COVID Turns Off the Lights on Halloween Festivities

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, COVID-19 has taken away Halloween as most Hardwick residents know it.

At the October 15 select board meeting, Police Chief Aaron Cochran announced that the Hardwick Police Department will break a years-long tradition and not close streets this year to allow for Halloween trick or treating.

“We’re going to back away from what we’ve done in the past ten years,” Cochran said.

While conceding the department does not “have the authority to cancel Halloween,” Cochran said many Vermont towns are playing it safe this year and have canceled their own traditional festivities as COVID-19 cases continue to soar nationwide.

“Given the environment we have with COVID-19,” Cochran said, “we’re not going to be participating in encouraging large gatherings.”

The department hopes to return to traditional Halloween festivities in 2021, Cochran said.

Town Manager Shaun Fielder said Hardwick was wise to cancel its Halloween plans in light of other towns doing the same. Chief Cochran agreed.

“If other communities weren’t doing [Halloween festivities] and we did, I feared we’d see an influx and create an even larger gathering,” Cochran said.

The select board also received updates on the 1915 Bridge and the wastewater treatment plant project. Fielder said he followed up with the Preservation Trust of Vermont regarding the 1915 Bridge following the organization’s offer of assistance. He described the meeting as “very positive” and the Preservation Trust as “very supportive.” He noted that progress has been made toward finding a solution, and the bridge is listed as a contributing structure in the National Park Service’s Vermont SP Downtown Hardwick Village Historic District.

Fielder said a new or restored bridge would have to “have that historic character” and “kind of match what you see there now.”

He said that beyond its historic significance, the bridge served a critical role for pedestrians seeking to patronize businesses; a fact that could potentially open doors to a different class of grant funding. He said the Preservation Trust “will assist the town with putting us together with [funding] partners.”

At the last meeting, the select board had questions for consulting engineers Aldrich+Elliott (A+E) about the wastewater project plans. At this meeting, A+E President Wayne Elliott was on the phone to address such issues, including whether to include recommended repairs along with necessary repairs, which would add an estimated $472,000 to the project’s costs. While those additions would expand the overall project cost, performing the work simultaneously with the main list of fixes would afford the town an opportunity for 40-50% subsidies on several major aspects of the work. Select Board Chair Eric Remick noted, “if we roll these additional things in now, and we get a 40% subsidy, compared to the base project [cost] it really doesn’t add much to the sewer [bills].” He said the extra costs could be handled in part with capital money the town set aside but added he did not see the benefit since that would mean the town paid 100% of the costs.

“[Under that option,] it wouldn’t need to go to bond, [but] it would be draining our capital fund,” Remick said. “The problem with that is we incur the 100% cost.”

Elliott said in order to get the project back on schedule the town needed to start the process “within the next ten days” and secure a contractor “before the snow flies.”

While A+E will bid on the project, the firm is not guaranteed to be awarded the contract as the process goes to bid under state regulations. Elliott said the qualification-based selection process to receive subsidies is “not particularly burdensome.” The board decided to move forward with the process. Board member Shari Cornish made the motion, stating, “Do it once, and do it right, then we’re in pretty good shape for forty years. Who knows if we’ll have this opportunity again?”

Town Clerk Alberta Miller announced that Hardwick will soon be able to accept credit card payments from residents. The town will work with New England-based company Municipay to process credit card payments, Miller said. She added while the town had for years researched adding a credit card option, COVID-19 shutdowns created new urgency. In the new system, customers paying by credit cards will be charged processing fees from $1.50 to 2.65%. All fees will be explained clearly before the transaction, Miller said, and Municipay will provide necessary security to protect residents’ cards.

Hardwick Electric Department (HED) General Manager Mike Sullivan said that following the completion of work at Wolcott Hydro, the plant could come back online as river flows allow. He said the facility accounts for “about 8%” of HED’s power supply and is a renewable aspect of its portfolio. The 35,000-volt transmission line to Morrisville is now complete, he said, and the H11 project is underway. At this point, the utility’s revenues are 1.3% below projections and expenses are 6% below. HED is “monitoring cashflows carefully,” he said, with about $75,000 in “coming from a number of people who had trouble paying” more than the previous year. He noted the state had ended its moratorium on utility shutoffs for COVID-related nonpayment.

The board also heard from East Hardwick residents and a business owner about speeding vehicles on a particular street.

Chief Cochran also said the department had stepped up patrols in East Hardwick and issued numerous traffic tickets. He said the efforts have “been successful” but are “not sustainable” over the long-term. “We are trying to remind people those are streets where they need to be very cognizant of the speed, and it is a lot of work to tie the officers up for that,” he said.

Fielder said that ventilation work performed at the schools due to COVID-19 had raised questions as to how to improve safety in the town’s buildings. He said he contacted Efficiency Vermont for recommendations. Fielder said the discussion extended to more than immediate, urgent needs. “We have to be thinking about the capital needs for our buildings,” he said.