by Doug McClure, with additional reporting from Clive Gray
WOLCOTT – Wolcott began 2020 reeling from the Halloween Storm just two months before. Major repair work was needed requiring FEMA and other federal assistance. 2019 was the third year in a row with a large unplanned municipal expense. The board was forced to acknowledge in January that a single event disrupting the budget was no longer extraordinary.
In December 2019, Town Clerk Linda Martin announced she would step down as both town clerk and treasurer after 34 years, as of town meeting. She had been in those roles for so long that the question arose whether the town should combine the two roles into one, as many small towns have done.
Roads Commissioner Lucien Gravel brought up concerns at the end of February about the expenses from the Halloween storm. He added that it was uncertain when or even if federal reimbursement might happen.
The 2020 Wolcott Town Meeting avoided repeating the rancor of the previous year’s. A plaque was presented to Martin for her roles as “mother, grandmother, and longtime community member” and “her service as Town Clerk and Treasurer.” Residents decided that the jobs of treasurer and town clerk should remain as one position, electing Belinda Clegg to those jobs.
The meeting closed with a bit of whimsy. At the meeting’s conclusion, resident Bill Cotten made a motion giving the town clerk’s cat, Jas, “who has probably been at more select board meetings than anyone,” the honorary title of mayor.
Voters refreshed the select board at Town Meeting with new members Martin and Kurt Klein. The board hit the ground running immediately after town meeting. Just-elected board member Martin said that “we’re going to be a working board” and began that promise by working with Roads Commissioner Gravel to resolve issues regarding federal funding sources. Toward the end of 2019, Roads Commissioner Gravel had expected to continue in his role only through Town Meting the next year. At the first select board meeting after Town Meeting, he said “I will stay until the flood stuff is all done and maybe until a town administrator [is hired].” That would prove to be nearly all year.
COVID-19 disrupted life in Wolcott toward the end of March. The town quickly moved its public meetings to an online platform. Wolcott’s first coordinated COVID measure came on April 1 with an “Emergency Operations Directive.” Board member Klein described the measures as being designed “to protect town employees and to protect the citizens of Wolcott.” Among the actions taken were resetting sick days to zero, removing probationary requirements for new employees’ health insurance, and staggering personnel schedules. The town extended Wi-Fi access from the town offices to the parking lot.
Two weeks later, and coincident with the town’s first recorded COVID case, Emergency Manager Ryan Bjerke pointed out that while Wolcott Elementary had closed its playgrounds since keeping surfaces sanitary was virtually impossible, the town had not followed suit. The board concurred and, like Wolcott Elementary’s playground, Wolcott’s ball fields and public spaces were closed for the summer.
The COVID crisis upended financial security for many residents. Chair Kim Gravel referred to much of the planned budget as “ghost income and ghost expenses that are coming your way” because what would happen next financially was impossible to guess. The board’s thoughts were with the individual who got sick. As reported at the time”[Chair] Gravel commented ‘what an awful thing for a lot of people to go through.'”
The highway department’s 2013 truck, soon-to-be-rebranded Truck 13 for obvious reasons, again caused issues. The truck had not been well-maintained, according to Roads Commissioner Gravel, needing at least $20,000 of repairs in his estimation. The excavator needed $3,000-5,000 worth of repairs. The grader had its own set of issues that at the time seemed resolved for $1,600. None of the three proved as simple in the end. Over the ensuing months, Truck 13 proved better at plowing the highway department’s repair budget into the ground than performing its usual assignments.
By mid-May the board’s concern over residents’ financial wellbeing had grown. The legislature had not clarified whether the town could defer property tax payments and no one on the board was sure that would have been a good idea, especially with a $900,000 education tax payment to the school that could not be deferred. Some previously planned projects, such as replacing the School Street Bridge in 2021/2022, were delayed, perhaps as far out as 2025.
The board revisited its hazard mitigation plan. COVID re-arranged some priorities. With remote learning at schools proving rocky at first and the Department of Public Service estimating fixing Wolcott broadband problems at $3.18 million, “planning efforts to improve broadband and cell phone service coverage, enhance emergency response capabilities” rose to the top levels of importance. The newly-formed NEK Communications Unity District (CUD) came up as something Wolcott should think about joining.
Truck 13 reared its head yet again. This time the question was whether repairing it be more appropriate than buying a new truck for around $150,000, given COVID-related financial pressures. Roads Commissioner Gravel said all bets were off as to how long fixes would last and the decision could not wait because, like every other supply chain, the one that could provide a truck was under stress. He added that acting quickly may be the only way that truck could arrive before the snow fell. And, while this was in May, other suppliers thought he was being too optimistic about the timeline.
At the end of May, two new Wi-Fi options were deployed. The board learned the 21-year-old grader had a mechanical problem and might need a new engine. Roads Commissioner Gravel again recommended replacing Truck 13 with a new truck, noting that the town had spent $17,000 in repairs already and put the estimated amount necessary to get winter-ready at closer to $30,000-50,000. And he wasn’t sure that was the end of its surprises. Davidson said that while he understood the logic, “the optics of buying a truck when people are standing in food lines” were not good, and he was concerned the November tax bill delinquency rate could be “brutal.” Board chair Gravel said “in the last five years, we have dumped so much into the highway department. It just feels like it never ends, it never feels like we get to a level spot.”
Repairs to North Wolcott Road began on June 9, closing the road for two weeks, and Brook Road was rip-rapped. To no one’s surprise, Truck 13 again had another repair issue but it was the grader that got more attention when local contractor Jim Paradee said “that grader is a ticking time bomb” and a new one would cost $300,000, to the horror of the select board.
By early June, Road Foreman Dillan Cafferkey had assumed responsibility for the highway department’s day-to-day operations, with Roads Commissioner Gravel and Martin focused on getting federal reimbursements from the Halloween Storm. In turning over managing the road crew to Cafferkey, Chair Gravel said “[Roads Commissioner Gravel] was a godsend to us, I’m not sure what we have done without him.”
The June 10 meeting was the first attempt at a hybrid in-person/virtual select board meeting for the Wolcott Select Board. Wolcott formally decided to join the NEK CUD.
As June wrapped up, AT&T signed a roaming agreement with VTel and, for the first time, much of Wolcott Village had solid cell service.
Wolcott residents Allison Fischman and Elliot Waring hosted a Juneteenth event on their property. The event was originally slated for Craftsbury, but white supremacists had marred previous peaceful celebrations there, so organizers moved it to Wolcott. About a hundred people gathered, in the words of organizer Laura Smith, for a “celebration of how beautiful and wonderful black culture can be.” Children made signs proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and puppeteer Bonny Kolber put on a show to educate kids on the history of Juneteenth.
With Wolcott Elementary closed and its future opening for the fall uncertain, the Glee Merritt Kelley Community Library considered returning to the depot, which it had moved out of in 1988. One hope was moving the library to its own location in the depot might also facilitate a community space where all residents could feel welcomed.
In July, Roads Commissioner Gravel had quotes for both an excavator and grader, financed through Caterpillar Financial Services Corporation. The grader’s lease was for $319,000 over 10 years and the excavator’s $116,000 over seven years. Truck 13’s repairs were pinned down at $8,851.73, with a promised one-week turnaround that quickly flew out the window. Just weeks later, J&B Truck Center of Colchester found another part in need of replacement, costing an additional $700-800.
By August, residents’ concerns come to the fore over the newly enacted Junk Ordinance which, in their words, was an overreach. Some waged a successful petition campaign forcing a public meeting. COVID further complicated matters since the now-required town wide approval could not happen in-person, and whatever form that vote would take would need to happen by the end of the year. The ordinance was suspended.
As August ebbed, the Bertocci family of Town Hill Road donated a conservation easement on their 170-acre property to the Northern Rivers Land Trust in memory of their father Angelo, an Italian immigrant, and their mother, Aili Kaukonen, a Finnish immigrant raised on a farm in Andover.
At the end of August, the board received a $20,000 Better Back Roads Grant for Morey Hill Road to repair a culvert, among other issues, which required a $5,000 town match. Cafferkey reported that the excavator had already arrived and had “made a big difference.”
In September, the board hired its first town administrator, Randall Szott. Szott was a state representative for Windsor-4-1. He said at the time “This job seemed like exactly the sort of thing I was looking for … the range of topics and the nature of the work. It’s a different range of things but still a situation where you’re there to try and solve problems the same way as a legislator does with people who’ve hit roadblocks bureaucratically.”
When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed on September 18, Select Board Vice Chair Linda Martin reflected on what Justice Ginsburg’s life had meant to her. She said “Justice Ginsberg opened the door for women with her stance on gender equality. We still have a ways to go, but I feel I have benefitted from her actions. My role as a Legislator would be one example. It wasn’t so many years ago that Legislators were all men. There are now so many opportunities for women that I never had growing up.”
Fire Chief Jim Holton put out the word at the end of September that the department was hoping to bring on some new junior firefighters. It only had two junior firefighters at the time, Jake Thomas and Donnie Audet, both 16, and each had family ties to firefighting. Thomas’ uncle, Bruce Ward, was a founder of the department in 1975 and was the chief in its early days. Audet’s stepfather was a firefighter, too.
At the October 7 board meeting, Board Chair Gravel said she would be absent from meetings for the next month and asked the board to find a replacement for the rest of her term. This came just as Vice Chair Davidson moved out of Wolcott and resigned. Martin was promoted to vice chair. The board then needed 100% of its members to attend meetings and agree unanimously for things to pass under quorum rules.
Ten days before the one-year anniversary of the 2019 Halloween Storm that wreaked havoc on North Wolcott’s infrastructure, some damage was still unrepaired and some solutions still in limbo. The most vexing continued to be Brook Road’s box culvert. With an estimated $300,000-400,000 replacement cost and supply challenges, Commissioner Gravel and Vice Chair Martin had been working to get clarity about a federal reimbursement, but reported to the board that “we have no sense of when reimbursement might happen.”
At that same October 21 meeting, Cafferkey shared the unwelcome news that Truck 13 had already cost the town $13,000 more and now had blown a water pump, was leaking coolant, and had a crack in its plow frame. Chair Gravel could only offer “hopefully that’s the last gremlins in there.” She would not be right. Former board member Kurt Billings was sworn in to take over the seat vacated by Michael Davidson.
With the anniversary of the Halloween Storm passed and part of Brook Road still out of commission, residents expressed frustrations in early November. Roads Commissioner Gravel found a short-term fix through Morristown’s Blow & Cote to get the road passable until spring, at a cost of $31,500. Another culvert had taken damage and created a sinkhole on Town Hill Road, which raised bad memories of the 1995 flood in the same general location which killed resident Ellen Redstone. To no one’s surprise, Cafferkey told the board that Truck 13 had blown a serpentine valve. The replacement grader was en route from Brazil without much explanation as to why it was coming from Brazil.
As budget season approached, the board considered that the typical petition requirement for new organizations seeking appropriations was unworkable due to COVID and waived that requirement. Over the next meetings, four organizations came before the board that had not asked Wolcott for support before: Salvation Farms of Morrisville, Craftsbury Saplings, North Central Vermont Recovery Center of Morristown, and the Lamoille Housing Partnership (LHP). LHP’s request struck some board members as unusual because while that organization offered housing on either side of Wolcott, it had none in Wolcott. Vice Chair Martin pointed out that Wolcott’s lack of water and sewer infrastructure made it impossible for the organization to fund projects in town.
COVID took a nasty turn and the board introduced another operations directive. Town offices and the highway department were once again closed and restrictions placed on the transfer station even tighter than those in the spring. Any place people might gather that was town property was shuttered. With concern that this round of the virus might be worse, the additional step of an emergency procurement policy was proposed, which would allow Wolcott Volunteer Fire Department or the road crew to do business within certain limits and certain suppliers without board authorization.
In mid-November, the board also heard a proposal from the Trust for Public Land’s Kate Wanner for a town forest. Wanner told the board the benefits included recreational opportunities from trail networks, economic benefits from occasional logging, environmental benefits for wildlife, and educational benefits for students, with Wolcott Elementary Principal Matt Foster echoing that last benefit. He wanted the forest to be within walking distance so students could take advantage of outdoor learning opportunities as did other area schools. The board thought the idea had merit.
With the news that the state projected a 9% increase in its education property tax rate, and what Chair Gravel now dubbed “Nightmare Truck 13” reporting yet more issues and already having blown the year’s equipment budget, at the December 2 meeting she said “we can’t keep having the increases we’ve had in [town] taxes” and Martin said this year especially “has to be a really good, tight budget.”
An $11,000 potential savings from changing the town’s health insurance carrier was discussed. The board asked town employees to look into whether MVP would cover the employees’ needs and heard back at a later meeting that it definitely would not. The board decided against changing carriers, with the stipulation what further research into the matter would be carried out in future.
It became clear that Town Meeting 2021 would almost certainly need to be done by Australian ballot, which came with a series of unplanned-for expenses. Nearly all the expenses, save for possibly an $1,800 tabulator, were unlikely to be reimbursed under coronavirus legislation. Beyond that, the Town Meeting would require additional lead time due to logistical considerations, such as printing ballots.
While much progress was made in 2020 in improving the civility of public discourse in Wolcott and the road crew is now operating effectively, the spendy saga of “Nightmare Truck 13” and multiple equipment failures show that the highway department is still a work in progress.
In 2021, Wolcott still faces many of the challenges it did in 2019. One entrance of Brook Road is destroyed, but Cafferkey and the road crew managed to soldier through getting the roads open. The challenge of keeping some previously ill-maintained equipment operational while waiting on replacements remains. Wolcott has a major drug issue which residents say policing is not solving. And while access to broadband grew in Wolcott in fits and starts in 2020 and the town joined the CUD, the pandemic showed just how much work remains to improve the technological infrastructure of the town.