We’re starting 2019 with a look back at 2018, which we view as a year when Orleans County decided to stand up on its hind legs. This part of Vermont got loud last year.
Rural Vermont is struggling. Actually, rural America is struggling, making Vermont no exception, but we see those struggles firsthand here.
Dairy farming, long a critical part of the economy, is floundering. Sad farmers are going out of business at an alarming rate, and with them go support industries.
Opiate use is rampant, and sustaining the addiction has led to an increase in burglaries, thefts, and unemployable people. Most of us here are old enough to remember when you left your keys in the car and the house unlocked without a second thought. The transition from trust to suspicion has been painful.
We’re not strangers to hardship here, but this is different. Those now dying farms tended to absorb people who would be marginal, or unsuitable, employees, in a more formal setting. Family, and community, were stronger. Children were often poor, their parents busy, but they knew where home was, and who loved them.
Today, schools are dealing with a generation of children who wonder where their next meal is coming from, or where they’re going to sleep. Many are brought up by grandparents. Teachers are as much social workers as they are anything else.
And Vermont has a Legislature dominated by Chittenden County, or at least an urban mindset. Too often of late, laws have been passed that might solve a problem in Burlington but create one in Barton. We were happy to hear Governor Scott recognize that in his Inaugural Address, though he didn’t mention how he planned to tackle that particular issue, if at all.
We can think of so many examples, but will just mention a couple. For instance, the recycling law was well intentioned. Telling trash haulers they must make one run to pick up trash and another, free, to pick up recyclables, is doable for a hauler whose dense customer route is five miles. It’s a rather different story for a hauler whose route in a day is 105 miles.
Then there’s Act 46. There are all its potential legal failings. For one, is it legal to force a community to take on the debt of another, a debt they had no say in acquiring? And if it is, is it right? Beyond that, what forced mergers fail to do is grasp the importance of community in rural Vermont. And school is often the center of community.
To be fair, talk to proponents of Act 46, and they will say it’s not intended to close schools; it’s intended to improve education. But we maintain that a big district board with no vested interest in a single town, but an interest in budget figures and property taxes, is far more likely to close a school than that particular school district would.
But even given that long, bleak list of concerns, we are optimistic about 2019. Because last year, and going into this one, Orleans County spoke up.
The North Country Supervisory Union is still battling Act 46 and seeking an alternative structure. Several districts in the Orleans Central Supervisory Union have joined onto a lawsuit challenging Act 46 and forced mergers.
Irasburg, in particular, has been loud in its opposition, with the select board, the school board, and the planning commission joining the suit.
And then there’s the landfill. Members of DUMP (Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity) have brought attention to a situation that’s garnered little to none for decades.
Does the state do a good job of monitoring the place? Quite likely. Most people in Vermont accuse the state of being heavy handed, rather than lax, in its regulatory efforts. Is it a good location for the state’s only, and enormous, landfill? No. Should it be very closely watched and tested in view of its proximity to such major waterways? Absolutely.
What DUMP has done is raise questions, draw attention. And that’s a good thing. We received a well spoken letter to the editor recently pointing out that reasonable people ask reasonable questions about policies that could affect their well-being.
The Northeast Kingdom does not have a strong position in the Legislature, none of rural Vermont likely does. Our two senators carry weight. Bobby Starr and John Rodgers, both Democrats, have fairly big voices in the smaller Senate.
In the House? Orleans County’s largely Republican voice in an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature is not always commanding. (Though we do enter this session with Mike Marcotte as chair of the House Commerce Committee and Paul Lefebvre as vice-chair of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee.)
However, last year the people themselves got noisy, questioning legislation and policies they’re skeptical about. Sometimes they might be right, sometimes they might be wrong.
Perhaps Act 46 really will transform education in Vermont. Perhaps the landfill is, and always will be, completely safe. Perhaps without universal broadband or cell service, people will flock to rural Vermont. Perhaps dairy farms will spontaneously revive, and opiates will just as spontaneously go away.
But even if none of that happens, we find it encouraging that people are putting up a good fight to have some say in their schools, communities, and environment. Democracy works best when people say something and do something, and in 2018 Orleans County did both. — T.S.