Panel debates Public Works budget
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | November 26,2013
Vehicle maintenance, staffing levels and the impending death of all the city’s ash trees figured into the debate over the Department of Public Works budget Monday.
DPW Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said he arrived at the Public Works Committee meeting having already written off the $25,000 in the administration section for a new van. That proved prescient as the committee unanimously voted to make the van the first cut from the proposed 2014-15 budget, approving the $922,282 remainder of the administration fund.
When discussion turned to the streets budget, the board did leave in $165,000 requested for the replacement of a 1-ton truck and a 5-ton truck.
The night also saw the first close vote of this year’s budget process, when the committee voted 3-2 to approve the $213,693 catch basins budget as written. The catch basins budget was only about $25,000 last year, but the fund was ballooned up and thrust into the spotlight due to the settlement of a dispute between the city and the state over the status of Moon Brook as an impaired waterway.
The state backed off requirements expected to cost the city millions, in exchange for a commitment to adhere to some minimum new responsibilities regarding stormwater runoff. Wennberg said those responsibilities included public education, watching for “illicit discharge,” monitoring construction for erosion, and “good housekeeping.”
He said they added up to a new position in the department, which accounted for the majority of the increase.
“Without additional staff, I don’t know how DPW can create a new program that other communities are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, once they’re started up, to maintain,” Wennberg said. “It’s work we haven’t historically done.”
Several board members said they were not keen on adding a new position in light of the other budget increases, and there was discussion of shifting the permitting-related duties to the building and zoning office while having DPW find a way to handle the rest internally or with outside consultants as needed.
While the committee voted to approve the fund as written, it was clear from the close margin — Aldermen Thomas DePoy, William Notte and Christopher Siliski voted “yes” while Aldermen Gary Donahue and John Cassarino dissented — as well as talk around the table, that the debate would continue when the budget got to the full Board of Aldermen.
Alderwoman Sharon Davis, attending the meeting though not a member of the committee, had some sharp words to say when the streetlights budget came up for discussion.
Last year’s budget had included money to help Green Mountain Power replace the city’s streetlights with new LED lights, which are brighter and more cost-effective, as well as a cut in the power budget anticipating efficiency savings.
However, the replacement never happened. City Engineer Evan Pilachowski said other communities got onto “the list” ahead of Rutland, but the project was expected to be done by December 2014.
Davis said she was disappointed considering the switch was motivated in part by the citywide discussion on crime that generated complaints about inadequate lighting at night — a situation the brighter lights were supposed to help remedy.
She said Bellevue Avenue had already received LED lights, but the more crime-challenged northwest neighborhood still lacked them and she went on to question GMP’s priorities.
“We’re planting flowers on a dark street,” she said, referring to the utility’s “Rutland Blooms” initiative.
Wennberg also made mention of an expenditure he requested but the mayor took out of the budget before sending it to the board — $30,000 to create an “emerald ash borer preparedness plan.” The borer, Wennberg said, is an invasive insect species that has been plaguing the Northeast.
“Some time in the next five years it’s going to get here,” he said. “Like Dutch elm disease, it’s going to decimate ash trees. We have 400 in the city right of way. Most of those are going to die. ... Some municipalities are just going out and cutting down all the healthy trees now so they don’t have to do it later.”
Wennberg said there are treatments that might save some of the trees, but the city would need to determine which ones were best and it would be “astronomically expensive” to save all of them. He said he estimated the city would need to spend $120,000 and the city forester wanted to create a sinking fund starting with $40,000.
“I cut it to $30,000,” Wennberg said. “The mayor cut it to zero.”
The committee voted unanimously to recommend the full board send the ash tree issue back to the Public Works Committee for a separate discussion.
The committee meets again tonight to review the water and sewer budgets.