A1 A1
Local
Education tax rates up in city

City education tax rates are going up for the coming year.

The Rutland City homestead property tax rate for fiscal year 2022 will increase 8%, or 13 cents — from $1.51 to $1.64 per $100 of property value — according to the Vermont Department of Taxes.

The non-homestead tax rate is up about 3 cents, from $1.69 to $1.72.

The city’s residential tax rate is set each July by the Board of Aldermen based on the sum of the homestead tax rate, which is set by the state but based on city school district’s annual budget; and the municipal tax rate, which is set by the city.

The non-residential rate, which is similarly calculated, is based on the sum of the city’s municipal tax rate and the non-homestead rate, which is set by the state based on budgets submitted by all Vermont school districts.

Rutland City Public Schools Director of Finance Ted Plemenos delivered the news to the Board of Alderman Monday evening, reporting that the RCPS expenditure budget for fiscal year 2022 is set at $58 million – an $800,000 reduction from the previous year.

“We have more than offset increased costs with reductions in terms of staff cuts and efficiencies and some cost deferrals,” he said.

However, Plemenos noted that the district, for the last several years, been drawing down a working capital surplus, which had the effect of supplementing local revenues. In the last fiscal year, the district used about $4 million of the surplus. For fiscal year 2022, another $1 million will be applied.

As a result, the net share of RCPS expenses funded by the state will increase from $32 million to $34 million in fiscal year 2022, contributing to the higher homestead tax rate.

Plemenos continued that while total expenses are down, the average cost per pupil is budgeted to go up 6%, from $15,927 to $16,956.

Spending per equalized pupil is a key factor in determining tax rates. A lower equalized per-pupil count means higher tax rates for a district.

This year, the state agreed to hold school districts’ average daily membership (ADM) numbers — that is the average number of students enrolled in a district over a specific period of time — to pre-pandemic levels, acknowledging the potential loss of students to homeschooling and other COVID-related dislocations.

Plemenos reported that RCPS’ ADM numbers ended up being 2% lower than anticipated. He also noted that while the state kept ADM from decreasing, it did not do the same for equalized per-pupil numbers.

To calculate equalized per-pupil spending, the state applies a weighted formula that reflects the resources a district needs to educate students based on certain characteristics, including students living in rural areas, students from low-income backgrounds, students with different learning needs and students for whom English is not their primary language.

Plemenos referenced the recently convened joint task force of Vermont lawmakers that is exploring how to update the state’s weighting formula, explaining that a new formula would likely benefit the city.

According to a 2019 report commissioned by the Legislature the existing formula, which is more than 20 years old, is “outdated,” with more than half of the school districts in Vermont having been under-weighted.

RCPS is part of the Vermont Coalition for Student Equity, a coalition of more than 20 mostly under-weighted school districts from around the state that are advocating for an overhaul of the formula.

“We are under-weighted. The school district is not getting ample compensation for what we’re having to do,” said Plemenos.

Plemenos pointed to a simulation included in the report, based on fiscal year 2018 data that projected the city would see a 30-cent reduction to its tax rate — a 20% decrease.

However, he was quick to qualify that it was a single simulation and others may yield different results.

Speaking Tuesday, Plemenos also noted that new weights would not be implemented anytime soon. The task force has until the end of the year to deliver its final report, and even then Plemenos said implementation would be a ways off.

“That weighting study will not likely at all affect this coming budget that will be developed in the fall for fiscal (year) 2023,” he said. “While it doesn’t say that there’ll be any kind of near-term alleviation of the financial pressure, it does provide an indication of the scope of the challenge that was created by the underfunding.”

He explained that he chose to include the findings of the study to create awareness about the task force and to encourage people to talk to their legislators about it.

“If there’s any message that I could give you this evening ... it would be, please call your representatives, please call your senators for Rutland City and say, ‘We need this implemented now,’” he told the Aldermen Monday night.

During Plemenos’ presentation, Alderman Thomas DePoy asked why per-pupil costs had, by his estimate, tripled in the past 20 years.

RCPS Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss explained that the change was a definitional one. Previously, school districts only included local expenditures in the budgets they presented to voters. However, a subsequent change in statute in the wake of Acts 60 and 68 required them to present the entire expenditure budget.

“It hurt, in terms of the cost per pupil, districts like Rutland City where we are bigger recipients of federal funds,” he said.

Alderwoman Sharon Davis expressed her displeasure with the rate increase and told Plemenos that she would like to see some reform in education funding.

“The taxpayers of this city cannot continue to absorb these costs,” she said. “It is frustrating for an alderman who’s has sat here for these years, and every time we set the tax rate, who struggles to find a nickel to offset the municipal side and come in flat or below and have it wiped out by your increases on the school side. Something has to change.”

Plemenos said he sympathized.

“I feel very bad that we’re talking about a 13-cent increase, but I can look you straight in the eye and say, I worked it as hard as I could and didn’t leave any stone unturned,” he said.

Davis said, in the future, she would prefer to meet with Plemenos “sooner rather than later.”

“Not that I want to control school side, not that I want to control your budget. I want to understand it. I want to be able to comment on it,” she said. “The bottom line is relief to taxpayers. This was a tough year — a lot of people still are not back to work — and they’re going to get hit with an increase, and it’s owned by the school, and it’s unfortunate. So hopefully, maybe next year, we can do better.”

Plemenos responded saying he welcomed “all good ideas.”

“Anytime you want to invite me back,” he said, “I’ll be glad to be here.”

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com


Robert Hinton,of West Rutland, walks his three dogs, Arabella, Chloe and Sylvia, on Marble Street on Tuesday afternoon.

Dogs walk man


Covid19
Governor’s weekly news briefing
State sees slight uptick in virus cases

MONTPELIER — Officials say there’s a slight uptick in coronavirus cases in the state, though they aren’t concerned thanks to the state’s high vaccination rate.

At Gov. Phil Scott’s regular news conference Tuesday, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said 2,258 people received their first dose of the vaccine this past week. That brings the eligible population with at least one dose of the vaccine to 83.2%, which is best in the country. Only those 12 years and older are eligible for the vaccines available because they haven’t been approved for anyone younger than that.

Pieciak said the state has seen its second week of increased cases. He said there were 89 reported cases during the past week compared to 54 the week prior.

“The majority of these cases continue to be in the unvaccinated population here in Vermont,” he said.

Pieciak said cases are expected to be a little higher than they have been going forward thanks to the so-called Delta variant spreading among the unvaccinated. This variant, first identified in India, is said to be more transmissible and can cause more severe illness than prior versions of the virus.

While cases regionally have increased, he said the number of hospitalizations has remained stable.

Pieciak said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Tuesday it estimates 83% of all new cases are the Delta variant.

Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said residents are well protected from the virus thanks to Vermont’s high vaccination rate. Levine said while there has been an increase in cases, there have been no big outbreaks.

He said the unvaccinated, however, have never been at higher risk than they are now because of this variant and again encouraged everyone who can to get vaccinated.

The commissioner said the vaccines are doing what they are supposed to do by preventing severe illness and death.

“We’ve already seen how these numbers have dropped in Vermont as our vaccination rate increased. The vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths nationwide, meaning well over 90%, are among the unvaccinated,” Levine said.

He said the science now shows just one dose of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna is not as effective at combating Delta as getting both doses. Levine said while just one dose might have been enough protection from older variants, getting both doses now is important.

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com


News
Family sues DCF over infant's death

Family members of Harper Briar, a 6-month-old baby who died after being at a Rutland day care in January 2019, are suing the Vermont Department for Children and Families and some of its employees, arguing the state should have investigated allegations the day care’s owner had used medications, without parents’ knowledge, to manage some of the children.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Harper Briar and her parents, Marissa and Blake Briar, asks for unspecified damages for compensation and “exemplary damages in an amount sufficient to reduce the likelihood of the recurrence of the conduct of the defendants … and the resulting injury to other citizens.”

Felony charges are pending against the day care’s owner, Stacey Vaillancourt, 54, of Rutland, of manslaughter and cruelty to a child with death resulting. Vaillancourt pleaded not guilty to the charges in Rutland criminal court in March 2019.

The 13-page complaint, filed in Rutland civil court in March, alleges the Department for Children and Families (DCF) had gotten complaints from parents who believed their children had been given medication without the parents knowledge at the North Street day care, where police believe Harper Briar was given diphenhydramine, sold as Benadryl, in March 2019. However, the lawsuit alleges, the state agency and employees did not take action to stop the alleged practice or to warn parents.

The complaint said Harper Briar was born on July 24, 2018. She was described as a “happy, smiling baby” whose parents called her “Perfect Princess.”

Marissa Briar spent almost 3 months looking for a day care provider so she could complete her degree at Castleton University before choosing the North Street business.

According to the complaint, there were no warnings on the state’s “Bright Futures Child Care Information System” and the only information was that the business was certified by the state and had been compliant with state regulation as of the last site visit.

After Harper Briar’s death on Jan. 24, 2019, the Vermont Medical Examiner’s office found diphenhydramine in her blood, urine and stomach contents. Harper Briar’s death was determined to be a homicide caused by diphenhydramine intoxication.

The complaint describes diphenhydramine as an “over-the-counter antihistamine with a sedative effect” that can only be given to infants under a doctor’s order. The drug was not prescribed for Harper Briar nor did her parents give permission for her to be given Benadryl.

The complaint names two DCF employees, Heather Purinton and Bridget, along with other unknown DCF employees, who work in Rutland County.

“As far back as May 2003, (DCF) had received complaints of Ms. Vaillancourt administering medication without parental permission,” the complaint said.

A 4-year-old child told her mother in 2003 that Vaillancourt had given her “pink” cough medication, the complaint said. Vaillancourt allegedly admitted to giving the child Tylenol for a fever because, she said, she couldn’t reach the child’s parents.

The complaint said a DCF licensing specialist called the incident “unsubstantiated” despite Vaillancourt’s alleged statement.

The complaint alleges “multiple” reports to DCF about Vaillancourt giving sedative medication to children without their parents’ permission but said DCF “failed to document or investigate these concerns.”

Two families took their children to another day care run by Jessica deLancey Smith in 2017 because of these concerns, according to the complaint. Smith allegedly called Purinton to discuss those allegations but had to call again when the Purinton didn’t call back.

Smith called again and shared her concerns with Purinton but the complaint said there was no evidence the state followed up on the allegations Smith shared based on alleged concerns shared by parents whose children had attended Vaillancourt’s day care.

The complaint said Purinton would have reported those concerns to Sheldrick but said there seemed to be no written report issued by DCF.

The complaint alleges four counts, negligence, negligent undertaking, negligent performance of ministerial duties and gross negligence.

A response was submitted on June 7 by the office of Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, written by Jon Alexander, an assistant attorney general.

The response denied many of the allegations from the complaint, including that Smith brought a concern to Purinton, and demands a jury trial.

A scheduling order signed by Judge Helen Toor, of the Rutland civil court, on July 9 said the attorneys should be prepared for the case to go to trial by September 2022. The trial is estimated to last four days.

The lawsuit was submitted by attorney Andrew Delaney of the Barre law firm, Martin, Delaney and Ricci Law Group. On Tuesday, Delaney declined to comment on the suit.

The Vermont Attorney General’s Office also declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Marissa and Blake Briar lived in Pittsford in 2019 but now live in North Carolina, according to the complaint.

patrick.mcardle

@rutlandherald.com


Local
City tax bills to jump despite municipal line-holding

Rutland’s municipal taxes are only going up slightly while the education rate jumps.

The Board of Aldermen on Monday voted to set the municipal tax rate at $1.7705 per $100 of assessed property value, which represented an increase of less than a penny from last year’s $1.7676. This combines with the homestead state education rate of $1.64 — up 13 cents from last year’s $1.51, for a combined residential rate of $3.4105.

Markowski said the municipal taxes on a $150,000 house would go up $4.38 while the education side of the bill would be up roughly $190.

The combined business rate for the city is $3.4965.

Markowski noted that budget was up $148,000 and that the grand list had lost $5 million in value, mostly in business personal property. On the plus side, she said the city was benefiting from a large surplus that included more than $700,000 in unspent salaries and benefits at the chronically understaffed police department and sizeable amounts from other parts of the budget.

Markowski recommended putting $60,000 into the bridge fund and $16,800 in the sidewalk fund, both of which the board approved without argument.

That, along with returning $46,730 set aside last year for taxpayer relief, left $837,000 that Markowski recommended the board apply toward the tax rate. The board voted to do so, but not before a debate about drawing down the unassigned fund balance to cut taxes even more.

The Board of Aldermen adopted a policy in 2010, prompted by the recommendation of then-Treasurer Wendy Wilton and based on the guidelines of the Government Finance Officers Association, of maintaining an unassigned fund balance equal to 10% of the budget. The fund balance is essentially surplus money the city keeps on the books and uses as operating capital, saving it from having to borrow against projected tax revenue like many smaller towns.

In recent years, the board has taken to contravening that policy in order to use the fund balance to buy down the tax rate, which Alderman Tom DePoy proposed with a motion to set the fund balance at 9%.

“If you want to save the taxpayers some money, here’s a way to do it,” he said.

Markowski said this would provide roughly another $200,000 to reduce taxes, but that maintaining the 10% fund balance would give the city’s finances more breathing room.

“We’re giving a lot back this year,” she said. “I would like to have something to give back next year.”

Mayor David Allaire said he was already dealing with a hike in fuel oil prices, and he did not know what would happen with insurance rates in the coming year, and Markowski noted that the city had several pending tax appeals that could affect revenues. Alderwoman Sharon Davis said she agreed with Depoy in principle, but not with the number of unknowns facing the city.

“I’m cheap, and people know that,” she said. “It’s probably cheap to prepare for the unknown,”

Alderman William Gillam said he expected the rooms meals and entertainment tax would fall short this year, and the city might have to come up with more for salaries if it has any hope of filling the vacancies in the police department.

“I’m not willing to gamble,” he said. “Next year, that’s a different story. ... I think I can’t gamble with the taxpayer. We need to protect them.”

Alderman Devon Neary said the board should look at the $837,000 surplus as “a win” and “not try to get blood from a stone.”

The only person to side with DePoy was Alderman Sam Gorruso, who said business was “terrible.” The motion failed by a vote of 8-2 and the board went on to set the tax rate.

gordon.dritschilo

@rutlandherald.com


Vandals struck the Rutland Country Club late Monday evening, tearing up a portion of the first hole and leaving large vehicle tracks on the manicured lawn.

Country Club vandalized


Spotlight

Beetle juice

You know we’re in “Blade Runner” territory when the push is on to eat bugs. Experts say they’re rich in protein, crunchy, tasty. However, still they’re bugs. A8

Busy summer

Coaches and personnel at Castleton University have remained busy this summer preparing for the upcoming school year. B1


Back