Auditor says roughly a million missing in Coventry

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copyright the Chronicle March 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Between $876,343 and $1.43-million has gone missing in Coventry over a six-year period, according to new figures from auditor Jeff Graham.

Selectmen said at their meeting Monday that they are preparing to file an insurance claim for $876,383 for losses that occurred between 2009 and 2016.

According to forensic accountant Jeff Graham, that’s the most conservative estimate of how much tax money was collected but not deposited by Town Clerk, Treasurer, and Delinquent Tax Collector Cynthia Diaz.

But by using the numbers that Ms. Diaz herself presented in town reports for the same years, Mr. Graham said, the actual amount of missing money could be as much as $1.43-million.

In fact, Mr. Graham said he has evidence of checks received that bring the total closer to Ms. Diaz’ figures than to his lower number.

But without documentation to show what the checks are for, he doesn’t plan to include them in the claim. And he hasn’t included the 8 percent penalty and monthly 1 percent interest applied to delinquent properties, even though Ms. Diaz has said publicly that she always charged those fees, he said.

In a way, it’s a moot point.

The town’s insurance policy, which reimburses for losses through fraud, will only pay up to $500,000.

The difference comes out of the pockets of Coventry taxpayers. So does the estimated $360,000 in fees that have been paid to Graham and Graham for the auditing firm’s work over the past two years.

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Local senators muse over legislative session

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copyright the Chronicle March 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

Due to concerns about federal budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration, Vermont’s Legislature may adjourn early this year and go back to Montpelier in October.

“Trump’s been talking about cutting a lot of stuff,” Senator Bobby Starr of North Troy said. “It may make more sense to draw up a temporary budget and reconvene when we have some real numbers.”

Senator Starr agrees with colleagues in the Legislature who are saying that it would make more sense to finish the budget in October than to function without a finished budget until next year.

“We’ve been taking testimony on the 2018 budget,” Mr. Starr said. “Where we’re going to run into trouble is not knowing what’s going to happen in Washington.”

In addition to being chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Mr. Starr sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Word is going out that the legislators should be making plans to be back here in the fall,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s keeping busy in Montpelier, as is the region’s other Senator, John Rodgers of Glover.

“There’s always plenty to do here,” Mr. Rodgers said.

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History students take a stand

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copyright the Chronicle March 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

  

NEWPORT — In 1967, authorities tried to drag Kathrine Switzer off the course in the middle of the Boston Marathon because she was a woman.

Women weren’t officially allowed to run in the event until 1972. Ms. Switzer had gotten a race number by filling out the entry form with just her initials.

Robin Nelson, an eighth-grader at Glover Community School, won a first prize in the NEK History Day fair in Newport last Thursday for her research on Ms. Switzer.

In just a few weeks, Robin and the rest of her family will be in Boston cheering her mother, Tara Nelson, across the finish line.

Of the 30,000 entries in this year’s race, about half with be women.

Ms. Switzer, who went on to win both the Boston and New York marathons after they were opened to women, took a stand for equality in her sport, Robin said.

But Robin’s choice of project highlights another trend at this year’s NEK History Day event.

Maybe it was the theme of this year’s national and local history day events — “take a stand for history.” Or maybe it was the recent election, the national political climate, and the widely publicized women’s marches around the country.

But just over a third of the projects entered in this year’s NEK History Day were about women.

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Act 46 committee struggles to define its purpose

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copyright the Chronicle March 15, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

BARTON — A committee formed Monday evening to study how schools in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union (OCSU) will comply with the state mandate to consolidate into fewer districts struggled with the seemingly simple task of defining its goals.

Members of the committee were sharply divided on whether the point is to make another try at consolidating into a single unified school district, or explore other alternatives.

And they disagreed about whether to have the process driven by input from the community, or whether to start with the state mandate and figure out how to sell it to voters.

About 20 people, some members of the Act 46 Study Committee, and some interested citizens, came to the meeting in the COFEC building in Barton.

It was the committee’s first meeting since Town Meeting Day, when study committee members from each school district opened a dialogue with the public at their respective meetings and passed out copies of an updated Act 46 survey.

At its first meeting, the study committee decided it was important to get more public input.

Although the district merger proposal was defeated last year by five of the six towns in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union, only 552 people actually went to the polls.

In many towns, the margins were narrow, Chair Amy Leroux pointed out. In Albany, the consolidation measure was only defeated by three votes.

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Susan Dunklee takes silver at biathlon world championships

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copyright the Chronicle March 1, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

BARTON — When Stan Dunklee and Judi Robitaille-Dunklee of Barton went to Austria two weeks ago to watch their daughter Susan compete in the biathlon world championships, they didn’t know they’d see her make history.

But on the last day of the competition Susan Dunklee did just that, winning a silver medal and becoming the first American woman ever to stand on the podium at that level of competition in biathlon.

“Biathlon is huge in Europe,” her father said. “It’s the most watched winter sport. But it’s relatively new in the United States.”

And breaking into the winner’s circle has been hard. The 31-year-old Ms. Dunklee was the first American woman to medal at the world championships. And no American woman has yet earned an individual medal in biathlon at the Olympics.

“We try to go to this one every year,” Mr. Dunklee said of the International Biathlon Union World Championships, held this time around in Hochfilzen, Austria.   “It’s the densest cluster of events.”

The IBU World Cup, in comparison, took place over nine weekends in nine countries, starting in Sweden in November, he said.

The Dunklees also watched their daughter race in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, where she placed seventh and eighth in two of the biathlon events.

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South beach project faces opposition

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copyright the Chronicle March 1, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

LYNDONVILLE — About 70 people filled the Burke Mountain Room at Lyndon State College on February 23 to express their concerns about plans to put restrooms, parking, and handicapped-accessible trails at the south end of Lake Willoughby. The land is part of Willoughby State Forest.

Site plans were recently released by the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation (FPR), and the public was invited to Thursday’s informational meeting.

Participants seemed to be divided between the simply curious and people who wanted to see the plans scaled back. A vocal few just wanted the beaches at the south end of the lake left alone.

“This is nature’s cathedral, why don’t we protect this?” asked Beverley Decker.

Louis Bushey from the St. Johnsbury office of FPR seemed a little taken aback by the size of the group and the objections.

“We held a public meeting in November 2015,” he said. “And these plans are the direct result of what people said they wanted.”

“All of the calls that I’ve gotten have been positive,” said Bill Perkins, a member of the Westmore Select Board.

Because the south end of the lake is state land, the select board has no control over the plans, he said.

The plans aren’t intended to change the nature of the south end of the lake, Mr. Bushey said. And they’re certainly not intended to increase the volume of visitors, though that’s likely to happen over time, just because the population is growing.

The point, he said, was simply to address existing problems — cars parked along the road shoulder, paths eroding from foot traffic, human waste in the woods, and runoff from the road going directly into the lake.

“We’ve all seen the plume after a rain,” he said to nods around the room.

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Coventry voters grill selectmen

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copyright the Chronicle February 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — Early on a Saturday morning seems like an unlikely time to draw a crowd for an informational meeting with the select board.

But close to 30 people showed up at the community center here on February 18 for a public question and answer session about the recent audit and the town’s missing funds.

“I know there have been a lot of questions,” selectman Scott Morley said in his brief opening remarks, as early-rising residents sipped coffee or nibbled on doughnuts and muffins provided by the board.

Asking those questions now will prevent chaos at Town Meeting, he said.

For close to an hour and a half, the crowd peppered Mr. Morley and fellow selectman Brad Maxwell with questions and comments. Chairman Mike Marcotte wasn’t able to get to Saturday’s meeting but plans to be at the next two sessions.

The questions generally fell into three groups: the cost of the audit, why the problem had gone on for so many years, and what can be done about it.

Mr. Morley said he was uncomfortable with the word “embezzlement” that a number of people at the meeting used to describe the missing money.

“That hasn’t been proven,” he said several times. “We aren’t using those words.”

But after the meeting he acknowledged to people who asked that the State Police and the FBI are actively investigating the case.

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Bill McKibben speaks at Sterling College

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copyright the Chronicle February 22, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — “We all want the places we live in to remain unchanged,” writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben told a crowd of about 200 people at a Sterling College open house on Saturday. “But all over the world now, there are people paying enormous prices for our energy use.”

Mr. McKibben was answering a question about large-scale wind development. Behind him through the picture windows at the back of Simpson Hall, his audience could see the college’s new array of solar panels that were being dedicated that day.

Up to 100 million people are expected to die by 2030 as a result of climate change, Mr. McKibben said.

And he said that most of them are poor people in developing countries — people who have done nothing to contribute to the problem.

“Vermonters have a debt to the world, and we should be willing to make sacrifices,” he said.

But Vermont itself is not going to be unscathed by climate change.  Mr. McKibben said that computer models project cross-country skiing and snowmobiling becoming extinct in Vermont by the mid to latter part of this century due to lack of snow. And the forests that are the glory of the state will be sadly changed.

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Coventry Selectmen will air town’s problems

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copyright the Chronicle February 15, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

COVENTRY — The selectmen here are planning a series of public meetings over the next three weeks to talk with town voters about their problems with Town Clerk and Treasurer Cynthia Diaz, and their concern about missing town funds.

The idea is to let people ask questions and talk to the select board informally before the March 7 Town Meeting. The first meeting is planned for Saturday at 8 a.m.

An audit by Graham and Graham is the most recent in a series over the past 12 years that have identified missing money in Coventry. It’s the first to demonstrate that a significant number of cash tax payments were collected but never deposited.

The amount so far comes to about $64,000 over the two years covered by the audit. Previous auditors also believed that there were significant amounts of money missing.

“People have questions,” Selectman Scott Morley said at Monday night’s meeting. “And they want more of an open dialogue, more back and forth than they can have in a select board meeting. I think that’s legitimate.”

The Coventry voters in the back of the room on Monday night seemed to support the idea.

“What with fake news and all that, we don’t know what to believe,” said town resident Martha Sylvester.

Ms. Sylvester wasn’t the only one to urge the select board to go ahead with the public meetings.

“I think it’s going to put the board in better standing at the Town Meeting,” Skip Gosselin said.

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Pool of maple syrup spreads across the country

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copyright the Chronicle February 8, 2017

 

by Elizabeth Trail

 

NEWPORT — “It wasn’t that big, honestly,” Newport City Fire Chief Jamie LeClair said over the phone before any question was asked.

Ever since late Monday afternoon when a single 42-gallon barrel of maple syrup fell out of a pickup truck on the I91 exit 27 ramp outside of Newport, Mr. LeClair’s phone has been ringing off the hook with calls from the media asking about the big spill.

He’s heard from CNBC, CNN, NBC, Fox News, USA Today, just for starters.

Boston Magazine wanted to know how the spill might affect global syrup prices.

Bostonians learn about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, when a storage tank in the city’s north end burst, and a 35 mile-an-hour wave of molasses swept through the streets, killing 21 people.

Chief LeClair even got a text in the middle of the night from his son, who is deployed overseas, wanting to know if he was still on the scene.

“I can’t believe maple syrup is that big news,” he said. “If the puddle was six feet across, that would be an exaggeration.”

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