Coventry water district working towards arsenic fix

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copyright the Chronicle June 14, 201

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Last fall, water customers in Coventry Village and some surrounding areas were warned not to drink their tap water because arsenic levels had gone over 10 parts per billion.

On Tuesday night, 16 people came to the annual meeting of the Coventry Fire District #1 to find out what’s happened since then.

The fire district — which has nothing to do with putting out fires — operates the town’s public water supply. It serves about 60 homes, public buildings, and the Coventry Village School.

“I think what’s on everybody’s mind is the arsenic situation and what we’re doing,” Jeanne Desrochers said.

Ms. Desrochers is a member of the fire district’s Prudential Committee, which is roughly the same as a board of directors.

She’s been the point person through the fire district’s arsenic troubles, working directly with state officials.

“In September we got a notice that we had exceeded our arsenic levels,” she said.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance, town residents learned at a public information meeting last November. Water flowing underground picks up arsenic from surrounding rocks.

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In Coventry, Diaz is out, Barlow is in — at least for now

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copyright the Chronicle June 14, 201

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — After a week of dramatic twists and turns, David Barlow has been appointed to serve as what Coventry Select Board members called a “temporary interim” town clerk and treasurer.

He will serve until the select board can review applications and appoint someone to do the jobs until March, when Town Meeting voters will fill the jobs for the two years remaining in former Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz’ term.

At midnight on Friday, the clock ran out on Ms. Diaz’ chance to line up the bond she needed in order to keep her job. Under state law, the positions were automatically vacated.

It seemed like the end of the road for the embattled town clerk and treasurer, who has been re-elected again and again despite years of questionable audits and complaints about her bookkeeping.

But just hours before Friday’s special select board meeting, the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department served select board Chair Mike Marcotte with a complaint alleging that the May 24 special meeting hadn’t been properly warned.

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Rabid bat found in Newport Center

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copyright the Chronicle June 7, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

NEWPORT CENTER — A week ago, veterinarian Selena Hunter went back to her office for an evening emergency. When she pulled into the driveway, she saw a bat fluttering on the ground.

The bat came toward Ms. Hunter when she approached it, so she scooped it into a container with a shovel. The next day Game Warden Jenna Reed took it to the state Health Department for testing.

On Monday, word came back from the lab that the bat had rabies.

No one knows how long the little animal had been fluttering around the neighborhood.

“It was right in the village, three feet from the clinic steps,” Dr. Hunter said.

Her clients with their sick pet had been watching the grounded bat while they waited for her to arrive.

“It could have gone into a yard with a child,” Dr. Hunter said.

And the big unknown is where did this bat originate from? she wondered.

“How far did it travel? Where was it infected?”

People in and around Newport Center need to be sure that their pets — especially cats — are up to date on their shots, she said.

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OCSU shaping up for a food fight

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copyright the Chronicle May 31, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

A plan to hire a half-time food service coordinator for the Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) drew a small crowd including parents, community members, and school cooks to an OCSU Executive Committee meeting on May 25.

The coordinator would plan a single menu, order food, and handle the paperwork that now falls on the shoulders of the school cooks and OCSU business manager Heather Wright.

From the central office’s point of view, that would not only save time for those employees, but would save money by being able to buy food in bulk.

Community members are concerned that ordering from a central supplier will undercut the autonomy of school cooks and undo years of progress toward getting more local and whole foods onto menus.

They’re also concerned about the way the the way the decision was made at the supervisory district level, without input from the public.

The job is being advertised on the School Spring web site, and the first interviews began last week.

But no formal job description has been written.

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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

[email protected]

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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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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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OCSU RIFs reflect uncertainty about Washington

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copyright the Chronicle May 10, 2017

by Elizabeth Trail

 

The Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) is not renewing contracts for about 20 teachers and support staff for the 2017-2018 school year.

The higher than usual number of reduction in force (RIF) notices that went out in April is in large part due to the uncertainty coming out of Washington, D.C., OCSU Superintendent Donald Van Nostrand said.

Some of the cuts are at the supervisory union level, and some are within individual school districts.

And not all of the RIFs can be blamed on the feds.

“Some reductions are occurring due to budgetary considerations for next year,” Mr. Van Nostrand said.

There are also some schools that are reducing the hours for certain programs.

Glover Community School, for example, will have an art teacher one day a week next year instead of a day and a half.

Those cuts count as RIFs but weren’t included in Mr. Van Nostrand’s figure of 20 people who aren’t getting contracts to sign this spring.

A few others were told they were going to be part of the reduction in force, he said, and then got the happy news that their jobs were safe after all, when other teachers or support staff in their districts announced retirements or other plans for leaving.

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VEC holds annual meeting

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copyright the Chronicle May 10, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

JAY — The word on a lot of peoples’ lips at Saturday’s Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC) annual meeting was “curtailment.” That means cutting back on renewable energy production when local transmission lines and substations reach their limits.

In Lowell these days, the turbines are off more than they’re on, at least according to one VEC member who spoke from the floor during the question and answer period at the end of the meeting.

“Vermont is full of renewables but we only have four substations,” said electric cooperative CEO Christine Hallquist.   Transmission lines also need to be upgraded so they can carry more power.

The transmission problem was fixed in 2013 with major upgrades to increase the capacity of Vermont’s electrical system, she said, but as the amount of in-state power generation has increased, the area is finding itself up against the limits again.

“And we could have to fix it again in another four years,” she said.

In the meantime there are physical limitations to how much electricity can be moved around the state and out into the wider New England grid.

“Any new generation cannibalizes other generation,” Ms. Hallquist said.

She was explaining some of the stumbling blocks built into Vermont’s ambitious renewable energy program to a group of about 200 people — 120 members and 85 guests — who came to the co-op’s annual meeting at the Jay Peak Hotel and Conference Center.

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Albany Neighbors opposed to gravel pit

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copyright the Chronicle May 3, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

ALBANY — Father and son Christian and Clark Katzenbach are hoping to earn a living from a vein of gravel on their 203-acre property on Grigg Road. Christian Katzenbach has spent most of his life as a logger, and it’s time for a change, he said. And 18-year-old Clark just bought a truck and is keen to go into business with his dad.

That puts them at odds with their neighbors, some who fear for their own livelihoods, and others who worry about living near a gravel pit — about the noise, the traffic, the dust, or just the look of the thing.

Albany has no zoning, Selectman Chris Jacobs said at an Act 250 hearing held at the Albany Community School in April to consider the Katzenbachs’ application for a permit to open a three-acre gravel pit on the land that Christian Katzenbach has owned since 1994.

Rebecca Beidler and Jeffrey Ellis’ organic vegetable farm lies right along the edge of what’s now a dead-end dirt road.

Chris Katzenbach’s plan is to reopen a long-unused segment of the road, and he’s agreed to build and maintain it. It’s the most efficient way to get gravel trucks down to Route 14, he says.

Ms. Beidler and Mr. Ellis aren’t happy about having heavy gravel trucks rumbling past their fields many times a day, kicking up dust and spreading diesel fumes.

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