SWANTON — The Messenger spoke with Swanton Village Manager Reg Beliveau about how COVID-19 has impacted the community, ongoing projects, and recent incidents within the village.
How did the village manage COVID-19?
Although Believeau is Swanton’s Emergency Manager, with Police Chief Leonard Stell his deputy, Beliveau said that early in March, he asked Stell to take the lead on handling the virus response because he’s a paramedic.
“The next day we went ahead and we brought in everybody from the town, some of the selectboard and everybody from the village... we all sat in the room and we walked through we know and what we don’t know,” he said. “Within a week everything got turned on its head.”
Beliveau went to department heads and asked them to come up with plans to continue to provide services, including fire department, water and sewer plants, and police. “They all came back to me with ‘this is our plan.’”
Those plans included contingencies for what to do if someone became ill and how to operate with minimal contact between workers and between workers and the public.
“You talk about the stress of shutting down a community and slowly reopening,” said Beliveau, who checked with staff each day to see how they were doing.
“Today, the offices are still closed.”
The village is now dealing with moratorium on disconnects for the three utilities the village operates — water, wastewater and electricity. Some people were in arrears before the moratorium, which is now exacerbated.
“We’re concerned about revenue streams on our water, sewer and electric. We don’t know what taxes are going to look like this year. There’s all these unknown variables we’re trying to pay attention to,” Beliveau said.
How concerned are you about the arrearage in the public utility funds?
“As of this time, we’re not bad, ironically,” Beliveau said. It’s up within $30,000 — $40,000 and “that grows each month.”
The village has been letting residents know about programs which can help them make back utility payments.
“Some people aren’t savvy with computer stuff and we do the best we can to help them,” he said. “Our customers are our shareholders... We want to help people. If they don’t reach out to us, we can’t help them.”
How important has cooperation with Swanton Town been?
“We work with the town public works. We share equipment. We share knowledge. Especially now, because when you had to be put on an island and isolate, you find out how important it is to be working with our peer community,” Beliveau said. “You just find out how much more important it is to have somebody there to lean on and to help out.”
Do you feel relations are strong right now between the village and the town?
“The only concern I have with the selectboard is that they’re so new and I hope they understand what we’ve built with the past selectboard members, the camaraderie and the closeness with the village trustees, what we’ve built as far as partnerships,” Beliveau said.
The town selectboard has three relatively new members and was expected to appoint another Tuesday night.
“Joel [Clark, the former selectboard chair who left the board at the end of September] was instrumental in a lot of Swanton Enhancement Project activities... He was on a lot of committees,” said Beliveau, even for projects that were primarily in the village.
“The only department we have in common is public works, and we work with them on a lot of things,” said Beliveau. The village, for example, plows town sidewalks.
Beliveau was asked to serve on committees for the sidewalk to Missisquoi Valley Union and possible pedestrian and cycling improvements on Maquam Shore Road.
“Working together, I think, is the big part.”
Despite the pandemic, the village was able to complete several projects. Beliveau detailed them.
A sidewalk was built from King Street to Brown Avenue. “That was the first time we ever attempted curbing.”
A new water line was installed on Depot Street with new sidewalks and curbing.
The line crew was able to put in some new electric services, as well as move and replace poles
Furman Place, York and Depot streets were repaved and the sidewalk on Depot was redesigned with input from NOTCH, which has a clinic on the street.
What’s next on the agenda?
Downtown scoping study for area near village green.
The first community meeting was held via Zoom. Next step will be consultant returning to present plan.
The sale price has been agreed to with the village expected to close on the property this week.
The village had done a brownfields assessment with assistance from the Northwest Regional Planning Commission. “That kind of scared a lot of developers off,” Beliveau said.
The plan is for the village to handle the clean-up, hopefully with some grant funding, and then sell the property to a private developer.
New water main
The village currently has one water main across the Missisquoi River, which is located on the bridge over the river. The village has hired consultants to examine possible sites for a secondary crossing.
Relicensing the hydro dam
The village is working with Enosburg Falls, which is also in the middle of relicensing its hydro-electric dam, including sharing an attorney and consultants. The relicensing is a five-year project.
Phosphorus reduction at the wastewater plant
Three companies are about to begin testing their methods for reducing phosphorus coming from the facility to determine which will work best. St. Albans City did something similar before investing in an upgrade to remove additional phosphorus from wastewater moving through its facility.
The village is applying for grants for an engineering assessment of the bridge, which is showing some wear on the deck and abutments.
Swanton Electric is adding a system that will make it easier to pinpoint the causes of outages, down to which poles are involved. The village is also implementing a new metering system that will eliminate the need for meter readers by transmitting usage information directly to the village offices.
How are relations with the Abenaki community changing?The trustees have approved placing an Abenaki totem pole in the village green. “These were the people that were here long before we were,” Beliveau said of the Abenaki who lived along the shores of the Missisquoi River thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers.
The Abenaki community has been a “profound partner,” said Beliveau, particularly with the food shelf which is “one of the stronger food shelves in the area.”
How has the community fared during the pandemic?
“I think for the most part we’ve come out of this pretty well,” said Beliveau.
Two businesses opened in Swanton during the pandemic: Ace Hardware and Bees on Broadway. A gas station closed and then reopened under new ownership.
Other businesses have stepped up to provide assist those in need, such as Rosie’s Beef Jerky, which gave away bowls of chili.
Sgt. Chad Parah of the Swanton Police organized birthday parades of police and fire vehicles to help people celebrate birthdays during the worst part of the shutdown.
Beliveau estimates that 85 to 90 percent of the community complies with mask wearing requirements.
“It’s scary,” said Beliveau, who has been a firefighter for 38 years and a long time member of the hazardous materials team. “It’s hard when you have this enemy you can’t see.”
How has the community handled the fatal shooting this summer?
In June, Kyle LaBelle, was shot to death in front of his home by James Mulholland following an argument in which LaBelle reportedly asked Mulholland not to pet his dog because he felt Mulholland was too rough with the animal.
“That was a difficult time,” said Beliveau.
“I’m so damned proud of our police department,” he said, pointing out that in other, larger departments, suspects would be jumped on. Of Mulholland’s arrest, Beliveau said, “It was respectful. He handled the person with dignity, even though he had just committed murder.”
“They understand that their job is to protect and serve,” Beliveau said the of village’s police department.
Have things settled from the battles over the village’s art walls?
This summer a member of the community consistently painted over images on one of the village’s art walls which were sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The village trustees decided to remove the walls as arguments, especially on Facebook, became increasingly vitriolic.
“We were afraid somebody was going to get hurt. We’d just had a shooting,” Beliveau said.
“People are breathing quietly now,” he said. “I think they’re probably reflecting.”
The village and town had hoped to have a joint training on hidden bias for staff, but responses to the request for proposals were far outside what the municipalities can afford, upwards of $50,000, according to Beliveau.