The Coventry case Diaz bond revoked, has ten days

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copyright the Chronicle May 26, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz has ten days to come up with a $2.5-million bond or lose her job.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) paid up on the town’s $500,000 claim on Wednesday, May 24, but said it will no longer cover Ms. Diaz on the town’s insurance.

Under state law, Ms. Diaz will have ten days to come up with a bond on her own. If she can’t, the select board can declare the positions Ms. Diaz holds vacant.

All town clerks, treasurers, and delinquent tax collectors in Vermont must be bonded. In recent years, VLCT has provided insurance to member towns to cover the loss of any money entrusted to officials in lieu of the traditional bond.

In its claim, the town documented losses of $876,383 based on the report of forensic accountant Jeff Graham, who recently completed an exhaustive audit of the town’s finances.

According to a May 23 letter to the select board from Frederick Satink, VLCT’s manager of underwriting, safety and health promotion, VLCT found that “Ms. Diaz failed to faithfully perform her duties as prescribed by law.”

The decision was “based on Mr. Graham’s findings as to the cash-handling practices of the town treasurer,” the letter says.

VLCT’s policy covers the town both for “faithful performance” and for employee theft.

If the loss is found to have been caused by theft, that portion of the town’s coverage would also be canceled as far as Ms. Diaz is concerned, Mr. Satink’s letter says.

Coverage for other Coventry town officials and employees remains in force.

The actual claim that Coventry submitted was for $500,000, the maximum that VLCT will pay for a single incident. After subtracting the town’s $1,000 deductible, the check was for $499,000.

The town is still out of pocket for the rest of the $876,000 that Mr. Graham said he found to have been collected from taxpayers and never deposited. The select board has also spent almost $300,000 on the Graham and Graham audits and ongoing support in its civil suit against Ms. Diaz over the money Mr. Graham says is missing.

And Mr. Graham said he has calculated that Coventry has lost close to $200,000 in penalties and interest. That means it has lost or spent an estimated $1.3-million, Mr. Graham said in February.

Vermont law gives the select board the authority to set the amount of a town official’s bond.

A few years ago, in a very different situation, the Irasburg Select Board used that authority to force a town clerk to resign.

But months ago, Mr. Marcotte decided that Coventry wasn’t going to go down that road.

“People in Irasburg are still angry about that,” he said then. “We’re going to wait and see what the insurance company decides.”

Now VLCT has decided the matter. The only question for the select board was how big a bond Ms. Diaz should be required to carry.

On May 24, the board directed town attorney Paul Gillies to set a minimum $2.5-million bond requirement. That number is based on the amount of money in Coventry’s checking account.

“I’m worried about the next ten days,” town resident Leo Piette said at the May 24 meeting.

As soon as Mr. Marcotte, representing the select board, signed VLCT’s “proof of loss” document at Wednesday’s special meeting, any further losses caused by Ms. Diaz weren’t covered by the town’s insurance.

“As of today, the bond no longer exists,” Mr. Marcotte said.

The money in the checking account includes funds that Ms. Diaz has been asked repeatedly to move into reserve accounts.

“The clerk-treasurer has refused to follow our warrants to move that money,” Selectman Scott Morley said. “And that’s cause for concern.”

“The board’s job is to do everything in its power to protect the town’s money,” Selectman Scott Morley said.

The board has taken a number of precautions to be sure the town’s money is secure. Two signatures are now required to move money or write checks.

 

contact Elizabeth Trail at

elizabeth@bartonchronicle.com

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How much of Coventry’s loss is insured?

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — How much of this town’s missing money is covered by its insurance policy with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLTC)?

Will VLTC continue to insure the financial performance of town Treasurer Cynthia Diaz, or will she be compelled to shop elsewhere for such coverage, at any price?

And what would happen if Ms. Diaz can’t find affordable insurance within ten days?

Those were the questions floating around Coventry on Tuesday afternoon. Some of them should be resolved at a special meeting of the select board on Wednesday, May 24, at 3 p.m.

Jeff Graham, a forensic auditor, reported in January that he could not account for $876,000 of town funds after completing an audit in January.

Kelly Kindestin, property and casualty claims manager for VLCT, met with Selectman Scott Morley, town attorney Paul Gillies, and town administrator Amanda Carlson on Tuesday afternoon.

What Ms. Kindestin told the three is still under wraps.

“There is a special meeting scheduled for tomorrow,” Mr. Morley said in an e-mail late Tuesday afternoon. “It is best to wait until then to discuss.”

At Monday night’s meeting of the select board there was speculation that, in addition to how much VLCT would be paying on the claim, the board might hear whether VLCT plans to continue to insure Ms. Diaz.

Town treasurers in Vermont must

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State unveils plan to clean up Memphremagog

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

NEWPORT — Lake Memphremagog has a phosphorus problem and the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a plan to fix it. Actually, the plan is still in draft form, and Watershed Coordinator Ben Copans is touring the Kingdom looking for comments on the DEC’s proposal.

His first meeting on a three-stop tour of the Memphremagog watershed was in Newport where, in a meeting room overlooking the lake Monday, he outlined some of the measures called for by the plan. Mr. Copans will take his presentation to Brighton on May 30, and Craftsbury on May 31.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to set a total maximum daily load, Mr. Copans said. That’s the limit on how much phosphorus can flow into a lake from its watershed while it still meets water quality standards.

Mr. Copans said the U.S. end of Lake Memphremagog has phosphorus levels that are 20 percent higher than the 14 parts per billion standard set for the lake. Currently the levels in Vermont’s portion of the lake average around 17.6 parts per billion, but rise and fall during the year.

The Canadian portion of the lake is about three-quarters of Memphremagog’s surface area, although much more than half the lake’s watershed is in Vermont.

Officials from the two nations meet in the Quebec Vermont Steering Committee on Lake Memphremagog and are working together to reduce the nutrient load coming from both the state and the province, Mr. Copans said.

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Panel discusses the future of migrant labor

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

HARDWICK — “Who will milk the cows?” asked panelists at a farm forum held at Hazen Union High School on May 17.

But the real question on the table was what happens on Vermont dairy farms if President Trump makes good on his promise to step up deportations of undocumented workers?

If deportations are stepped up in Vermont, it could be devastating to Northeast Kingdom dairy farmers. The vast majority of dairy workers in Vermont these days are Hispanic, mostly Mexican, said former farm worker Abel Luna, the campaign and education coordinator for the Burlington-based organization Migrant Justice. And most of them are undocumented.

The issue has united Vermonters from all sides of the political spectrum. Recently, all three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation, along with Governor Phil Scott, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, and Vermont Farm Bureau President Joe Tisbert jointly signed a letter to the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“This is an urgent issue in our small state — when Vermont farms struggle, so too does Vermont’s entire economy,” the letter says in part.

In a far-ranging conversation that spanned the threat of deportations, treatment of farmworkers, and the economic challenges facing dairy farmers, the four panelists at last week’s meeting in Hardwick answered questions and traded observations with about 40 people.

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Mock crash makes powerful point

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copyright the Chronicle May 24, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

When the Lake Region Union High School student body poured into the bright sunshine on the morning of May 17, they saw a horrific sight. Two wrecked cars stood in the drop-off area, one with a young woman lying on the hood in a pool of blood.

As gruesome as the scene was, it was not a surprise. The entire school had just watched a student-created video depicting the events leading to the tragic scene laid out before them.

A young man, texting as he drove his blue car down the road, was seen just before he plowed head-on into a red car filled with happy teens.   The screen went black as the cars collided, although the audience could hear the Sheriff’s Department dispatcher taking a report of the smash-up.

The student actors were in place as their classmates gathered around. Student videographers were positioned in the area, as they shot footage for another cautionary film.

Members of the Orleans Fire Department, Orleans Ambulance, and the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department were also in position, and at the signal from Sheriff’s Department Captain Phil Brooks, they went into action.

Captain Brooks narrated as the firefighters checked the two cars, evaluated the potential for immediate danger, and looked to see what kind of assistance they could render.

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FBI investigating Orleans man

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copyright the Chronicle May 17, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

ORLEANS — FBI agents went calling at the Orleans home of a man suspected of stealing from the Cabot Cooperative Creamery, and left with a trove of financial records, according to federal court documents.

Agents executed a search warrant at the home of Randy Swartz, the former maintenance manager at Cabot, and seized equipment and computers as well.

FBI Special Agent Patrick Hanna filed a request for the warrant in U.S. District Court in Burlington on March 9. In it, he laid out what he said were facts justifying the search of Mr. Swartz’s home, workshops, and computer files.

Mr. Swartz has not been charged with a crime, but the affidavit says he is under investigation for allegedly ordering equipment and parts for his personal business and charging them to Cabot.

According to the affidavit, one of Mr. Swartz’s subordinates went to creamery officials on January 25 and told them Mr. Swartz had been having parts Cabot paid for delivered to his home. He did not reimburse the company for the parts and had Cabot employees perform work for his private business on company time, Special Agent Hanna said.

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New law could speed Newport’s development

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copyright the Chronicle May 17, 2017

 

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

NEWPORT — The Vermont House and Senate have come to an agreement on an economic development bill that, among other things, will permit the creation of six new tax increment finance zones.

“We shook on it, but haven’t signed it,” said Representative Mike Marcotte of Coventry, who was a member of the conference committee charged with ironing out differences between House and Senate versions of the bill, S.135.

The zones, also known as TIF districts, are designed to help communities attract development without raising taxes on its existing Grand List. A town that needs to upgrade some of its infrastructure in order to attract new development issues bonds for the cost of the work.

It can then use additional tax revenue generated by the new development to pay off the bond.

That includes municipal taxes and, in the past, 75 percent of the state education tax collected on the new development. Under the new bill that percentage would fall slightly to 70 percent, leaving the education fund with another 5 percent.

Some legislators are concerned the TIF program takes too much money out of the state education fund, Mr. Marcotte said Tuesday. S.135 calls for the Legislature’s economist, fiscal office, and the state auditor to see what effect the districts have on a community’s economy.

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Body on cliff awaits recovery

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copyright the Chronicle May 17, 2017

 

The body found Monday on a cliff at the south end of Lake Willoughby in Westmore may not be recovered until Thursday, State Police said.

Other agencies will have to help because of the extreme nature of the terrain and the equipment and expertise needed to access the area, a State Police press release says.

It says the body is about 300 feet down a precipice and 200 feet up from the bottom of the drop-off, resting on a rock shelf.

Police have asked officials with the Vermont National Guard, as well as other technical experts, for advice on the best way to recover the body.

“While positive ID has not yet occurred, the family of Tyler Robinson has been advised of the process underway to recover the individual,” the press release says.

Mr. Robinson, who is 23 years old and from Orleans, was last seen at his home on Water Street on Friday. Police and search and rescue teams had been scouring the county looking for him.

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ASPIRE! awards boost female entrepreneurs

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copyright the Chronicle May 17, 2017

 

by Tena Starr

 

Several years ago, Hanna Broer, who has loved sewing since she was a young teenager, decided to make herself some underwear. She liked how it turned out, as did others, and that was the start of Hanna Broer Design.

What’s different about Ms. Broer’s lingerie is that it’s made from eco-friendly materials, mostly organic cotton, but also hemp, bamboo, and even a fabric partially made from the waste products from the soy industry.

“It’s very soft and comfortable,” she said about the soy fabric. “And it’s quite nice to use a discarded material.”

Her lingerie isn’t of the Victoria Secret type. No underwires, no frills. It’s meant to be comfortable, but it’s also attractive, both in design and in choice of fabric.

Business has grown steadily, but slowly, said Ms. Broer, who comes from Montreal but now lives in Craftsbury with her husband. She’s a one-woman show at this point, with several sewing machines for different tasks, but she’d like to grow and hire people.

So when she heard about ASPIRE!, a local program to help female businesswomen, she applied. Winners receive a $2,000 award and what’s called a circle of support — women business owners who provide practical advice and support about how to make a promising business grow and prosper.

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2017 Legislature has a new fan

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copyright the Chronicle May 10, 2017

 

by Joseph Gresser

 

EAST ALBANY — Many people complain about state regulations, but few are willing to take the time and trouble to go about changing them. Bill Pearce, the proprietor of Pearce’s Pastured Poultry has been raising, slaughtering, and selling chickens from his farm in East Albany for the past seven years.

State law allows growers to sell up to 1,000 birds to end users from their farm, without state inspection. Mr. Pearce recently sold part of his business to Hannah Pearce, one of his daughters, and realized that the two could not make ends meet if they could only sell 1,000 chickens.

“You can’t support yourself on that few birds,” he said.

Mr. Pearce said he has no problem with regulations about how birds are slaughtered, but having to pay for state inspectors would raise the price of his birds a dollar or more a pound.

He said he takes great pride in producing a clean bird, and sends a sample chicken from each batch he processes to the same lab the state uses to test poultry for e coli bacteria.

“We’ve really learned a lot by doing that,” Mr. Pearce said. The state has three categories for processed chicken, based on the amount of bacteria discovered by the lab. Acceptable means there is a minimal amount of e coli on the chicken, a somewhat higher amount garners a rating of marginal, unacceptable is the label for contaminated chickens.

“We were all over the place

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