ST. ALBANS TOWN – During a special meeting held to draft a budget that, once complete, would reduce the amount of funds needed to be raised through taxes by $10,000 from the previous year, the St. Albans Town selectboard wrestled with allocations to charities and public works salaries.
After a heated debate, the board agreed to a proposed increase in the budget for public works salaries.
Annual allocations to two charities – the national Red Cross and the Veteran’s Valet Service at Northwestern Medical Center – spurred an argument between members of the board over whether to reduce the Red Cross’s annual allocation or increase a donation to Veteran’s Valet.
Ahead of their Jan. 14 budget meeting, the selectboard had already agreed to reduce the annual donation to the Red Cross from $2,500 to $2,000, trimming it because of the Red Cross’s status as a national organization.
The board returned to that donation again on Jan. 14, when selectperson Brendan Deso suggested reducing it again to offset an increase in the town’s donation to Veteran’s Valet from $1,000 to $2,000.
Selectboard vice chair Bruce Cheeseman, who wasn’t present at the previous budget meeting when the donation to the Red Cross was initially reduced, immediately took issue with the suggested tradeoff.
“The Red Cross plays a much bigger role than what Veteran Valet does, and they need the money,” Cheeseman said. “I’ve been to the hospital a few times and haven’t seen the Veteran’s Valet guys out there. I’m sure they’re there and I’m sure they’re working, but I’ve never had the opportunity.”
“If I drop my stake of $1,000 in that budget, will you give me a grand in the Veteran’s Valet anyway?” Deso asked after a brief back-and-forth.
Selectboard chair Bill Nihan and selectperson Al Voegele said they supported increasing the allocation to $2,000 for the valet service. Cheeseman, and later selectperson Stan Dukas, both having previously identified as former servicemen, said they didn’t believe in raising the allocation for Veteran’s Valet.
“I’m a veteran, but $1,000 is enough as far as I’m concerned,” Dukas said.
“I’m not going to agree to it, but don’t touch the Red Cross another penny,” Cheeseman said. “I don’t know why we reduced it.”
“They’ll be the first ones on your door when there’s a problem, so why jeopardize losing an organization like that?” he added later in the meeting. “Give them back their $500.”
The selectboard ultimately came to a consensus to return their annual donation of the Red Cross to $2,500 and raise their donation to Veteran’s Valet to $2,000.
The St. Albans City Council also donated $2,000 to the valet service with minimal discussion, choosing to take it from the current budget.
Veteran’s Valet is a veteran-sponsored valet service centered at the Northwestern Medical Center where retired service members shuttle hospital-goers between their cars and the hospital’s entrance. They also provide a valet service.
The group is currently looking to raise $50,000 to contribute to the recent hospital expansion and payoff their electric shuttle bus.
The American Red Cross is a localized branch of an international organization providing emergency assistance and disaster relief.
During last year’s flooding of the Missisquoi, the Red Cross operated a temporary emergency shelter at the Missisquoi Valley Union High School. It also routinely assists families who lose their homes to fires and runs blood drives throughout the region.
Town manager Carrie Johnson requested an increase in the Dept. of Public Works (DPW)’s salary schedule as a way to attract more applicants for positions at the DPW. She clarified during the Jan. 14 budget meeting that this increase wasn’t an individual raise.
“Are you guys good with the amount in the salaries?” she asked the selectboard.
“No,” said Nihan.
“No, I’m not,” said Voegele.
“Hell no,” said Cheeseman.
“I did ask for an increase in the DPW salary schedule, because we’re having difficulty getting people to apply,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, the town was no longer “on par” when it came to DPW salaries, a fact she gleaned both from Vermont League of Cities and Towns statistics and conversations with prospective employees admitting “‘we’re going to be paid $19.50, for instance, if I go to Swanton.’” Johnson did not say what the town pays per hour, but the implication was that it was less than Swanton’s rate.
“Well let me tell you something, it has nothing to do with salaries – everybody’s experiencing that,” Cheeseman, himself a facilities manager in the Milton Town School District, countered. “So I don’t believe in throwing money at that situation, and we pay well… I think this town, wage-wise, sits pretty damn good.”
“We are no longer at par, sorry,” Johnson said. “People are leaving because they say there are better wages.”
“Well, let them go,” Cheeseman said. “Those are people we don’t want to keep anyway.”
Cheeseman implored Johnson to look at the activities done daily by the town’s DPW and to compare those to the work done by public works departments in those better-paying towns. “Compare the jobs,” he said. “Don’t compare the salaries, compare the positions of what the individuals do to earn that money.”
“Yeah, I totally agree with you,” Johnson said. “That’s what I did.”
“All [public works director Alan Mashtare]’s got here – he’s got no infrastructure,” Cheeseman continued. “He’s got ditches. We don’t have sidewalks. We don’t have a Main Street. We don’t have water and sewer.”
Johnson explained that Mashtare does handle sewage work in the town – namely in the town’s industrial park – and that that sewage work could be “critical” at times.
The conversation segued into the semantics behind calling the town’s public works department a “public works department” versus a “highway department” before the board ultimately agreed to leave the salary line as presented in the budget.
Outside of those conversations, most of the remainder of the Jan. 14 budget meeting was conducted with relatively little conflict, save for a brief argument as to how to budget for a required $50,000 section in the town’s contract with the St. Albans Police Department (SAPD).
That $50,000 in the police department’s line item came from the purchase of a new police cruiser the town is required to fund every two years, per its contract with SAPD.
The topic of possibly purchasing a police boat for SAPD or employing a harbor master to police boat traffic in St. Albans Bay was referenced during this meeting, but Nihan warned that any concrete conversation pertaining to a police boat would be scheduled, instead, for the next regular selectboard meeting.
The selectboard ultimately approved the town’s budget during that next meeting on Jan. 23.
The Messenger will revisit the St. Albans Town budget in greater detail ahead of Town Meeting Day.