Board Postpones on Discussion of Employee Vaccines, All ARPA Funds May Go to Wastewater Plant

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – Hardwick Select Board Chair Eric Remick opened the board’s September 2 meeting by addressing agenda item number three, “Select Board to discuss mandating the COVID vaccine for town employees.” Remick said that “I know I asked to have a discussion about mandating a COVID vaccine. My intent was definitely to have the town set a good example and to work for the general health and well-being of our community.” 

However, Remick tabled the item agenda, explaining that “I understand that there are things that we should research before … to have an educated discussion about that. I haven’t had time to look into because we’ve had a lot of other stuff going on. I’ve had a few townspeople ask me about that specifically and I’ll be sure, if we do bring this back up in a future agenda, to reach out to them individually to make sure they know because I think they’d like to have the opportunity to weigh in.”

Remick said in a follow-up email that “I asked to postpone the discussion of mandatory vaccination for town employees until I’ve had a chance to review a) what other towns have done, b) what VLCT recommends c) what legal ramifications we may run into with the unions or even individuals.”

There is no official State of Emergency declared by the state, and the Scott administration continues to invoke the overall high vaccination rate statewide, which the state used as justification for blocking Brattleboro’s mask mandate. 

The stakes are high in a discussion of vaccination requirements. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that, as of Friday, Copley Hospital fourteen beds available, less than half of its capacity. Central Vermont Medical Center had less than a quarter of its capacity in both ICU and inpatient beds available, and at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital, 32% of inpatient beds are available. The University of Vermont Medical Center also had less than a quarter of its ICU capacity left and 15% of its inpatient beds available as of Friday.

Vermont reported over 200 confirmed and probable COVID cases on September 1. Initially, the state reported 145, but that number was revised to 210 a day later. Case numbers were revised upward again on Friday, with an initial report of 96 cases revised on Saturday to 169.

The board also heard from town manager Jon Jewett about the wastewater treatment plant. He reported that the bids associated with sludge removal at the wastewater treatment facility came in significantly higher than anticipated. He said that was not connected to the COVID-induced supply chain issues, since it did not relate to materials costs. Rather, the issue is that municipal sludge waste has very few places to go, none of them close, with one in Quebec and one in New York being the closest. The sludge needs to be removed to replace the lagoon liners. Jewett said that it was likely a portion of the sludge would need to be put back in once the liners were replaced since the costs of trucking it for disposal were so high.

The town now has a more specific number for American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds coming its way. Remick said the anticipated amount was $855,227, divided into two equal payments, one this year and one next. The conditions for the funding’s use are now much clearer, and three of the four approved uses are related to COVID-specific impacts that the board did not see as particularly relevant to Hardwick’s situation. The fourth category is water and sewer or broadband infrastructure and, with an expectation of a separate package of broadband funding coming up, the board felt that it would be most appropriate to put the entire $855,227 into the wastewater treatment plant to cover the increased bid amounts. Town Manager Jon Jewett said that the only other way to bridge that gap would be a bond, which would disproportionately impact residents who can least afford it. The board made no decision at this meeting, but the expectation at this point is that the entire ARPA funding might go to that wastewater treatment plant.

Hardwick Police Department (HPD) Chief Aaron Cochran said that the part-time officer he “suspected was interested in the full-time position” indeed was, but would not be able to get into the academy until the fall of 2022. With the expected return in the future of two deployed officers, his assessment was that the department’s staffing would soon be adequate. He said that, at this point, HPD was working its way back to twenty-four-hour coverage, with overnight responses being on-call. The department had tried to end coverage at midnight, but Chief Cochran said “that didn’t work, so we moved to the same schedule as the State Police.”

He said, “We want to work back towards the twenty-four hours [coverage]. I think we can do it with the next few weeks.” Chief Cochran said that the new hire and the other part-time officer were seasoned police officers, and HPD could utilize the two part-time officers to bridge coverage gaps. He said that “we’re actually in better shape than some other agencies around us.”

Chief Cochran also wanted to warn residents of a fraud scam on Facebook involving buying gift cards. He urged people to be careful. 

Chief Cochran reported that when the state “kicked out” unhoused people that were living in motels, it began impacting Hardwick. He said that the way the state handled that with those people was not good.

“There needs to be a lot better way than ‘here’s some money, get out,'” Chief Cochran said. “I think it was $2,500, a sleeping bag, and a tent.”

He said the department had been referring some of the people needing help for mental health issues to Northeast Kingdom Human Services. 

Board member Michael Deering’s agenda item to speak about police department staffing and service levels did not take place as Deering did not attend the meeting, but Larry Hamel noted that he felt the twenty-four-hour coverage from HPD was important “for the safety of my tenants and my property.” Hamel also pointed out that, as Town Service Officer for many years, he had worked with some of the unhoused people moving through Hardwick, without major issues. He did want the board to reconsider in the next budget how much money is allocated to his work, because it had gone from $500 a year to $250. Hamel is paid a small stipend for his work, but said he would rather have the stipend money put toward getting the expense budget for his work back up to $500.

“Nobody does this job for the money,” said Hamel. “And I take this job seriously.”