Matthew Preedom, Messenger Correspondent
SWANTON — Twenty-six years ago Reginald Beliveau was newly married, working at IBM and volunteering with the emergency response team. When the time came for the new couple to buy a home, his co-workers talked him into buying a place on Liberty Street in Swanton. The very next weekend Beliveau’s friends, all volunteer firemen in the village, pulled up in the engine and blew the horn and hollered “are you coming or what?”
Beliveau has been a volunteer fireman in Swanton ever since. He also spends time volunteering for the state hazardous materials team and teaches the fire safety course at the elementary school each year. When asked how he finds the time to volunteer so frequently, he laughed: “The joke is that I get bored quick.”
Beliveau’s connection to Swanton deepened five years ago when he left his job as IBM’s solid waste engineer to work as the village manager.
“I didn’t come from municipal government,” Beliveau said. “My job is to come here and work hard every day. I grew up on a farm in North Troy, working hard every morning, and I try to bring that work ethic to this job. If somebody wants to talk, the doors always open. I don’t want to just say ‘no’ to people, I want to help them figure out how we can make things happen for our community.”
“There are so many people who are striving to make our community better, you just can’t say no to them. It comes down to picking which trains to jump on and feeding off their energy to make things happen.”
Swanton is a community divided in two. The town and the village have two distinct forms of government, two boards, two budgets, and two town managers. But at the heart of it all they are one community.
And making that community better economically and culturally is a goal they share.
“We all have the same idea, the same priority; it’s ‘how do we better Swanton?’ We want to focus on having a place for people to gather, create a strong economy so that when kids graduate they want to stay in our community because those are the leaders of our tomorrow. They will be the ones who take this vision and carry it forward,” Beliveau said.
“We and the town selectboard know we can’t get there individually; we have to work together. And with the community visit from the Vermont Council on Rural Development we know we have to work together to make that happen.”
When Beliveau became village manager he promptly set about working with the town to consolidate departments and create efficiencies between the village and town.
“We now work very well together,” Beliveau said. “We have a good relationship with [Town Administrator] David Jescavage. We’ve merged some departments and loan each other equipment and expertise whenever we can. I like to say that we have merged the towns, but we just haven’t told anybody yet.”
Indeed, most of the village’s departments share services with the town. The village police department and fire department provide contracted services to the town. They share equipment between public works departments to save money on equipment rental and the cost of hiring contractors.
Swanton has recently been granted a community visit from the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Both boards have nearly perfect attendance at the event and they are working together to generate a list of initiatives and priorities.
“It’s important to show the taxpayers that two boards can work together effectively toward a common goal, without merging the village and town, because when you do that, you rip the heart out of one community or the other,” Beliveau said.
“When I came here, increasing cooperation between the village and the town was a goal. I think we have achieved that, and we are just fine tuning it so that we are even more efficient.”
Every rural town in Franklin County seems to face similar challenges. But whether they are environmental, economic, or cultural, Beliveau is attacking them with every tool he has.
“One of the issues we see, because of our proximity to Lake Champlain is phosphorous, so we’ve got two projects for phosphorous reduction. Now we actually discharge cleaner water into the lake than we draw out, but we are charged for what we do discharge. Point sources [like the village] are not huge contributors to phosphorous pollution in the lake, but if we do nothing, then nothing gets better.”
A stone retention pond was just completed which is designed to collect and filter water runoff so it doesn’t contaminate the Missisquoi River. The second is a catch basin that will collect runoff and run it through a vortex that pulls the solids out of the water and then sends it through filtration chambers before it discharges into the lake. The project is projected to reduce about 42% of the total phosphorous from the 32.5 acres closest to the river. Beliveau has collected several grants that will help offset the cost of the facility.
“We are going to be doing a lot of the work with our guys, and the state is going to be helping pay for it, so we’re hoping to get it done and save money by doing it,” Beliveau said.
Substance abuse is another challenge Beliveau and his team is taking on. “We are a small community so when even one of our neighbors has trouble, we feel it. And it’s not a problem you can arrest your way out of, so we are starting with education and treatment.”
The goal Beliveau said is to reach kids while they are young, before they start using, and teach them that it is dangerous and can really ruin their lives.
“It’s a lot like the fire prevention program. When we go into schools we teach the kids not to play with matches, because they can burn their house down. We need to do the same thing with drugs, teach them to be careful; don’t get started down that road, because you’ll burn your house down.”
Reginald Beliveau does not seem daunted by the challenges facing Swanton. He said he works with the Workforce Investment Board, Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation, and the Chamber of Commerce to build the economy.
“We want our kids to find jobs and be able to build a life here. The town itself is a significant employee and we go to job fairs to show kids that there are jobs here.”
“The connection I have with the school, the town, the community, it means a lot to me.”