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Sink or Swim 

Fair Game

Published February 10, 2010 at 11:07 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

As part of the annual “Penguin Plunge,” Mayor Bob Kiss jumped in the lake Saturday to raise money for the Vermont Special Olympics. If only it were that easy to bail out Burlington Telecom.

“We’ve paid more money for the system than we can currently afford,” Kiss conceded. “But, I’m just going to be skeptical of recommendations to sell Burlington Telecom. I think we need to look carefully at the details before we take any new course of action.”

Two consultants hired by a special, city-council-appointed Blue Ribbon Committee agree that BT should market itself more aggressively as a locally owned network. Both imagined scenarios in which BT could remain wholly owned by the city, estimating BT would need to borrow another $15 million to make that happen.

But the committee rejected their findings and instead will recommend this week that BT forge a partnership with a private, outside entity so the city can recoup about $17 million it “borrowed” from taxpayers to float the utility through the recession. The committee rejected the possibility of BT taking on more debt in its current configuration. They also said no to the idea of selling it at a fire-sale price. Neither of these options would recoup enough money to pay back the taxpayers’ $17 million or the $33.5 million originally loaned by CitiLeasing.

The committee’s recommendations will be presented to the city council Thursday night at Burlington City Hall Auditorium. The Blue Ribbon group’s report, along with the reports from the consultants, will be available online before the meeting. Member of the public will have a chance to speak.

Kiss continues to believe the best option for BT and the city is for BT to restructure its debt, borrow enough to complete its build-out in the Queen City, and keep the utility municipally owned. At least for now.

“My original plan was to refinance BT’s debt and give us up to three more years to continue the build-out and possibly seek an outside partner,” said Kiss. “This is too important an asset to just give away without careful thought.

Two outside telecom providers have already expressed an interest in BT: VTel, a Vermont-based company in southern Vermont, and FairPoint. Both would like to either purchase BT or partner with the city to run it.

FairPoint’s Vermont President Mike Smith was on “The Mark Johnson Show” Monday. He said his bankrupt utility sees opportunity in BT.

“Certainly, Burlington Telecom is something we need to look at,” is how Smith responded to a call from Burlington City Council President Bill Keogh (D-Ward 5). “I expect that I will be speaking to you and other city officials in the next few weeks.”

From one sinking ship to another.


So Sue Me

On Thursday, BT and the city will seek approval from the Vermont Public Service Board to make a $390,000 interest payment on February 17 to CitiLeasing.

BT remains in violation of a key condition in its certificate of public good — borrowing money from the city’s checkbook and not repaying it within 60 days — and wants the PSB’s blessing before writing the check.

BT made a similar payment in November with its own cash and is prepared to make the February payment with its own cash, too, not money from the “cash pool.”

Meanwhile, two citizens who sued the city late last year have asked Chittenden Superior Court Judge Helen Toor to issue a temporary restraining order to stop the city from making that payment. Toor scheduled a Friday hearing on the request.

The lawsuit brought by two former Republican city councilors — Fred Osier and Eugene Shaver — seeks to complete repayment of the $17 million to the taxpayers and freeze BT’s assets to protect taxpayers against any further losses. If that money is not recouped through a sale, the suit wants the court to hold Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold personally responsible for repaying taxpayers.

Wowza. I hope Leopold wasn’t planning on retiring any time soon.


Familiar Faces

There are a few familiar faces on Entergy’s “new” management team at Vermont Yankee, which is charged to get to the bottom of its leaks and lies and restore public confidence in the nuclear plant.

Brian Cosgrove, a longtime Vermont Yankee executive, will replace Jay Thayer, the guy who lied to state regulators. Meanwhile, Entergy rehired its longtime lobbyist Gerry Morris. Morris’ firm was dropped last year when Entergy hired MacLean, Meehan and Rice to be its eyes and ears in Montpelier.

Cosgrove and Morris are quite a duo, with a strong track record of getting the job done for Entergy under the Golden Dome.

Together they successfully lobbied the legislature to store Yankee waste in dry casks along the Connecticut River. In return, Vermont got a few million bucks to fund clean-energy development and remediate the state’s lakes and streams. Ironic, eh?

Department of Public Service Commissioner David O’Brien told a House panel that Entergy would need to do something “miraculous.”

Reuniting Cosgrove and Morris suggests Entergy is getting ready to throw that “Hail Mary” pass.


VY Vote

The Vermont Statehouse isn’t the only place where Vermont Yankee’s future will be debated. Fourteen Vermont communities will also chime in on the nuke plant’s future.

Last year, 36 Vermont towns passed nonbinding resolutions to shut down VY in 2012 and ensure Entergy fully funds the plant’s decommissioning.

A similar resolution will appear on ballots in Bristol, Brookfield, Cabot, Cambridge, Danville, Huntington, Jamaica, Montgomery, Moretown, Peacham, Sharon, Thetford, Rockingham and Winooski.

“Most of these people are not ‘activists’ but just regular folks,” noted Dan DeWalt, a former Newfane selectman who helped spearhead last year’s Town Meeting Day resolutions. “They are doing something that is not that easy for them to do simply because they believe that it is the right thing to do.”

It may be the “right thing,” but the selectboards in Fayston and Bellows Falls refused to place the measure on the ballot. Why? They found the question “not germane” to town business.

Perhaps not, but remember: The Connecticut River may flow south, but prevailing winds drift north.


Take My Website, Please!

No matter how hard he tries, Brattleboro’s Lawrence Auclair, 67, can’t find anyone to take over his website at

Auclair’s site is an online reference library focused on one key subject: Vermont Yankee. In fact, when a recent website outage at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission rendered inaccessible a key environmental report where VY confessed to having underground pipes leaking tritium, Auclair posted the document on his site so the public could still read it. Many thanks, Lawrence.

For Auclair, the site is a labor of love; he earns no income from it.

“I’ve tried many times to get someone to take over this website, but no takers,” said Auclair, who launched the site in March 2003.

It exists, he says, to warn people “about the dangers Vermont Yankee presents to all of us. So many websites seem to exist in order to promote the people who create them. I’m not running for office, or looking for a job, or trying to make new friends.”


Fashion Statement

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin’s daughter, Becca, was caught up in an NYC Fashion Week scandal after she and a schoolmate, Remy Renzullo, somehow added themselves to the guest list at a series of fashion shows.

The pair later asked BPCM, a leading fashion PR firm, to let them into additional events in an email in which Renzullo pitched himself as the “stylist” of “future first lady of Vermont” Deb Shumlin. He even put in a link to Shumlin’s campaign website. Nice touch.

BPCM quickly unraveled the charade and the news made a big splash on the national gossip blog

No mention of the fact that Shumlin and his wife are currently separated.


Lights, Camera … Cut!

Gov. Jim Douglas’ “Tiger Teams” want to eliminate 55 of the state’s 300 boards and commissions, hoping to save $700,000.

On the cutting-room floor is the Vermont Film Commission, which could save the state about $170,000.

The commission has attracted roughly $60 million in film-related spending since its inception in 1996, including $4 million in 2010, said Executive Director Joe Bookchin. The tigers didn’t ask about that.

“They asked me some very basic questions about our funding sources, and that was it,” said Bookchin.

Also slated for elimination is the Public Oversight Commission, saving taxpayers a whopping $80,000. The POC is a citizen panel that advises the Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration on hospital spending — both in terms of annual budgets and large-scale construction such as Fletcher Allen’s Renaissance Project.

In fact, it was during a POC process that Fletcher Allen was caught misleading the state about the project’s cost. As a result, top FAHC execs were hauled into federal court; one served jail time.

Why eliminate the POC? Because it would also save the applicants money and hassle, the report said.


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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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