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Rutland City Schools propose $58M budget

Health care and compensation costs are chief among expenses driving up the proposed Rutland City Public School District budget for fiscal year 2021.

The budget, if approved by voters on Town Meeting Day in March, would be up roughly $4 million to $58,792,157, a 7.3% increase from last year.

Overall health care costs are up 12% over fiscal year 2020. Chief Financial Officer Mary Alma Noonan said the figure is “independent of the new state health care plan.”

“We don’t have options to provide better benefits than what’s in this plan,” she said in her presentation to School Board commissioners Tuesday evening.

Noonan said compensation is 79% of total expenses.

The equalized homestead tax rate has yet to be set by the state.

The common level of appraisal is, however, a matter of contention. Interim Superintendent David Wolk said City Appraiser Barry Keefe will appeal the state to reconsider the current figure, which is reportedly several percentage points lower than last year.

Spending per equalized pupil is up 3.2% from last year to $15,927, which still puts Rutland lower than the statewide average.

“All the things driving it are out of our control,” Courcelle said.

Board member Hurley Cavacas Jr., agreed, citing additional spending increases in special education and employee salaries set by collective bargaining agreements.

On the savings side, Wolk commended Noonan for keeping expenses relatively flat outside of the main drivers of health care and compensation.

After some general discussion, board member Kam Johnston made a motion to cut $100,000 from the contingency line item, reasoning that if that amount is budgeted it will be spent, but not necessarily for emergency purposes.

The motion failed in a roll call vote.

The budget as presented was then passed with Johnston casting the only dissenting vote. Board member Michael Blow was absent.



Photo by Jon Olender  

Awaiting deeper freeze

A small village of ice fishermen has sprung up on Lake Bomoseen in Castleton as lake ice solidifies.

Wildlife bills aimed at changing demographics

MONTPELIER — A lawmaker from Williston has proposed bills aimed at refining the mission and funding of the state Fish & Wildlife Department in the face of changing demographics.

The two bills, H.581 and H.582, were introduced by House Rep. James McCullough, D-Williston, who sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife. McCullough said it’ll likely be a few weeks before the bills are taken up by the committee, as it’s working on Act 250 changes first, but said he felt both have the support to advance.

H.581 would create the “Vermont Working Group on Wildlife Funding,” which would look at other ways to fund the department, given that hunting license sales have been declining over the years.

The second bill, H.582, amends the mission of the Fish & Wildlife Department.

“The bill would provide that fish, wildlife and fur-bearing species shall not be managed to serve a special interest sector. The bill provides that the primary mission of the Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Board is the conservation and protection of fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. The bill further provides that the governance of wildlife in the state shall be carried out in accordance with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation,” it reads.

McCullough said the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation was drafted in the mid-1800s and has been what many wildlife management groups in North America look to for guiding principles when setting policies. McCullough said this wouldn’t be a major shift in direction for the department, as it already follows many of the North American conservation principles, but it would acknowledge that activities such as hunting, fishing and trapping are becoming less popular, while other nonconsumptive uses for wildlife are growing.

A sizeable chunk of the department’s funding comes from hunting, fishing and trapping license sales. Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter said Tuesday that license sales and fees account for about a third of the department’s income. Another third comes from federal taxes on certain types of outdoor equipment, while about a quarter of its money is from the state’s general fund.

McCullough said the Fish & Wildlife Department has also been asked to do more types of work over the years, such as advising the Agency of Natural Resources on Act 250 projects and other things not directly related to managing animal populations.

Porter said in a Tuesday interview that the department already does what McCullough’s H.582 bill calls for.

“I’m curious why Representative McCullough thinks the efforts of our department aren’t focused on the very things he outlines in this bill,” said Porter. “The North American wildlife model is a set of concepts — an aspirational set of concepts — that have guided wildlife management in the U.S. and Canada for a number of years, but they’re not a set of rules, or laws, or regulations. They’re really a philosophy, and it’s the philosophy that guides our department.”

He said he knows of no jurisdiction that’s turned the model into actual legislation, and that doing so would require a fair bit of work. For instance, he said, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation discourages the commercialization of wildlife. There are some practices in Vermont that qualify as the commercialization of wildlife, but don’t imperil the species in question. What constitutes commercialization would also have to be defined, he said.

He disagreed with the notion that the department focuses on the needs of hunters, anglers and trappers.

“We do a tremendous amount of work on general wildlife protection, on regulatory review of development and other types of projects that protect a lot of species, purchasing and managing land that protects a wide variety of species, and direct intervention on species that are not hunted, fished or trapped,” he said, noting the department’s work with loons, falcons and other species.

Porter said he doesn’t dispute the fact that hunting-license sales are trending downward, but said the bills McCullough has proposed somewhat “cherry pick” the data. He said about 70,000 Vermonters are actively involved in hunting, and combined with anglers, it’s about 120,000 people involved.

“I don’t really disagree with the underlying premise of the bill, which is we need to have a way to support fish and wildlife, and fish and wildlife work in the state of Vermont,” he said. “That is in part due to the declining number of hunters, but it’s also due in part to the expanding mandates and mission of the Fish & Wildlife Department.”

Not all feel the change H.582 would create would be minor.

“I think H.582 is really exciting, if you read the findings section of that bill, it really gets to the core of the problem that Vermont Fish & Wildlife is facing and it seems as though they’re kind of burying their heads in the sand, pretending this isn’t happening,” said Brenna Galdenzi, president of Protect Our Wildlife, an advocacy group that’s pushed for changes to the state’s trapping laws and some other hunting practices. “Hunting sales are down over 50%, trapping license sales are down, they need to find a way to reach out to different stakeholders in Vermont to augment their funding.”

Galdenzi said Porter, as well as past commissioners, have focused on the needs of hunters, anglers and trappers over other citizens’ interests. This is a problem, she said, because the state’s constitution and wildlife laws make clear the department works for everybody, not just those buying licenses.

“I think the current wildlife governance model set them up for this ‘us versus them’ kind of thing,” she said. “I don’t wholly fault the commissioners for this, they are tasked, it seems, with catering to a certain constituency, those who buy hunting, fishing, and trapping licenses, it’s been like that for decades.”

Mike Covey, executive director of Vermont Traditions Coalition, said he doesn’t see how H.582 would change the department’s focus. “I would be intrigued if there was any reason they actually took the bill up, because I don’t see where it’s having an impact,” he said.

He said the amount of money the department gets from the general fund isn’t as much as some claim, and maintained that the bulk of the department’s funding comes from people who purchase licenses, given that those same people also donate and support the department in other ways.

“I think it’s a great concept that other folks could be looked at as a revenue opportunity,” he said.



Energy company at heart of scandal
Russians hacked company key to Ukraine scandal: researchers

BOSTON — A U.S. cybersecurity company says Russian military agents have successfully hacked the Ukrainian gas company at the center of the scandal that led to President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

Russian agents launched a phishing campaign in early November to steal the login credentials of employees of Burisma Holdings, the gas company, according to Area 1 Security, a Silicon Valley company that specializes in email security.

Hunter Biden, son of former U.S. vice president and Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, previously served on Burisma’s board.

It was not clear what the hackers were looking for or may have obtained, said Area 1’s CEO, Oren Falkowitz, who called the findings “incontrovertible” and posted an eight-page report. The timing of the operation raises the possibility that Russian agents could be searching for material damaging to the Bidens or scheming to plant forged data and sow misinformation online.

The House of Representatives impeached Trump in December for abusing the power of his office by enlisting the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden, a political rival, ahead of the 2020 election. A second charge accused Trump of obstructing a congressional investigation into the matter.

“Our report doesn’t make any claims as to what the intent of the hackers were, what they might have been looking for, what they are going to do with their success. We just point out that this is a campaign that’s going on,” said Falkowitz, a former National Security Agency offensive hacker whose company’s clients include candidates for U.S. federal elected offices.

In an earlier interview, he told The Associated Press that the campaigns of top candidates for the U.S. presidency and House and Senate races in 2020 have in the past few months each been targeted by about a thousand phishing emails. Falkowitz did not name the candidates. Nor would he name any of his company’s clients.

Burisma did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Biden said in a statement the incident shows not just Trump but also Russian President Vladimir Putin “sees Joe Biden as a threat.”

Some cybersecurity experts cautioned against blaming Russian military agents without more evidence, however, saying the report indicates Area 1 investigators didn’t have access to Burisma’s internal logs and compromised email accounts in making the determination.

“That’s problematic,” tweeted Thomas Rid, of Johns Hopkins. “Caution advised based on what we currently know.”

And while many experts said it’s a good bet the phishing amounts to a Kremlin attempt to smear the Bidens, there are other possibilities. Michael Connell, a former Army intelligence officer and researcher at the government-funded Center for Naval Analyses, notes that Russian agents have previously attacked energy-related computer systems in other countries, most notably Germany.

“The goal of the hackers was probably information gathering, but it also likely included creating backdoors to allow future access (for intel or destructive cyberattacks),” he wrote in an email.

Russian hackers from the GRU, the same military intelligence unit that Area 1 said was behind the operation targeting Burisma, have been indicted for hacking emails from the Democratic National Committee and the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 presidential race.

Stolen emails were released online at the time by Russian agents and WikiLeaks in an effort to favor Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller determined in his investigation.

Area 1 discovered the phishing campaign by the Russian military intelligence unit on New Year’s Eve, said Falkowitz, who would not discuss whom he notified prior to going public or whether Burisma shared information with his company. He said he followed the industry standard process of responsible disclosure, which would include notifying Burisma.

Joan Donovan, a Harvard University disinformation expert, said one of the most dangerous possibilities would be data theft spiced with forgeries — and subsequently leaked. That reportedly happened in 2017 when emails related to the campaign of President Emanuel Macron of France were stolen and published online — with some fakes included— just ahead of his election.

She called the Burisma incident “testament to the fact that we have not paid enough attention to email security” when the consequences of a leak are so high for businesses, politicians and journalists in particular.

“Email is unfortunately the way that we’ve come to do business but email has become a serious, serious vulnerability,” she said.

In phishing, an attacker uses a targeted email to lure a target to a fake site that resembles a familiar one. There, unwitting victims enter their usernames and passwords, which the hackers then harvest. Phished credentials allow attackers both to rifle through a victim’s stored email and masquerade as that person.

In the report, Falkowitz said the GRU agents used fake, lookalike domains that were designed to mimic the sites of real Burisma subsidiaries.

Falkowitz said the operation targeting Burisma involved tactics, techniques and procedures that GRU agents had used repeatedly in other phishing operations, matching “several patterns that lots of independent researchers agree mimic this particular Russian actor.” Area 1 says it has been tracking the Russian agents for several years.

The discovery’s timing — just weeks before presidential primaries begin in the United States — highlights the need to protect political campaigns from targeted phishing attacks, which are behind 95% of all information breaches, said Falkowitz.

Area 1 said its researchers connected the phishing campaign targeting Burisma to an effort earlier last year that targeted Kvartal 95, a media organization founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

In this case, the Russian military agents, from a group security researchers call “Fancy Bear,” peppered Burisma employees with emails designed to look like internal messages, the company said.

In order to detect phishing attacks, Area 1 maintains a global network of sensors designed to sniff out and block them before they reach their targets.

In July, the U.S. Federal Elections Commission gave Area 1 permission to offer its services to candidates for federal elected office and political committees at the same low rates it charges non-profits.4

Photo by Jon Olender  

Friendly wave

A two-faced snowman greets motorists traveling both ways on Route 23 in Weybridge on a snowy day recently.

City eyes downtown speed drop

The city will take another look at dropping the downtown speed limit to 25 mph.

The Community and Economic Development Committee held a broad-ranging discussion about pedestrian safety Tuesday. Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey said she had no specific “action plan” for the meeting and no motion emerged from it, but everyone present supported lowering the speed limit downtown and Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis said she would have the subject added to the agenda of the next Traffic Safety Committee meeting.

The meeting opened with a presentation about pedestrian safety by the Rutland Area Robotics Club. Students from the club performed a sketch in which two students are run over by a truck and then various crosswalk safety measures are explored. These ranged from light-up signs to placing reflective flags at crossings for pedestrians to carry.

The students brought data with them showing that since 2009, 151 pedestrians and cyclists in Rutland had been killed or injured in accidents, making the city the most dangerous for pedestrians in the state.

The meeting was triggered by Savannah Crowther, a newcomer to the city via the Stay to Stay program, approaching the Board of Aldermen on the issue. She said she was particularly concerned by people she saw darting across Main Street.

While no obvious solution to that presented itself during the meeting, some aldermen took note of how a map prepared by the robotics club showed a cluster of pedestrian accidents in the downtown area. This in turn led to a discussion of speed limits.

“There are a lot of studies that show differences when someone is hit by a car going 30 versus 25 versus 40,” city Planning Commission Chairwoman Susan Schreibman said.

Schreibman said a study about dropping the speed limit was done and turned over to the city.

“And then it just died,” she said.

Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said the speed limit used to be 25 mph downtown, but it was raised to 30 mph through a bureaucratic error.

“I’ve been begging to put downtown back down to 25 mph since the ’90s,” he said, though he warned that changing it would “attract a lot of public discussion.”




Ready to vote

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, of California, announced Tuesday that she will call a vote today to send the two articles of impeachment voted on and passed last month to the Senate. Impeachment trial in the Senate could begin as soon as Thursday. B8

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Song Circle

Welcoming singers and acoustic players to share their music and play along with others — or just come to listen. Song book of traditional songs provided. Donations welcome, 7:15-9:15 p.m. Godnick Adult Center, 1 Deer St., Rutland, 775-1182.