Nothing warms the cockles of a conservative’s heart like the anguished wail of a union employee.
There was plenty of joy in conservative circles last week when Gov. Jim Douglas announced that we needed to cut 600 jobs from the state workforce. It would save $17 million, and help to right-size a bloated government that has grown too big for its britches. And our wallets.
Ditto for local schools, too. Those greedy commie teachers need a little comeuppance. Or, maybe we voters need to stop approving those budgets that supply our kids with textbooks, computers and sports teams.
Will we never learn?
Seriously, if nothing else is clear from the governor’s budget address, it’s that state services and jobs need to be cut.
“Some organizations and businesses have many options available to them when it comes to reducing labor costs,” the gov said in his bleak speech. “They can make across-the-board salary cuts, trim benefits, furlough employees, or modify retirement plans to forestall layoffs.”
Not those damn unions with their 40-hour work weeks, vacations, meal allowances, pension plans, universal health care and weekends off. Who do they think they are, anyway, the governor?
“The truth we must all accept is that we can no longer afford the level of services we have come to enjoy,” the gov summarized.
Tough talk for tough times.
We’re looking at a $200 million state budget gap — out of $1.2 billion — in FY 2010 and possibly that much of a deficit in FY 2011.
Vermont State Employees Association Executive Director Jes Kraus is out talking to members this week about creative ways to save the state money rather than axing jobs. Ideas include unpaid workdays, pay cuts and the like.
No such creativity is coming from Douglas and his top financial aide, Secretary of Administration Neale Lunderville.
One state employee emailed “Fair Game” to say he’s dismayed by the Douglas-Lunderville approach to cutting state jobs.
He describes himself as someone who went through the recession cutbacks instituted by Govs. Richard Snelling and Howard Dean. He notes a marked difference between their approaches and Douglas’. Snelling started by targeting deputy commissioners and secretaries and worked his way down. “They and other middle managers are not in the union, so the administration can lay off at will,” said this state worker of 30 years, who asked to remain anonymous. “Gov. Jim has instead started at the lowest levels and kept his sights right there.”
This employee also wondered, why has government grown under a Republican governor who keeps saying we need to shrink it? And, if it has — who’s getting the jobs?
State Personnel Department records show 7705 state employees were on the payroll in FY 2003, the year Douglas took office. By FY 2008, that number had grown to 8383.
Of the 678 jobs that were added, 277 qualify as political appointments — folks hired by the gov and his management team who are not part of the union.
These folks aren’t working for peanuts, either. Take note: In FY 2003, roughly 170 state employees made more than $75,000 a year. By FY 2008, there were more than 535.
Is that what they mean by “government stimulus?”
Kurt’s on Fire! — There’s one conservative Republican who doesn’t think “union” is a dirty word.
Republican City Council President and Burlington mayoral wannabe Kurt Wright was endorsed Monday by the Queen City’s firefighters. The union sat out the last race, in 2006. In 2004, they endorsed Progressive/Democrat Peter Clavelle.
Union prez Derek Libby told reporters Monday that Wright will give them a true seat at the table when it’s time to negotiate the next contract and fix the city’s pension system. The firefighters’ contract expires June 30. Talks with the city begin February 4.
No word yet from the police union on whether they also plan to endorse a candidate.
Wright said the firefighter union’s blessing proves he is a candidate who can work across party lines and bring people together.
To wit, not only is moderate Democrat John Ewing — the founder of the Vermont Forum on Sprawl — backing Wright; so is former Democratic lawmaker Sandy Baird.
Last weekend, Baird received a special award in recognition of her civic engagement during Martin Luther King Jr. ceremonies in City Hall. She told “Fair Game” she’s supporting Wright because he’s “put on the agenda the prevention of crimes against women and children.”
Can Wright get elected in the era of Obama? Stranger things have happened in Burlington, which has a reputation for bucking the national political trend. In 1981, just months after America put Republican Ronald Reagan in the White House, Burlington elected socialist Bernie Sanders, upending decades of Democratic rule.
What’s that adage about history repeating itself?
Pulling the Plug on PEG? — You know you watch them: endless government board meetings, community and school events and call-in shows on commercial-free channels. Public-access television in and around Burlington is healthy and offers choices for every color on the political spectrum. That’s because state and federal law enables Vermont to make cable companies use 5 percent of their gross revenues to finance this kind of programming. It’s called Public, Educational and Government Access. PEG for short.
That may not last much longer if Comcast has its way. The $8 billion telecom giant is playing hardball with community groups that provide public access TV in VT — pushing for greater financial oversight and questioning some investments.
This week they even went so far as to tell state officials they’re ready to pull the plug on RETN, which runs educational programming in Chittenden County.
Comcast filed papers with the Public Service Board, stating it wants to cancel RETN’s contract for the southern half of the county and suspend its contract for the northern half. Why?
It is questioning some of RETN’s expenditures and the timeliness of its annual reports to the PSB.
RETN spokesman Doug Dunbebin is meeting with school boards this week about the souring talks with Comcast. Aside from programming, RETN also offers in-service training for teachers and instructs students in video production.
A company spokeswoman said Comcast only wants to be sure that communities are properly served by the orgs that provide public access.
“RETN has a responsibility to adhere to our contract and comply with the Public Service Board rules to ensure financial responsibility for our customers and our company’s investment in community access programming,” said Laura Brubaker. Comcast “passes through” the 5 percent charge to its customers.
Brubaker said Comcast has unsuccessfully tried to iron out its problems during 15 months of talks with RETN.
Dunbebin said RETN has nothing to hide and is dismayed that Comcast is insinuating poor financial management. “We’ve negotiated in good faith, even agreeing to independent outside audits,” he said. No dice.
Each of the PEG stations has a board of directors that oversees spending decisions, Dunbebin argues. Comcast’s role is to simply pony up. It’s the price of using the public airwaves to make money.
No other cable company in Vermont has made a stink about having more say in how PEG money is spent, Dunbebin and Davitian note. That includes Charter Communications and Burlington Telecom.
Of the 20 public access contracts in Vermont, 10 are under negotiation now, according to Lauren-Glenn Davitian, who heads up CCTV Channel 17 in Burlington. The station’s contract isn’t up until next year.
Davitian believes Comcast is taking the hard-nosed approach for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it wants to cut costs to be more competitive with satellite companies, which don’t have to fund local programming.
Davitian said Comcast is also questioning whether PEG funding should be used to develop websites — to deliver programs on the web — and is threatening to cut it off. This could total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars statewide.
“They don’t view us a partner, but a problem,” said Davitian. “They are challenging all kinds of expenses that is verging on micromanaging.”
Maybe it’s time Comcast trained its critical eye inward. In 2007, the company reported a $2.5 billion profit, ranked second-to-last in customer service, and its CFO walked away with a $5 million bonus. Comcast also agreed that year to pay the founder for five years after his death.
Glad to see they have their priorities straight.
Don’t Bogart that Mike — On Monday night the Burlington City Council rejected a Town Meeting Day ballot measure asking voters this simple question: “Shall the voters of the City of Burlington call upon the Governor and State Legislature to pass a bill that would replace criminal penalties with a civil fine for adult possession of small amounts of marijuana?”
The measure was defeated 8-6 after a lengthy debate, with Republican Councilor Russ Ellis (Ward 4) likening today’s small pot crimes to the illegal beers his father enjoyed during Prohibition.
This issue received considerable attention in the last legislative session thanks to Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, who questioned whether it makes sense to spend money prosecuting these offenses when so many greater problems threaten our society. Rep. Dave Zuckerman (P-Burlington) plans to reintroduce the bill this year.
City Councilors Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) and Tim Ashe (P-Ward 3) sponsored the resolution.
“I have no problem with adults who want to smoke pot responsibly in the privacy of their homes,” said Adrian. “Just like I have no problem with those who choose to consume alcohol responsibly.”
Could booze be safer than water? A crowd of antifluoridation folks also attended the council meeting.
Maybe the groups can merge: Burlingtonians for Better Bong Water.
Come to Mecca — Will Burlington rents ever come down? Are city schools good enough for your kid? Seven Days is asking Burlington’s four mayoral candidates at a debate we’re hosting next Wednesday, February 4, at the Film House in the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center. The theme: How the next mayor will keep Burlington a mecca for young professionals.
Email questions to me ahead of time — and check out the event’s Facebook page. The fun starts at 7 p.m.
Media Notes — In radio land, WDEV-FM’s news director Brad Wright has left his post after only a few short months. His replacement is former WIZN-FM personality Artie Lavigne. Another familiar voice, Steve Cormier, longtime co-host of “Corm and the Coach” with Tom Brennan, was laid off this week by Vox Communications, which took ownership of Champ-FM last year. Cormier had worked at the station for 11 years, most recently as director of operations. Also in radio news, WSNO-AM in Barre will launch a new talk show on Monday, starting at 7 a.m. TJ Michaels, who is a DJ on WSNO’s sister station Frank-FM, will host the program, which will have a “conservative slant.” Gov. Douglas will be the show’s first guest . . . The forced furloughs at The Burlington Free Press left newsroom reporters cold last week, when the key maintenance guy took his unpaid week off and the building’s boiler malfunctioned. The temperature inside the building dropped precipitously, and they had to pay an outside contractor to come in to turn up the heat . . . Speaking of the Freeps, the chatter in the press box during the gov’s budget address was the awkward situation caused a week earlier by Free Press Publisher Brad Robertson and Executive Editor Mike Townsend. Turns out the dynamic duo applauded the gov’s speech several times. Hey, guys — save the applause for the editorial pages, OK?
See Shay Totten discuss this week’s “Fair Game” on “Inside Seven Days,” our weekly show on RETN, Channel 16. “Inside Seven Days” airs Thursday nights at 8 p.m. and online at www.retn.org.
Got a news tip? Email Shay at firstname.lastname@example.org
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