Mayoral hopeful Michel Messier talked about a lot of big ideas Wednesday, while Mayor David Allaire talked about how the city is run.
The duo met at PEG-TV for a live debate ahead of next week’s election. It was hard to spot philosophical differences between the candidates. Both said they would vote “yes” on the city and school budgets, as well as the two bonds on the city ballot. The main differences arose in the way they responded to questions put to them by moderator Tom Donahue.
Asked if they would propose a local option tax, Allaire said he was against the idea when Michael Coppinger raised it in the 2017 mayoral race, but that it now appeared to be the only idea anyone has for boosting city revenue that would bring in enough money to make a difference, making it a necessary move if the city hopes to reduce property taxes.
“As much as I would like to see efficiencies in city government ... a lot of the costs are fixed,” he said. “A lot of the things we see on an ongoing basis are hard to reduce.”
Messier talked about the concept of matching use to revenue, such as paying for road work with gas taxes, and about tracking employee time spent on operations versus capital projects, for the duration of his time before Donahue pressed him for a specific answer. He then said he would not propose a local option tax.
Similarly, when asked about what the candidates would do for workforce development, Messier talked about getting “young entrepreneurs” to open stores downtown and about the commercial potential of various technologies. Allaire said the city needed to continue its existing cooperative efforts with the state, build on the city’s strengths in order to make the city attractive to potential employees of local companies and work with local colleges on training programs.
Only when given the chance to rebut Allaire’s statement did Messier suggest working with the colleges to make a “focal point” for medical training to meet that particular workforce need. Later, in his closing remarks, he also said the city needs to “find a way to train and educate the next generation of GE employees.”
When Donahue asked about department heads, Allaire refused to say who he planned to keep or retain, saying the debate was not an appropriate venue for personnel discussions. Messier said he would take “more of a flattening” approach, saying silos went up between different departments when they each have their own office. Messier said he wanted to see if firefighters could serve as flaggers during road projects and find similar efficiencies. Allaire replied that department heads meet every two weeks and do well at finding ways to cooperate.
MONTPELIER — State officials are looking to charge owners of electric vehicles to help offset the losses the state has seen because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars.
According to data from the Agency of Transportation, in 2005 Vermonters used nearly 361 million gallons of gas. That number has declined ever since, and in 2018 residents used about 45 million gallons less gas than in 2005.
While having more fuel efficient cars is good for the environment, officials said the drop in gas usage means the agency is getting less money to use on repairing roads and bridges. That’s because the state charges a tax on gas: less gas being purchased means less money coming in.
Chad Allen, director of the agency’s Asset Management Bureau, said AOT is bringing in about two-thirds of the money it needs for the state’s infrastructure needs.
“Over time, you’re also seeing a loss in what your money is buying you because your needs are outpacing your revenue sources,” Allen said.
He said the agency has had to divert funds from other projects, such as replacing guardrails and culverts, to paving projects because it’s trying to stay on top of paving the state’s roads.
But the state is losing the battle.
Last week, Allen told officials in Marshfield Route 2 from Plainfield to Danville wouldn’t be repaved until at least 2021. He was responding to Town Clerk Bobbi Brimblecombe, who said that stretch of road is so bad drivers have to swerve into the opposite lane to avoid the potholes.
Route 14 in Calais was another problem road according to residents, as well as Barre Street in Montpelier.
While the state needs more money to fix roads, raising taxes does not appear to be one of the solutions to the problem.
Michele Boomhower, division director of the agency’s Policy, Planning & Intermodal Development Division, said Vermonters cannot afford an increase in the gas tax.
“We have a very rural state, and it hurts those that can least afford it,” Boomhower wrote in an email.
Instead, the state is looking at charging those who drive electric vehicles to help pay for the roads they drive on.
“Because of our efforts to increase the use of electric vehicles, the Public Utilities Commission is in the ratemaking process for electric vehicle charging and simultaneously the Public Service Department is working on grid modernization. Currently, EVs do not contribute to the Transportation Fund even though they use our roads. So we look forward to that work and supplementing the system with those funds,” she wrote.
The details of how such a fee would work are still being ironed out.
Daniel Goodman, public affairs manager at AAA Northern New England, said states nationwide are in a similar situation to Vermont in trying to figure out how to pay for road maintenance. Goodman said New Hampshire is looking to change the price for registration renewals based on miles driven. In that case, those who drive a high number of miles would be charged more when they renew their registration than someone who drives fewer miles. He said Oregon is currently running a pilot program for such a registration fee system.
“The concern with all these states is the funds to deal with our bridges and roads are so low because people are driving higher mileage vehicles so the gas tax really isn’t keeping up with that,” he said.
In the meantime, those who have damaged vehicles due to potholes do have some recourse. The driver can file a claim with the state if the damage happened on a state road, or with the municipality that is responsible for the road. In order for the vehicle owner to be compensated for the damage, however, there would have to be proof that the municipality or the state knew about the pothole and didn’t do anything about it.
In 1988, David Sagi lost his seat on the Board of Aldermen.
He’d only had it for three months. Then-mayor Jeffrey Wennberg had appointed Sagi to fill a vacancy, but the voters decided not to leave him there. A month later, another vacancy arose and Wennberg appointed Sagi again.
“A Herald reporter said, ‘He didn’t get elected — how many times are you going to appoint him,’” Wennberg recalled Wednesday. “My response was ‘As many times as it takes for the voters to understand he’s the best person for the job.’ I was willing to do it 20 times if David would have it.”
Sagi, who died Wednesday, was re-elected in 1989 and went on to serve for almost a decade, including two terms as board president. He was also the state coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act, a position he took after years of running the regional office of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. Colleagues remembered him for his polite determination, which they said made him a powerful force for change in the city.
“He was always prepared,” said Board of Aldermen President Sharon Davis, who served with Sagi when she first was elected as an alderwoman. “I learned a lot from him. He was engaged. He knew the issues. ... He served the city very well.”
Sagi was wheelchair-bound after a paralyzing accident suffered in 1971. Former mayor John Cassarino said they both worked at Central Vermont Public Service at the time, and that Sagi, a line worker, was in a utility truck when it was struck from behind. The damage was not noticed until that night, Cassarino said, when Sagi jumped into a swimming pool.
“They think it was from when he got hit,” Cassarino said. “A lot of times, you get hit and you don’t realize until you move a certain way. ... At that point, they gave him five years to live.”
They would later serve on the Board of Aldermen together, and Cassarino said he encouraged Wennberg to appoint Sagi the second time.
“I had a lot of respect for the guy,” Cassarino said. “He got up every day and went to work, and his work was very important. I understand it now more than ever because I’m using a walker, and I’m learning how hard it is to get around. ... He was a real person of integrity. Dave was a guy that could have sat at home collecting a disability check, but that wasn’t the way he wanted to live his life.”
Wennberg said he suspected that Sagi’s paralysis played a role in his first loss at the polls.
“David had a disadvantage in a town where knocking on doors is expected if you’re going to run for office,” he said. “Wheelchair-bound in February, that’s a hard thing to do.”
Appointed to a seat he could fill for almost a full year, Wennberg said, Sagi had the chance to show the public what he was capable of in office.
“Apparently, the voters got the message because he was the top vote-getter in 1990, and he may have been the top vote-getter from then on,” he said.
Wennberg said Sagi worked for Rutland residents well before getting on the board. Early in Wennberg’s first term as mayor, Sagi approached him about creating the CAIR Committee, which advises the city on issues of access for people with disabilities. Wennberg said Sagi’s efforts earned the city a state award typically used to recognize businesses that had gone above and beyond on disability issues.
“No municipality had ever been nominated,” Wennberg said. “It was always a private business. Rutland was the first municipality to get the award. The reason we were recognized was the work of David and the CAIR Committee.”
As an alderman, Wennberg said Sagi helped negotiate the agreement for the owners of Diamond Run Mall to pay annual impact fees to the city, used to fund a variety of community improvements in the ensuing years.
“It was important not to get too far ahead of the Board of Aldermen during those conversations,” Wennberg said of the closed-door talks with the developers. “We needed somebody as a sounding board. ... He was probably the single most-trusted individual on the board. The board would trust him to represent them and provide the feedback they needed to hear without spin.”
Thomas Donahue, today the executive director of BROC, preceded Sagi as board president and worked with him in a number of other capacities.
“Dave was the foremost expert in the state on (the Americans with Disabilities Act),” Donahue said. “He was an incredibly likeable man. When he was guiding people through the process, in an enforcement capacity, he did it in such a friendly and pleasant way. He worked to educate and explain ADA in a way that got everyone on board. ADA was such an important law and he was critical to the way it was accepted in Vermont.”
Nanci Gordon, an outreach specialist for VT211, said Sagi mentored her when she was at a nonprofit that worked closely with Voc Rehab.
“He was a benevolent figure who oversaw everyone directly or indirectly,” she said. “He set a nice tone. ... He earned people’s respect in a very gentle way. He lived an example to the clients of how to reinvent yourself after a disability. ... He was in the prime of his life when he had his accident, and he was someone who plowed through.”
Wennberg said Sagi was successful because of a combination of patience and determination.
“I never saw the guy get angry — maybe a little piqued, but never angry,” he said. “He was always forward-looking, always positive and always working to make this a better community — not just for people with disabilities, but for everyone. I always appreciated how he would always come forward with a solution. ... He wouldn’t just say, ‘It needs to be fixed.’ That was never his style. ... His persistence and his ‘let’s solve it together’ approach got so much done.”
“That was all people needed. It was as though lawmakers wanted to believe a liar as if his words were that mirage for which they thirsted.”
A bill to legalize recreational marijuana in New Hampshire has gained preliminary approval although Gov. Chris Sununu has made it clear he will veto the measure. A2
More court documents are filed in the case of a gynecologist who is accused of impregnating a patient. A3
The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill calling for federal background checks for all gun sales and transfers. The bill now heads for the U.S. Senate. A9
Until April 15
Free Tax Help
Rutland AARP TaxAide offers free help with taxes for seniors and low-to-middle-income taxpayers, by appointment only. Call the RSVP & Volunteer Center at 775-8220, ext. 106, visit: volunteersinvt.org/service/rsvp-tax-program.