mr. Hoffer said, he was able to establish the kind of credibility that allowed for fruitful discussion and eventual compromise.

Unlike Mr. Illuzzi, who was something of a political prodigy when he first won election to the state Senate at age 27, Mr. Hoffer admits to being a late bloomer.

He said he dropped out of high school after his family moved from an affluent area in Connecticut to Florida, and he was unable to deal with a radically different culture.  Mr. Hoffer traveled around and took various jobs, including a three-year stint as maitre’d of Alice’s Restaurant in the Berkshires.  (This was the same restaurant made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song, but some years afterward.)

From there Mr. Hoffer earned admission on full scholarship to nearby Williams College at age 29.  He went on to study law at the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York.

Mr. Hoffer said he never intended to practice law, a decision that allowed him to take courses that interested him, rather than those that would allow him to pass the bar exam.

He said that in his studies he kept coming across references to programs in Vermont that he found interesting, and after graduation he applied for a job working for the city of Burlington.

After Peter Clavelle left office, Mr. Hoffer was offered a position in the auditor’s office by Mr. Flanagan.

He said he rejected the job because he didn’t want to commute to Montpelier, but accepted work as a consultant.  Mr. Hoffer said he has continued to work as a consultant since then.

Mr. Hoffer said he is interested in the position of auditor because he is a number cruncher who is able to ask good questions, not because he is interested in a stepping-stone to a higher office.

If elected, Mr. Hoffer said, he would work to make the auditor’s office more transparent, for instance by posting the cost of each audit along with the money saved as a result.

Mr. Hoffer said that under the incumbent, Tom Salmon, the auditor’s office has spent $2.4-million to conduct 15 audits, an average of $158,000 per audit.

“That is the equivalent of two very well paid staffers working for one year on a report,” Mr. Hoffer said.

Although he acknowledged that the average gives only a rough idea of what the actual cost of each investigation was, Mr. Hoffer said he thought the office could be run more efficiently.

Mr. Hoffer said the cause might be “scope creep,” a condition under which the area examined by an audit expands as the person conducting it looks into new areas that may be interesting to her, but not worth the time being spent on them.

He said that the auditor should be involved in every investigation into spending, but that sometimes an agency’s own auditors can do the job without the auditor’s office duplicating their efforts.

Mr. Hoffer said that it might save money to have follow-up audits conducted in-house rather than by KPMG.  He said that when an audit uncovers a problem in a federally funded program, a follow-up is required to make sure that it has been properly addressed.

KPMG charges about $165 an hour to do this work, Mr. Hoffer said, far more than they get for the initial audit.  But the parameters for how the agency ought to be handling its money have already been set, and the follow-up does not require the same kind of expert knowledge that the initial audit does, he added.

Vince Illuzzi. Photo by Joseph Gresser

Senator Illuzzi, citing his lengthy experience in state government — he has served Orleans and Essex counties in the state Senate since 1979 — said his deep knowledge of state government would help him to make sure spending is being done as intended by the Legislature.

He also said that, because he is so well known in state government, his investigators would not be met with suspicion and hostility in departments undergoing a compliance audit.

Asked about why he decided to seek election as auditor, Mr. Illuzzi said he decided early not to run for re-election to the Senate.  He said he was considering running for attorney general when Mr. Salmon called him and told him he did not plan to run again.

Mr. Salmon said he thought Mr. Illuzzi would be well-suited to the job, and persuaded him to seek election, Mr. Illuzzi said.

Mr. Illuzzi said that though he is able to get along with everyone in state government, he is very willing to take opposing stands when he believes he is correct.

He said former Governor Jim Douglas was not happy when he called for closing down a state office building in Bennington when workers there became ill, but the building was shut.

Mr. Illuzzi also said he fought to have a majority of the board of the Vermont Electric Company, which oversees transmission lines in the state, represent the public after Green Mountain Power bought Central Vermont Public Service.  He said that he didn’t win that battle, in which Governor Peter Shumlin took the opposite side, but the percentage of public members on the board was increased as a result of his work.

He said the auditor’s work is all about trying to help the government adopt best practices.

“My motto has always been:  We can do better.  If we trust each other and pull in the same direction that will happen.”

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

 

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A day in Vince Illuzzi’s quest for statewide office

During a September interview on the Mark Johnson Show, Vince Illuzzi of Derby says 32 years of serving the Northeast Kingdom as a senator has prepared him for statewide office. Photos by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 10-17-12

by Paul Lefebvre

On a rainy early September morning, Senator Vince Illuzzi is heading to the State House.  No legislation is seeking his attention, but as the place where he has forged a formidable political career, the State House may be the place where he feels most comfortable as he prepares for a debate in his first run for statewide office.

The senator spreads his notes out on a table in the cafeteria, which feels hollow as a cavern now the Legislature is not in session, but his attention strays to a State House worker heading in his direction.

“How you doing?” he says, exchanging pleasantries with the man, who knows who the senator is without any introduction.  “Hope I can count on your vote.”

The exchange is vintage Illuzzi — a politician who might be said to have brought campaigning to a height that even surprises some veteran observers of Vermont politics.

The live debate this morning is being broadcast on the Mark Johnson Show, a daily feature on WDEV, a radio station that takes pride in its coverage of all things pertaining to Vermont — especially politics.  Mr. Johnson is a familiar, regular face at the State House, conducting live, face-to-face interviews with legislators as the business of governing Vermont swirls around him.  Today’s debate is being held in a small bakery and café in Middlesex, and marks the first public encounter between Senator Illuzzi and his opponent, Doug Hoffer, in the race for state auditor.

It’s a show that is driven in part by listeners calling in with questions.  Driving from the State House to Middlesex with his notes in his lap, Mr. Illuzzi isn’t sure what to expect.  He raised the possibility there might be a plant, someone who has been put up to call in with a question designed to embarrass him.  But once the debate begins, his anxiety recedes into the background.  Although he may fidget in his chair, running a hand in and out of his pant’s back pocket, he answers questions assertively, mixing anecdotes with facts and numbers.  When the other’s fellow’s turn comes, Mr. Illuzzi shifts his attention to café patrons, a smile here and a wave there.  And then he’s on his feet, going from table to table, shaking hands when the show breaks for advertisers.

Acting somewhat perplexed that his guest is breaking away from the show’s routine and may be straying from its timetable, Mr. Johnson is prompted to remark on the senator’s relentless campaigning style.

“Does he stop and shake hands with every guy he sees standing beside the road?” he wonders.

Except for a caller’s complaint that he is monopolizing the conversation, there are no trick questions that morning for the senator.  The debate over, Mr. Illuzzi bristles at the suggestion he is driven in his quest to win a statewide race.  He is fashioning his campaign around his 32 years of experience as a state senator, and a political philosophy based on pragmatism and common sense.  Ideologically, he has no center.  Or what he calls in an interview “no red line in the sand.”

As someone who came from a working class family — his father worked in the Barre granite sheds as a sculptor — and as someone who identifies his base as the 47 percent that Governor Romney recently singled out as those Americans left behind, Mr. Illuzzi may be the state’s most unlikely Republican.

He recalls that when he first ran for the Senate in 1979, the people who quickly lined up behind him were workers.  He says the legislator he admires the most is the former Speaker of the House Ralph Wright, a Democrat.  And in interviews and in public, Mr. Illuzzi repeatedly touts his ability to work with legislators regardless of their political affiliations.  To hear him tell it, he is the non-partisan candidate.

“Vince works in mysterious ways,” says Robert Appel, the executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission and someone who has worked in the Legislature for 20 years or so with Senator Illuzzi.  “He was willing to be an ally on issues that held nothing for him.

One of the strongest showings of the Senator’s bi-partisanship came when he announced his candidacy for state auditor inside the granite shed where his father had once worked.  The make-up of supporters surprised at least one veteran State House lobbyist.

“I don’t know how he did it, but they were there,” says Ed Lawson, executive director of Vermont Forest Products, who added he never saw such a mix of support from labor unions and business types.

At the Vermont History Expo that was held in June on the fairgrounds at Tunbridge, Mr. Illuzzi already had his campaign in hand, right down to the straw hat.

Orleans Republican Jim Greenwood, who served in the Senate for five terms beginning in 1996, recalls that Mr. Illuzzi was seen as a legislator who listens.  If someone had a problem and was trying to figure out what he would do, Mr. Greenwood would often hear him say:  “I’m going to call Vince and see what he can do for me.”

And often he came through.  “The next thing you knew, he was writing a bill,” says Mr. Greenwood.

From the debate in Middlesex at the Red Hen Bakery and Café, Mr. Illuzzi veers off the campaign trail to attend a funeral in Barre for Oreste Valsangiacomo, who once headed the financially powerful House Ways and Means Committee.  He grabs a quick lunch at the Wayside Diner on the Montpelier-Barre Road, where he resumes campaigning and shaking hands before heading south to Manchester and a scheduled interview with the local paper.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” he says, straying for a moment to recall the long hours that his father put in at the sheds.  “I’m married to my work.”

If campaigning alone could ensure a victory in a statewide race, Mr. Illuzzi would be a shoe-in.

Mr. Greenwood says his former colleague has an irrepressible work ethic; someone who “works night and day.”

These days there hardly appears a trace of Mr. Illuzzi’s characterization of himself as a shy young man who had to change his ways.  He says it wasn’t hard, but he may have overdone it by becoming “overtly aggressive in engaging other people.”

Mr. Greenwood, who is an economic development specialist for the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, says that because he was the youngest politician to be elected to the Vermont Senate, the media was quick to pick up on Mr. Illuzzi.

He was depicted as young, knowledgeable, and quite aggressive from a region whose politicians were traditionally seen as laid back, recalls Mr. Greenwood.  Back home there was a feeling that the Kingdom had “a new life blood in Montpelier.”

Mr. Appel calls Mr. Illuzzi a politician who “doesn’t lack backbone”; as one who “put in a lot of time and political capital” pushing legislation for state recognition of the Abenaki as a native people and helping to improve conditions for inmates in Vermont prisons.

North Troy’s Bobby Starr, the most recent senator from Orleans County to serve with Mr. Illuzzi, says his colleague “would go to the mat” with an issue in which he believed.

On the drive to Manchester, Mr. Illuzzi is constantly on the phone.  He says he buys 4,000 minutes of airtime a month, and uses every one of them.  He uses a cell phone like a magician uses a wand — to make something happen.

“Harry, where are you?” he says, in a call made while he’s driving.  “Well, I’m in Rutland, and I was going to stop and see if you could introduce me to some of the people in your office.”

At the Manchester Journal the Senator tells editor Andrew McKeever that “the problem with ideology is that it gets in the way of common sense in solving problems.”  He goes on to say that relationships “are so important” in politics, and that he is “a known quantity.”

But among some people who work in the State House, Mr. Illuzzi is regarded as unpredictable.  And sometimes dangerous.  A legislator, says one lobbyist who spoke on condition his name not appear in print, who can side with you one day and be against you the next, depending on what’s up for trade.

“You never know when he’s going to call in his chips.”

Mr. Appel, who also served as defender general before becoming head of the state’s Human Rights Commission, says that Mr. Illuzzi was often a legislator who waited until late in the session before coming out on an issue.

“He was very conscious about showing his hand,” said Mr. Greenwood, who characterizes Senator Illuzzi as “a front bench personality” who was most effective when he was at the center of the action.

One lobbyist, who spoke on condition of remaining anonymous, characterized Mr. Illuzzi as being “emotionally intelligent” for his ability to see where people on his committee need to land on any given issue.  As a front bench player, he would not take a lead but rather wait until he could identify that point where all the other players could find agreement and move the legislation on.

At least one lobbyist believes that as a legislator, Mr. Illuzzi wanted a seat at the table so badly that it didn’t matter what the issue was, just as long as he was a player.

That Mr. Illuzzi went into negotiations without taking a stand or showing his hand didn’t trouble a former colleague.

“That’s the mark of a good politician,” says Mr. Greenwood.

Ever the pragmatist, Mr. Illuzzi has his own explanation.  “I’ve always seen myself as a problem solver,” he says.  “People look up to me to get the job done.”

The legislator most admired by Mr. Illuzzi, Democrat Ralph Wright, was repeatedly elected speaker in an era when House Republicans were the majority party.  In his book, All Politics is Personal, published in 1996, Mr. Wright says he won the support of House members by being a good listener.

Mr. Illuzzi believes there is “a lot of truth” in the book’s title, and he says — and others confirm it — that in pushing for state recognition for the Abenaki bands, he was keeping a promise to the St. Johnsbury senator, Julius Canns, a sponsor of the legislation who died before it could be brought to a vote.

But as Speaker Wright knew very well, being personal in politics cuts both ways.  To this day, Mr. Illuzzi blames Judge David Suntag for getting him in hot water with the Supreme Court that led to his suspension from the practice of law for five years.

While Mr. Illuzzi admitted at the time that the allegations he had submitted against the judge were not based on fact, he says today the judge was arrogant, refusing to hold court in Guildhall, causing Essex Country residents to drive to courthouses elsewhere in the state.

That the suspension had no bearing on his political career comes as no surprise to him.

“Why would the locals hold that against me?” he asks.

To many of the senator’s constituents, it may have appeared that powers outside the Kingdom wanted to cut Mr. Illuzzi down to size.

Mr. Greenwood says that many people didn’t understand the nature of the complaints, while others suspected that politics were behind the suspension — “holding suspicions that the big wheels in Montpelier were pushing the envelope more than they should have.”

Those suspicions may have been sowed much earlier and before Mr. Illuzzi became a household name in nearly every Kingdom town.

A graduate of Vermont Law School, he came to the Northeast Kingdom in the late seventies as a deputy prosecutor for Orleans County State’s Attorney Leroy Null, a controversial figure who died in office.  Snubbed by the Snelling administration, who chose someone else to fill Mr. Null’s office, Mr. Illuzzi might have fallen into political obscurity were it not for the leaders of the county’s Republican Party.

By 1980 longtime Senator John Boylan of Island Pond, a Republican, had decided to retire from politics and the party leaders in the district were looking for someone to replace him on the ticket.  Recruited by Republicans, Mr. Illuzzi became one, and won his first election to the Senate, gaining a reputation along the way as a tireless campaigner.

“Never heard anyone say he was not a hard worker,” says Mr. Greenwood.

In the Senate he earned a reputation as someone who could write bills and craft legislation.  Mr. Starr remembers Mr. Illuzzi as a committee chairman who would stay up all night writing a bill and have it ready to present to the rest of his committee members the next day.

Recently, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs, he was seen by one lobbyist as the person in the room who could see five or six moves ahead.  And someone willing to make an ally out of opposing colleague by telling him:  “I’ve got something you want.”

As he gained power and won appointment as chairman of the Senate Committee on Institutions, his reputation grew as he brought projects and funding into a district that traditionally lagged behind the rest of the state.

“Don’t know anyone who has brought more money into the Kingdom than Vince,” says Mr. Greenwood, adding that Mr. Illuzzi had the ability “to position himself in the Legislature to do this.”

Around the State House, Mr. Illuzzi says, he became known as Washington County’s fourth senator because of the projects he sponsored and championed, like the new granite museum in Barre.  As the author of the state’s capital construction bill, which funds projects statewide, Mr. Illuzzi had the power to make friends and win influence.

“Since 1991, I’ve had a major say on how every state dollar was spent,” he says.

“He had enough stuff in those bills for everyone, so no one would vote against it,” says Senator Starr.

“Vince is a guy who gets around,” says Mr. Appel.

Mr. Illuzzi is leaving the Senate at a time when the old guard is giving way to younger faces who are not as likely to defer to him — a new wave of legislators and lobbyists who don’t know they should be careful around Vince, says one who works the hallways of the State House.

Senator Illuzzi sees it, too.  During the closing weeks of the 2012 session, his customary role of problem solver did not rise to meet the occasion.

“It didn’t make any difference if the agreements I made had merit,” he says.  “They were flat out rejected.”

After his interview at the Manchester Journal, the Senator makes a quick trip to the mall, where he buys a new pair of shoes before heading to a Republican fund-raiser that is being held in a private home.  He delivers a short speech to the guests, who include former Governor Jim Douglas.  The last Republican speaker of the House, Walter Freed, introduces Mr. Illuzzi as the politician who provided the coattails that Ronald Reagan rode to victory in Vermont during the 1980 presidential election.

From Manchester Mr. Illuzzi drives south to drop off campaign lawn signs on the doorstep of the Bennington Town Clerk’s office.  Then it’s back to Manchester, where he stops at a snazzy restaurant to schmooze with the owner before driving home through intermittent rain and fog.

By the time he drops off a reporter in Barton, candidate Illuzzi — a Northeast Kingdom senator for 32 years and the first politician to seek a statewide office since Em Hebard was elected treasurer in 1976 — has been on the campaign trail for roughly 18 consecutive hours.  Derby and home are still a 30-minute ride away.

Vince Illuzzi marching in a parade in Island Pond.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Three seeking Illuzzi’s seat

Pictured is Vince Illuzzi at an energy meeting at Barton's municipal building in 2010. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Tena Starr

copyright the chronicle June 13, 2012

So far, at least three people are in the running for the Orleans-Essex Senate seat that Vince Illuzzi has held for 32 years.

John Rodgers of Glover, a former state representative, Bob Lewis of Derby, a current representative, and Jim Guyette of Newport said this week that they are seeking the job that Mr. Illuzzi plans to leave this year in order to run for state auditor.

Republican Tom Salmon, who is currently auditor, is not seeking re-election.
Mr. Illuzzi, also a Republican, wasn’t saying much this week about his decision to run for statewide office.

“I’m not prepared to get into it right now,” he said on Monday.  He said he will be filing his nominating petitions, and he will have a statement later in the week.

The deadline for filing petitions for office is Thursday, June 14.

Mr. Lewis said he filed his petitions for the Senate seat on Monday.  “Basically, I will be announcing my candidacy in the near future,” he said.  He said he’s planning a press conference for early next week.

Governor Jim Douglas appointed Mr. Lewis to fill out the remaining term of Loren Shaw, who voluntarily gave up his seat.  He has since been elected in his own right and has been in Montpelier since March of 2008.  He serves on the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee.
Mr. Rodgers had initially planned to run for the House seat that he lost to fellow Democrat Sam Young by one vote in 2010.  In the general election, Mr. Young beat him by three votes.  That narrowed down to a single, critical vote in a recount.

Mr. Rodgers was a four-term incumbent, and the defeat came as a surprise.

He said he decided to run for the Orleans-Essex Senate seat instead when he heard that Mr. Illuzzi might not be seeking re-election.  “It’s something I’ve considered for a long time,” he said.  “I need another challenge in my life.”

He said he’d already had his paperwork done for the House seat when he shifted course and decided to run for Senate.

Mr. Rodgers said he’s been getting a lot of encouragement and many people have offered to help him.  And he’ll need all the help he can get, he said.  “It’s a huge area.”
Although Mr. Rodgers is well known in the southern part of Orleans County, he acknowledges that he’ll have a lot of work to do in the Newport and Derby area.  “And in Essex County, I’m fairly unknown,” he said.

Mr. Rodgers believes that he and the area’s other Senator, Bobby Starr of North Troy, would work well together since their political philosophies are similar.  “I’m a Democrat, but I’m a conservative minded Democrat,” he said.

He said he’s a “regular working guy” who thinks independently and does not necessarily follow the wishes of party leadership, but can work across party lines, a talent that Mr. Illuzzi was known for, and one that’s increasingly rare in partisan politics.
“I can get along with everyone,” Mr. Rodgers said.

He said that in 2010 he made a “calculated risk to not campaign,” a risk he won’t take this time.  “I’ve got a lot of ground to cover now.”

In a statement, Mr. Guyette said his reasons for running are simple:  “First, there is no economy and very few job opportunities in this area.  It seems to me the current local and state politicians have been unwilling to help improve the lives of residents when it comes to pocketbook issues.”

The area consistently has the highest unemployment, underemployment and poverty rates in the state because of bad economic policies, Mr. Guyette said.

“So how can we fix things?  To start, let’s look at new economic policies, infrastructure improvements, creating a natural gas pipeline, scrapping Act 250, changing local permit reforms, and putting a very tight legal leash on the activities of out-of-state groups who tend to have too much say in economic and job development issues.  I believe if I’m given the chance to be your senator, we can take steps to make drastic improvements in these areas.”

Mr. Illuzzi has made rumblings about running for statewide office before, but this is the first time he has actually decided to throw his hat into the ring.

At the moment, one question is whether he will run for auditor as an independent or as a Republican.

Another is whether he can continue with his job as Essex County state’s attorney.

Kathy Scheele, director of elections at the Vermont secretary of state’s office, said that’s a question with no clear answer right now.

There’s nothing in the law that prevents somebody from submitting petitions for more than one office, Ms. Scheele said.  “If they were to win, that would be a question for the General Assembly, the attorney general, or the courts to weigh in on.”

Mr. Illuzzi was first elected to the state Senate in 1980 when he was 27 years old.  In recent years, he’s run largely unopposed and has secured the Democratic nomination as well as the Republican.

contact Tena Starr at tena@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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