MONTPELIER — From the Great Recession, circa 2009, to Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, to the current COVID-19 crisis, State Treasurer Beth Pearce has seen Vermont face significant challenges.
Pearce joined the Office of the Vermont State Treasurer in 2004, hired as deputy state treasurer by then-Treasurer Jeb Spaulding. In January 2011, after Spaulding was appointed Secretary of Administration, Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed Pearce to replace him.
“Being treasurer has been the greatest experience of my life in public sector work,” Pearce said. “It’s a great state, I’m proud to be here, I’m proud of the work we’ve done.”
Pearce grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts
“I was a bit of a science and math geek, actually a lot of a science and math geek,” she said. “I started college as a major in biochemistry and then I realized I wanted to be more active in government and active in social issues.”
She started college at the same time Republican President Richard Nixon ran for reelection against Senator George McGovern, D-South Dakota. Pearce said she got the opportunity to listen to a diverse group of people discuss the issues facing the country.
“I think that’s an important part of college, a diverse population of folks you can talk to about the issues,” Pearce said. Her time in college helped her develop “a dedication to public service and a want to do something that contributed to society.”
She said McGovern, who lost handily to Nixon, was the candidate who mostly reflected her views.
“Not on all issues,” she said. “I don’t think anyone would say they’re in 100% agreement with any particular candidate. The issues and the concerns he had appealed to me.”
Her long-standing interest in math and science blended with an interest in social anthropology, leaving Pearce with a desire to help people while having a keen interest in numbers and financial matters. Out of college, she was thinking of going overseas to work in a developing nation, then took a position through the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) working as a jobs consultant for a consortium of western Massachusetts towns, advising them on what jobs to train people for, among other things.
“For me that was very rewarding,” said Pearce. ‘I remember working at a program that I helped get a grant for on specialized training. There was a woman in that training, she came from limited income and was a single parent, and for me being able to help that person was very important to me, it made a difference in how I viewed my work in that it wasn’t just about numbers, it was about people.”
Pearce has spent most of her career in the public finance sector, working largely in Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
Before coming to Vermont, Pearce was deputy treasurer for cash management at the Massachusetts State Treasurer’s Office. She was brought in by Treasurer and Receiver-General of Massachusetts, Shannon O’Brien.
“There was an interesting challenge there, more than interesting it was a significant challenge,” said Pearce. “My predecessor was involved in a scheme with other treasury and outside folks to steal $9.5 million. I came in on March 1, 1999 and my predecessor was arrested around March 3 or 4, so that was a tough experience.”
Pearce and her team were able to get that department back in order, creating internal controls and reorganizing how it was structured to guard against future fraud and saving taxpayers about $1.2 million.
Pearce came to Vermont not long after O’Brien lost her bid for governor against Mitt Romney.
She found Vermont’s government to be highly collaborative in nature, something she likes as it allows her to take what she calls a holistic approach to the state’s finances, issuing reports on things like water quality and infrastructure needs from a financial perspective.
“I’m a Vermonter, this is where I’m going to end my career at some point in time,” she said, adding that won’t be any time soon and that she doesn’t see treasurer as a stepping stone to another office.
“We’ve done a number of great initiatives,” said Pearce. “We’ve worked on various projects the General Assembly has asked us to do, I think that’s the creative side. We’ve got the basics down, we’re doing the right things. We worked on a clean water report and that was well-received. Governor Scott implemented the financing program for that for two years with the general assembly and worked toward a long-term solution on our clean water issues.”
The state pension issue is also something Pearce has worked on both as deputy treasurer and treasurer.
“We’ve got a problem and that problem originated from a number of different factors,” she said. “One is that we failed to pay the actuary required contribution beginning in the 90s all the way through until about 2008.”
She said the state employee and teacher pensions are in a better position now, but there’s no silver bullet.
“It’s going to require discipline over a number of years. If you’re going to suggest you can change this overnight that’s not going to happen. I’m a very big advocate of defined benefit plans. I know there are folks who would suggest a defined contribution plan. Defined construction plans would absolutely cost the taxpayers more money… put simply, they would cost more money in the short term and in the long term,” she said.
She said there have been significant increases in employee contributions to the fund.
“Over the years we’ve done a number of initiatives starting way back with my predecessor Jeb Spaulding all the way through my tenure as treasurer. We were able to restructure some of the benefits, we worked with the federal government to get additional income for the program called EGWP (Employee Group Waiver Plan) and without changing benefits we were able to get another $6 million a year at this point, it was smaller at the inception, but year after year that’s real money,” she said, adding that there’s also been changes to how state employee healthcare is funded.
“We were essentially, until 2014, paying for that by putting it on a credit card and as you know at home if you put things on your credit card and you pay the minimum payment you’re never going to get caught up and it’s going to cost you a great deal of money,” she said.
The healthcare problem still needs to be addressed, said Pearce. She plans to propose something to the General Assembly in the coming session.
Other initiatives she’s pleased with include the Achieving a Better Life Experience program, which aims to help people with disabilities save money, and a model after school program teaching financial literacy.
The city is casting its eye on handful of traffic trouble spots.
The Board of Aldermen voted Monday to have the Traffic Safety Committee look at the flow of vehicles in the area of Terrill Street and Sheldon Place, issued a reminder of a previously ordered meeting on the intersection of Stratton Road and Killington Avenue, and voted to request the police commission to investigate a noisy vehicle in the vicinity of Cleveland and Park avenues.
The first issue was brought to the board by Alderman Sam Gorruso, who said a resident of Sheldon Place approached him with concerns about the number of vehicles going the wrong way on Terrill Street, which is one-way. Gorruso said he was not sure whether all of the signs were still in place.
This led to a discussion of a referral Alderman Thomas DePoy previously had requested regarding drivers running the stop sign at Stratton Road and Killington Avenue. DePoy said he had just watched somebody blow through it at 45 mph.
“It’s an ongoing issue,” he said. “It really needs to be dealt with, sooner rather than later. ... It’s usually the Stratton side that gets blown.”
Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey said that Stratton Road had another trouble spot at the intersection with Hill Pond Road. Humphrey described a resident waving at motorists in an attempt to get them not to run the stop sign only to get honked at.
“It’s intentional,” Humphrey said. “People just ignore it.”
The board unanimously approved the referral and Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis, who represents the board on the traffic safety committee, said she would make sure DePoy’s issue was addressed, as well.
Cleveland and Park came up in a different discussion, when Alderman William Gillam asked to have the Charter and Ordinance Committee look at noisy mufflers due to a recurring issue in that area.
“They’re making a real racket right now in the neighborhood at 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said. “I know there’s a noise ordinance, but I don’t know exactly what that is.”
Alderwoman Sharon Davis said she had been hearing the same vehicle, and suggested that what was needed was not a new ordinance but, rather, enforcement.
“This individual is choosing not just to be loud, but – I don’t know what you call it when you burn the rubber and twirl around and leave the tire marks in the road,” she said, suggesting that they could request the Police Commission to send someone out to catch the motorist.
Gillam withdrew his initial motion, and the board referred the matter to the Police Commission. Commission Chairman Sean Sargent said he could have the department review complaint data from the area.
KILLINGTON — A forest fire atop Deer Leap was kept away from the trail by firefighters working in shifts over three days, according to state and federal officials.
The blaze that scorched a section of the mountain is being blamed on a campfire that was not properly extinguished. As of late Monday afternoon, U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ethan Ready said officials still were monitoring the fire that had been first reported Friday afternoon.
“Ground fires are difficult to extinguish since they continue to smolder in the deep duff layer which is dry due to the current drought condition we’re experiencing,” Ready wrote in an email. “Our strategy during initial attack is to contain the fire and keep it from spreading. Once containment is achieved, we work towards calling it controlled by improving the control line around the fire and mopping up hot spots within the fire perimeter. The forest service will continue to staff the fire until we place it in controlled status.”
The fire was called in by the owners of the Inn at Long Trail – co-owner Murray McGrath said his son spotted it on the southeast side of the ridge while out walking their dogs.
“It was a ground fire, so it wasn’t a canopy fire, but it was intense,” McGrath said. “A lot of trees were scorched and came down – the roots were burning.”
Killington Fire chief Gary Roth said crews from Pittsfield, Bridgewater, Woodstock, Clarendon, Rutland Town and several others joined his department in climbing the mountain and working through the night.
“They did a very good job, but unfortunately, the fire traveled under the ground and into the root system,” he said. “It started burning down.
Roth said the forest floor is made up of roughly foot of dead vegetation what crews had to dig up to deny the fire fuel. This already difficult job, he said, was complicated by the difficulties of getting to the scene.
“It’s a very steep hike,” he said, putting the travel time at about 45 minutes. “Folks in my department, as well as other departments, are no avid hikers. ... We do wildland training but it’s rare we’re climbing up steep hills like this. Our search and rescue people were great at it and were loving it. ... I’m great at the end of a ladder.”
Roth said the fire was kept away from the trail and structures, such as the boardwalk and stairs, toward the top. Ready put the total area affected at about a third of an acre. Roth said it was visible from the Appalachian Trail but not the Deer Leap trail.
“It’s not completely devastated, like a windy, flat area, but people will notice it for the next two years,” he said.
Roth said this was his department’s second campfire of the week. He said the first, at Kent Pond, was reported by hikers and extinguished before it could spread from the fire pit in which is was started.
“You’re not supposed to leave your fire unless you can touch it,” he said. “It’s very dry up there. People need to be extremely careful. There’s just no reason to be burning up there.”
Vermont’s trails have seen unusually large crowds this summer. McGrath said Deer Leap has been as busy as he’s ever seen it and that a lot of the newcomers don’t seem to understand best hiking practices.
“The COVID summer – everybody’s up there,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that think they’re walking in Central Park – they have no idea what’s going on up there.”
Roth said he did not expect the fire-started to ever be identified.
“I look at each of these things as a learning experience,” he said. “I’d much rather be able to get the idea out to many people stop doing this than blame or catch one person.”
GEORGIA — The Republican candidate for State Treasurer says that something needs to be done about the state’s pension fund immediately.
“That’s my biggest area of concern regarding the treasurer’s position, is that retirement fund,” said Carolyn Branagan, a former State House representative and Franklin County senator. “We are in trouble financially. It’s in the hole, it’s starting to reach out and harm other areas of our state and we’ve got to fix it.”
She notes a report issued last year by the Vermont Business Roundtable saying the state pension fund is badly underfunded and that efforts made to shore it up haven’t gone far enough.
“They put out a terrific report and I don’t think anybody read it,” Branagan said. “It was distributed throughout the State House, including to the money committees, and I think it was just filed on a shelf, nobody looked at it.”
She said the fund is behind by $4 billion and it’s starting to affect other areas of state finances.
Branagan said the first thing she wants to do if elected treasurer is begin annually stress testing the fund to see where its weaknesses are or would be during times of recession, or if there were ever miscalculation or error regarding the fund.
She said getting lawmakers to consider the fund is difficult at the best of times given its complexity and, frankly, dull nature of the issue.
“I think most legislators simply don’t understand the issue, they haven’t had a chance to study it and it’s as dry as yesterday’s toast, but you have to look at it because it’s going to be a fiscal disaster if we don’t tackle this,” Branagan said. “I will definitely make it my number one priority if elected to the treasurer position.”
Branagan said she aims to keep the treasurer’s office largely out of politics and to stick to working on state financial matters, but she’s also a fan of the incumbent, Beth Pearce’s, efforts and plans to make financial literacy a bigger part of Vermonter’s lives, especially young students.
Branagan is the daughter of dairy farmers who also pursued post-secondary education.
Her father got a degree through the GI Bill while her mother was a registered nurse who studied in Brooklyn.
“So I always knew I would go to college, so I went to the University of Vermont,” Branagan said. “I have a bachelor’s degree from there and I also have a master’s degree in public school administration from UVM.”
While going to school, she would return home to work on the farm. Ultimately she went into teaching in Fairfield, working her way up to principal.
“Back in those days it was fashionable to pick a teacher for what they called a teaching principal,” she said. “They would pick one teacher that they thought was a good teacher and that person would do administrative work for half the day and try to spread the understanding of how to be a good teacher among the rest of the staff.”
Branagan ramped down her teaching career after she had children and spent 20 years as a stay-at-home mother while volunteering and serving roles in town government. She was on the school board when something happened that spurred her into seeking a lawmaker’s seat in Montpelier.
“I got mad,” she said. “I got mad over Act 60. I felt that Georgia was losing votes. We would work our tails off on the school board and then lose the vote because the tax rate was going up too high. We had worked hard before then to keep the tax rate low, so I wanted to go to Montpelier to try to straighten out Act 60.”
She won her seat in the House in 2002.
“The biggest lesson I learned was how important it is to listen to people,” she said. “It isn’t important what the politician thinks… it’s what the person you listen to thinks. People rule from the bottom up and if you don’t listen to them they’ll take that out at the ballot box either by defeating the budget or by defeating the amendment you want on the floor at Town Meeting; they will tell you which way you should go.”
Her first year in office was the last year Republicans had control of the Legislature.
Initially she was frustrated that the Republican leadership at the time did not seem willing to capitalize on the advantage, but now sees there is wisdom in moving slowly.
Her time in state government was also extremely instructive, worth a master’s degree or two in everything from roadwork to water quality.
She said she’s proud of the work she did on the House Committee on Ways and Means, keeping taxes and fees to a minimum, but also working with others to get state recognition for the Missisquoi band of the Abenaki, many of which reside in Franklin County.
The state recognition allows people recognized as members of the tribe to be eligible for certain grants and they can also label their artwork as being Abenaki-made, boosting its value.
The state’s Current Use land program and child nutrition were also areas she had interest in while serving in the House.
Branagan said she felt like much of her work was benefiting all of Franklin County, and so opted to run for Senate.
She won and took her seat in 2016, serving only one term, despite planning to be there for a long time.
“The reason I didn’t run for a second term was because I had cancer,” she said. “I had to get out of there and go to the hospital. I got treated down at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Now I’m done with that, they don’t want to see me down at Dana-Farber for another six months.”
Branagan had been diagnosed with melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer.
“I think I got it because I’m a farm kid,” she said. “Every summer, starting in eighth grade on the last day of school I put on a bikini top and cut-off jeans and I got on the tractor, and I drove the tractor through the hay field. I ran the rake, I ran the hay wagon, every day I drove the tractor and I had a gorgeous tan until the summer I got married when I was 22 years old. Then I paid for it.”
She said it took eight surgeries, but her doctor’s say she’s cancer-free. Branagan speaks highly of the care she received at Dana-Farber.
“I’m not going to sit at home and wait for it to come back, I’m going to get out and do something,” she said.
“The court now faces a serious crisis of legitimacy. Senate Republicans, who represent a minority of the nation, and a president elected by a minority of the nation, are now in a position to solidify their control of the third branch of government.”
In the news
Secretary of State Jim Condos says General Election ballots are being mailed out to all registered voters across Vermont. A2
CASTLETON — A new master’s program at Castleton University aims to help address the statewide nursing shortage.
Last week, CU announced the launch of a master of science in nursing beginning in the spring 2021 semester.
The program will have two concentrations: clinical nurse leader concentration and nurse educator.
The clinical nurse leader track is designed to prepare students for leadership positions in clinical settings.
The nurse educator track prepares graduates to train nurses in academic and clinical settings.
The MSN expands on the university’s current bachelor of science in nursing program, which features a four-year program as well as an accelerated, two-year post-licensure track for registered nurses who have earned an associate degree or diploma in nursing.
Angie Smith, assistant dean of the school of nursing at Castleton, said the new program is a response to the evolving complexities of the healthcare industry as well as the shortage of nurses nationwide.
“While CU is doing a great job providing qualified baccalaureate nurses to the community, the demands of healthcare have increased the need to prepare and employ clinical nurse leaders,” Smith said. “Due to increasing complexities in healthcare, several employers have reached out to CU to ask that we help prepare Vermont registered nurses to be clinical nurse leaders at the bedside.”
According to a report delivered to the Vermont Senate Committee on Health and Welfare last year, nurses are in high demand across the state. As of this spring, the report projects nearly 4,000 available nursing jobs statewide.
The report notes that the state’s aging demographics and declining workforce has had an adverse impact on healthcare providers’ ability to hire staff. Between 2007 and 2014, the number of new RN licenses dropped nearly 69%.
As the need for more nurses has risen, state healthcare providers have turned to traveling nurses.
The report found that the percentage of new RN licenses with out-of-state addresses has increased from 58% to 86% from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2017.
However, that solution has added to providers’ bottom lines.
In FY2018, Vermont hospitals had an average traveling nurse annualized cost of $158,000 per nurse, which the report estimates was likely 50% to 75% more than an average full-time employee with benefits.
The report also shows that more than 80% of Vermont nursing homes used traveling nurses in FY2017 costing a total of $11.6 million, a 68% increase from FY2016 and a 145% increase from FY14.
“The number of nursing students that we graduate every year does not even come close to filling the number that we need nor the number that are retiring,” said Jill Markowski, assistant professor and school of nursing department chair at CU. “There’s a huge gap there.”
The report further states that Vermont has “an insufficient number of nurse educators.” Fewer faculty means that nursing education programs around the state accept fewer applicants.
In 2018, Vermont Technical College was able to accept only 62.5% of qualified applicants into its licensed practical nurse program.
The report characterizes this as a “significant bottleneck in Vermont’s nurse career pipeline.”
“In order for us to get nurses out there, we have to have nurse educators who can educate them in these programs and there’s a dramatic shortage in nurse educator talent pool,” Markowski said.
Castleton currently has almost 300 students enrolled in its nursing program, split between its main campus and satellite campus in Bennington, which it operates in partnership with Southwestern Vermont Health Care.
Markowski said she’s already had several students from the current graduating class express interest in pursing the MSN program.
The year-round degree program with courses offered in eight-week terms is completely online and can be completed in two years.
“It’s very manageable for the working person,” Markowski said.
Amy Martone, director of nursing excellence at Rutland Regional Medical Center, said the facility was “excited to learn about this new offering.”
“Rutland Regional Medical Center has benefited from a strong nursing academic partner in Castleton University, and we look forward to the positive impact this will have on the Rutland nursing community,” she wrote in an email last week.
Pam Duchene, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer Southwestern Vermont Health Care in Bennington, said the new program “definitely meets a need.”
“It helps to retain our brightest and smartest nurses,” she said.
She said that since partnering with CU’s nursing program last year following the closure of Southern Vermont College, Castleton has helped SVHC bring on new nurses and helped nurses with associates degrees advance to baccalaureate degrees.
Duchene said SVHC hired five CU graduates this spring.
According to Duchene, 7.5% of SVHC’s nursing staff is currently prepared at a master’s level.
“That would be great to further advance,” she said.
On Monday, Castleton President Jonathan Spiro praised the new program for playing a “crucial role in helping to meet the needs of our regional healthcare employers.”
“Launching this MSN degree is the next step in the expansion of our nursing program as it will provide a great opportunity for working nurses to advance their careers,” he said.