Selectboard address railroad concerns

John Hammer | The Charlotte News

Three issues dominated Charlotte Selectboard’s meeting of July 27—CVFRS budgets, Mack farm trees, but most importantly, the trains in town.

Of greatest interest was a plea by Lydia Clemmons and Fire Chief Chris Davis for the Selectboard’s support of a request to the Vermont Agency of Transportation for stronger safety provisions in its 2015 Vermont Rail Plan. Ms. Clemmons, speaking for a number of members of the Concerned Citizens for Responsible Railroads Group, presented a comprehensive plea for a much stricter interpretation of railroad rules and regulations with respect to the VRP’s Western Corridor, which passes through Charlotte and many other western Vermont towns. The plan, with a map of the Western Corridor, can be found at bit.ly/1U3l97F.

Ms. Clemmons presented a historical perspective outlining the establishment of a long siding supporting the 2000 passenger rail experiment entitled the Champlain Flyer. The Flyer necessitated the siding onto which passenger trains could be shunted to allow higher priority freight trains to pass. When the Flyer program was canceled, the siding eventually was lengthened and became a convenient location in which to store unused rail cars that had been relocated from the Burlington yards. Ms. Clemmons and others have made repeated attempts to determine the contents of the cars and whether or not they present a hazard. Their attempts have been repeatedly rebuffed, for the most part by referral to the Federal Railways Administration. The FRA maintains that inspections have not found any hazardous conditions. It should be noted that in a discussion subsequent to the Selectboard meeting, Ms. Clemmons stated that she was in the presence of an FRA inspector who found a material deficiency on one of the tank cars. The CFRR brought up the fact that a 48-hour rule for storage of hazardous contents can sometimes be extended, as weekends and holidays don’t count. Many of the stored tank cars display notices stating that they may contain such materials as “Liquefied natural gas – non-odorized.” Fire Chief Davis noted that a leak or explosion could affect a sizable damage area with a radius as large as a half mile.

A significant factor in Clemmons’ concern is that the Western Corridor might become a route over which western shale oil shipments might be made. Already there are grave concerns over the rail line along the west shore of Lake Champlain to the extent that the New York governor and several representatives there have expressed reservations to the use of that route for such hazardous shipments. This is not to say that the Western Corridor would carry these materials, but the VRP is calling for four times the number of trains in the state, transporting twice as much freight as is currently carried.

Both Clemmons and Davis emphasized that they were not anti-railroad or anti-petroleum campaigners. They are very concerned with the safety aspects of the new VRP. They said that now is the time to influence the writing of the plan with a strong emphasis on safety. They warned that once the VRP goes forward it risks becoming enshrined in legislative or regulatory bureaucracy within the FRA with little or no chance for further local influence on safety matters. Selectboard Chair Morrison tasked the CFRR and Chief Davis to draft a letter for the Selectboard to sign and send forward to VTrans demanding safer train and railway operation in the VRP. Chief Davis said the drafting of the VRP needs to be done “in a sensible and smart way.” Ms. Clemons can be contacted at lydiaclemmons@hotmail.com.

CVFRS cost overruns

The second major issue of the meeting arose with the regular joint meeting of the Selectboard and leadership of the Charlotte Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service. This is a quarterly meeting established by a Memorandum of Understanding between the town and CVFRS to review the service’s financial status and service. As predicted in previous presentations, it appears that the unaudited accounts show loses of $26,665 actual over budgeted estimates. CVFRS corporate President John Snow and Treasurer Charlie Russell fundamentally laid the blame for the overages on additional costs for paid Emergency Medical Technicians and an extraordinary increase in fire calls resulting in increased equipment costs.

In the case of the EMT’s, there has been a lack of volunteers to fill all shifts. The volunteers are largely UVM students in the medical curricula and there is a seasonal drop in numbers around the end of the school year. This has been exacerbated by several other personnel changes to the point where at present there are only three volunteers capable of full service. Therefore, paid personnel must fill more of the required shifts. No definitive plan was put forward to resolve the situation, though it was implied that this might be resolved with the start of the new school year. Another factor in the shortfall was attributed to the lower number of revenue-generating rescue calls in the past fiscal year.

Selectman Spell was quite concerned and twice moved that the Selectboard be provided with a much fuller explanation at special meetings between the CVFRS and the Selectboard. Both requests failed for lack of a second and the suggestion was made that concerned members of the public visit the station. Meetings of the CVFRS occur every Wednesday night at 6:30 and all are invited. Interested persons should contact the CVFRS (425-3111) prior to a visit to ensure that the training night is scheduled for Charlotte and not some other venue.

In the case of the Fire Department overage, Fire Chief Chris Davis stated that it had responded to a record 210 fire calls this past fiscal year as against the previous record of 150. These additional calls resulted in the need for much more maintenance and higher repair expenses to cover the additional wear and tear. Additional costs are also laid at the feet of deferred maintenance needs. The point was made that fire calls, as a rule, do not generate income.

The overrun of $26,665 will come out of a previously approved carryover of approximately $47,000 generated from surpluses in previous years.

Mead rebukes wage policy

In a matter which will become an issue at a future Selectboard meeting, Town Clerk Mary Mead took the Selectboard to task for a “seriously flawed” wage policy. In describing annual raises or increases she stated that “some employees (are) receiving either nothing at all or a few extra dollars for the entire Financial Year 15/16 compared to thousands of dollars received by others.” She went on to detail her position with numbers and comparisons for the three positions in the clerk/treasurer’s office. Her point of view was summed up with the claim that an “attitude towards my office” exists in which some of the Selectboard were “incapable of objectivity and fairness.” In closing Mead called for the Selectboard to “cure the blatant discrimination that was allowed to occur with respect to the administrative assistant, assistant town clerk/treasurer and clerk/treasurer and quite possibly the Town Planner and Zoning Administrator.” Chair Morrison suggested that a single item meeting be held on the subject in the very near future.

Tree issue moves forward

In the ongoing controversy concerning town trees on the northwest quadrant of East Thompson’s Point Road, Selectboard Chair Morrison stated that numerous discussions had taken place in the matter. Robert and David Mack, owners of the property in question, have met with Charles J. Corley, who is an interested citizen, the tree warden and Chairman Morrison to come up with a potential solution. This solution calls for Mr. Corley to pay to have 10-12 of the trees moved to his property. The Macks agreed to retain 3-4 trees, leaving a potential of 10 to 12 for removal to another location. Tree Warden Larry Hamilton was adamant that the Macks be given a citation to pay for the “successful and professional moving of these trees” in accordance with state law. The issue was not completely resolved and Morrison will continue to work with tree removal contractors, the Macks and the tree warden in further discussions.

Marty Illick of the Lewis Creek Association reported that she had negotiated with the Macks with respect to storm water and drainage from their 50-acre field and the adjoining LaBerge property. The LCA has agreed to apply some dedicated grant funding for site assessment and engineer design to develop a plan for reducing the runoff impact on Thorpe Brook.

Other business

In a series of administrative actions, the board approved a Sole Sources and Preferred Vendors List for Regular and Major Purchases. This document becomes an attachment to the town’s recently approved Purchasing Policy. In another action, the board approved a new employee review process in which the employee answers a self-evaluation questionnaire. This is then reviewed and discussed by his/her supervisor. The authority overseeing the supervisor would then complete the review by discussing the resulting document and providing a meeting with both the employee and supervisor.

In other actions, Dean Bloch was appointed town representative to the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Chittenden Country Regional Planning Commission for the term ending June 30, 2017. The sum of $1,637.74 was approved for a change order to the library roof replacement. The resultant cost for the roof is estimated to be in the $92-93,000 range.

Finally, the board approved a draft Request for Proposal to paint the exterior of the Town Hall, with the bid opening scheduled for August 27.

The next scheduled Selectboard meeting will be held August 10 with a special meeting to set the tax rate on August 3.

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