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Friday, March 24, 2017

Opinion
Walters: Scott, Senate Close to Mental Health Pay Fix

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 8:52 PM

Sen. Claire Ayer - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Claire Ayer
The chairs of two key Vermont Senate committees say they are working out a plan to give workers in the mental health system a long-overdue bump in pay, and that Governor Phil Scott is — at least in principle — on board.

“We have a plan, we’ve got a bill, we’re closing in on exactly how much money we need to do what we want,” said Sen. Claire Ayer (D-Addison), chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, after emerging from a closed-door meeting with Scott Friday morning.

"We agree that there’s urgency to act,” she added. “We’re not in total agreement, but we’re pretty close.”

There’s broad awareness that the entire system is in shambles, with inpatient bed shortages, patients lingering for days or weeks in emergency rooms and low pay for mental health workers.

Ayer’s committee has approved a bill calling for a variety of studies, with an eye toward identifying longer-term fixes in 2018. In the meantime, the bill would establish a minimum $15-an-hour pay rate for all designated agency staffers. Earlier this week, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) vowed that the pay issue would be addressed.

The price tag was originally thought to be $30 million, but that’s been pared down to less than $15 million because at least half the money would come from federal matching funds. That reduced figure was presented to Scott Friday morning.

“We’re having constructive discussions,” Scott said in a written statement. “There is consensus to try to improve the delivery of mental health services to Vermonters.”

His statement closed with a call to make the fix “budget-neutral.”

The legislation is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The crossover deadline for money bills was Friday; committee chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said she would insert language “that would basically articulate our intent to address this funding need. It gives us time to really refine those numbers.”

Kitchel was loath to give a precise figure, but estimated that $16 million would be federal — making the state responsible for roughly $14 million. Her committee will look for ways to further reduce the figure, make it as “manageable” as possible, “and make sure we’re putting the money where the acute need is,” she said.

Possible options for reducing the cost of the wage fix include phasing in wage increases over time and trimming budgets in other areas of the system in anticipation of lower expenses if the staffing crisis eases on the front lines of mental health care.

Postscript:  Friday morning’s meeting with Scott was supposed to include all five members of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, and was listed on the panel’s official agenda. But when the five senators gathered outside Scott’s Statehouse office and saw Your Correspondent waiting outside, they went into a brief huddle with Ashe’s chief of staff, Peter Sterling.

Ayer then entered the governor’s office. A few minutes later, she came out and announced that the meeting would include only herself and committee vice chair Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden). The other three members were sent away.

“We just want to have a discussion with the governor, okay?” Ayer said.

“So did I cause this?” I asked.

“Yes, you did,” she said in a cheery voice.

“So it’s not a quorum,” I said.

“It’s not a quorum,” Sterling echoed.

I feel so accomplished. If they can’t think of anything else to put on my tombstone, they can always use “Once Caused a Quorum Kerfuffle.”

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Vermont Senate Panel Passes New Hotel Room Fee

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 6:46 PM

Vermont Statehouse - FILE
  • File
  • Vermont Statehouse
The Vermont Senate Finance Committee has voted for a $2 per night hotel room occupancy fee, which would help fund a new housing initiative as well as water-quality programs.

The fee, approved Thursday night on a 5-1 vote, would generate about $7.2 million next year, according to Senate Finance Committee chair Ann Cummings (D-Washington).

Of the $7.2 million, about $2.5 million would be used for a new affordable housing program Gov. Phil Scott proposed. The rest of would go into the state’s Clean Water Fund to help reduce phosphorus in Lake Champlain and other waterways.

Scott's spokeswoman on Friday expressed displeasure with the proposal. “This tax will unnecessarily increase the cost of hotel and motel stays, straining our tourism sector, which contributes $2.5 billion to our economy annually,” said the statement from the governor’s office attributed to Rebecca Kelley.

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Senate Revives Effort to Raise Smoking Age, But Future Uncertain

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 4:14 PM

Sen. Debbie Ingram (D/P-Chittenden) speaks in favor of raising the legal smoking age to 21 - TERRI HALLENBECK
  • TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Sen. Debbie Ingram (D/P-Chittenden) speaks in favor of raising the legal smoking age to 21
Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman broke his first tie Friday on a vote to rescue a bill that would raise the smoking age to 21.

The bill’s prospects remain in limbo, however, as senators later put the bill, S.88,  on hold. Supporters indicated that while they had just enough votes to keep the bill alive, they lack sufficient backing to pass it.

“We wanted to give senators more time to be educated on the bill and address some of the concerns,” said Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden), a leading supporter of raising the smoking age.

One of those concerns is money the state would lose by collecting less in cigarette taxes. Under the bill as written, the state would lose an estimated $1.4 million next year from cigarettes not sold to consumers under age 21.

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'Neighborly' Will Let Burlington Residents Invest in Their City

Posted By on Fri, Mar 24, 2017 at 1:26 PM

The capital bond would fund additional repaving of the Burlington Bike Path, and more. - FILE: ALICIA FREESE
  • File: Alicia Freese
  • The capital bond would fund additional repaving of the Burlington Bike Path, and more.
Unhappy with uneven sidewalks or Burlington's bike lanes? Here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is.

On Monday, the city will launch an effort to issue up to $8 million dollars in city infrastructure bonds to citizen investors via Neighborly, a San Francisco-based start-up company.

Chittenden County residents will have first dibs at purchasing the bonds through the program before the process is opened to all Vermonters. The program is expected to be funded by the end of the month, according to Rich Goodwin, the city's director of financial operations.

Under the Neighborly program, the repairs of the bike path can be paid for by the people who live alongside it and use it daily, said James McIntyre, the head of public finance for the four-year-old company. He described investment as  a path for democratic involvement for citizens.

"Everyone who lives in the city of Burlington has a vested interest in these bonds whether they realize it or not," he said.

Last September, Burlington participated in the Neighborly Bond Challenge in Los Angeles, winning the chance for Neighborly to work free-of-charge as the city's broker-dealer. Of the pool of about two dozen entrants, Austin, Texas; Somerville, Mass.; the Housing Trust of Silicon Valley; and Lawrence, Kansas were also winners.

People can invest a minimum of $1,000 for between one and 20 years, which will yield an interest rate estimated to be between 1 and 4 percent, depending on the maturity of the bond,  McIntyre said. The bond pricing will be released on Monday afternoon.

The bonds would be part of Burlington's 10-year, $27 million sustainable infrastructure plan, which voters passed in November 2016. According to Goodwin, the proceeds will cover "capital improvement infrastructure projects in Burlington including the waterfront bike path, building infrastructure, and possibly streets and sidewalks."

Between 250 and 300 people have signed up already to invest, McIntyre said. He sees it as a way to participate in local government or weigh in on the city's development decisions.

Goodwin touted the program as a means to lower transaction costs for the city — officials expect to save up to $185,000 — and make municipal bonds available to a wider range of investors. The minimum denomination of $1,000 is less than the typical $5,000, said Goodwin.

This is the first time Burlington has run such a program, though the state has been issuing small-denomination bonds for more than two decades, according to Goodwin.

"If the Neighborly program does prove successful in bringing down the cost of issuing bonds, the city may very well pursue this program in the future," Goodwin wrote in an email to Seven Days. "The city would likely evaluate whether or not to extend the program in the fall of 2018."

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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Opinion
Walters: State Data Breach Much Larger Than First Thought

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 8:20 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott and Labor Commissioner Lindsay Kurrle
Gov. Phil Scott announced Thursday that a data breach at a state contractor affects far more Vermonters than initially thought.

The breach happened at a private firm called America’s Job Link Alliance, which contracts with Vermont and nine other states to provide a database for job seekers and employers. Under state law, anyone who applies for unemployment benefits — unless they have a firm return-to-work date within 10 weeks — is required to register with JobLink and regularly use the site to search for work.

Scott said the personal data — name, address, birthdate and Social Security number — of all applicants may have been compromised, going all the way back to the year 2003, when the state began contracting with AJLA. That’s a total of 180,000 applicants in Vermont.

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A Wife Vows to Fight Her Husband's Deportation

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 7:26 PM

Cesar Alex Carrillo, left, with his young daughter, Solmarie, and wife, Lymarie Deida, leading a 2016 march to urge the release of an immigrant worker - COURTESY: MIGRANT JUSTICE
  • Courtesy: Migrant Justice
  • Cesar Alex Carrillo, left, with his young daughter, Solmarie, and wife, Lymarie Deida, leading a 2016 march to urge the release of an immigrant worker
Cesar Alex Carrillo pulled up at the McDonald's in Colchester early on March 15. Carrillo, 23, and his wife, Lymarie Deida, 21, were on their way to the Chittenden County courthouse. Carrillo faced a DUI case, but they weren't worried. The couple already knew from a previous hearing that Carrillo's misdemeanor DUI charge would be dismissed.

They ate a leisurely meal as snow fell outside. Carrillo paid for a homeless man's breakfast, Deida said. Afterward, Deida lay her head on her husband's chest as they sat in the car. The previous Sunday, they had found out that Deida was pregnant.

"He said, 'This year's going to be a good year,'" she recounted in an interview Wednesday with Seven Days.

Just hours later, at 9 a.m., Carrillo was pulled over by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and arrested.

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Opinion
Walters: Nothing to See Here, Say Senators

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 3:21 PM

Sen. Dick Mazza - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sen. Dick Mazza
These are uncomfortable days in the Vermont Senate, after its most senior and powerful member became tangentially involved in a major drug bust.

Last weekend, federal agents arrested two suspected drug dealers and seized more than a kilo of heroin — street value as high as half a million dollars —outside Almighty Peaks Painting, a business located in a Colchester strip mall owned by Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle).

The mall is across the street from Mazza’s renowned general store, and includes nine storefronts. Mazza told VTDigger.org that business owner Darrick Holmes, who has also been arrested by the feds, had been his tenant for about seven years.

Word hit the Senate like a big ol’ blanket drenched in cold water. Mazza’s colleagues were uniformly discomfited by the news. They clearly sought to minimize Mazza’s responsibility, and wanted the story to just go away.

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Scott Supreme Court Appointment Makes Court Majority Women

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 12:30 PM

Vermont Supreme Court - FILE
  • File
  • Vermont Supreme Court
Gov. Phil Scott appointed Karen Carroll to fill a vacancy on the Vermont Supreme Court, meaning the state's highest court will be majority women for the first time in state history.

Carroll, who has been a state Superior Court judge since 2000, will replace retiring Justice John Dooley when she takes her seat April 1. Her appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate.

Scott chose Carroll from a pool of eight candidates nominated by the Judicial Nominating Board, according to the governor's office.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) served on the Judicial Nominating Board. He anticipated no problem with confirming Carroll.

"The process at the Judicial Nominating Board is nonpartisan, thoughtful, really trying to cull from the list the very best," he said. "She wouldn't have advanced if there were reservations."

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Judge: McAllister Can Withdraw Plea in Sexual Assault Case

Posted By on Thu, Mar 23, 2017 at 12:21 PM

Norm McAllister, right, is shown with his former attorney Brooks McArthur in court. - FILE: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • File: TERRI HALLENBECK
  • Norm McAllister, right, is shown with his former attorney Brooks McArthur in court.
A Vermont Superior Court judge approved former state senator Norm McAllister’s request to withdraw from a plea agreement in his sexual assault case.

The decision, issued Thursday morning by Judge Martin Maley in St. Albans, means McAllister will stand trial on two misdemeanor counts of prohibited acts and one felony charge of sexual assault.

The former Franklin County legislator could face up to life in prison if convicted of the sexual assault charge.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Safe Injection Site Commission Acknowledges Political Difficulties

Posted By on Wed, Mar 22, 2017 at 5:58 PM

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George at a press conference Wednesday
Chittenden County officials on Wednesday launched an initiative to study the creation of safe drug injection sites by acknowledging the resistance the idea could face.

State's Attorney Sarah George, who created the study commission, urged skeptics to keep an open mind, and stressed that current, less controversial practices have left hundreds of Vermonters struggling with addiction.

"They don't want to be committing crimes; they want to be reliable and trustworthy," George said.

She hopes the commission makes a recommendation in the next few months on whether the county should open an injection site where street drug users would have medical supervision and be exempt from arrest, she said.

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