Town giving wastewater permitting back to state

(This story has been changed to correct the spelling of the first name of Mathew Citarella, a member of the Municipal Employee Compensation Working Group.)

The Charlotte Selectboard continued its recent efforts to shrink the municipal budget by voting to eliminate local oversight on wastewater and water supply permitting on Monday, Nov. 27.

Since 2007, Charlotte has opted into a state program that allows towns to issue such permits themselves, instead of relying on the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Towns must adjudicate property owners’ applications according to the same technical standards that the state uses, but according to Aaron Brown, Charlotte’s zoning administrator and wastewater control officer, local processing “offers a quicker turnaround time” by a margin of about a month.

Permit fees received by the town, however, make up for only about half the price of the service. Charlotte doesn’t employ a licensed wastewater designer, which means it has to hire a consultant to review proposed projects. This year, by Brown’s calculation, the town has lost more than $16,000 as a result of its enrollment in what the state calls “municipal delegation.”

Vermont’s 255 other municipalities, it seems, have decided that the cost outweighs the benefit. Colchester and Charlotte were the program’s lone participants until earlier this year, when Colchester initiated the months-long process to withdraw, as Charlotte has now done.

Selectboard member Louise McCarren voted against the motion put forward by her colleague, Kelly Devine.

“My reason is we are going to be under so much development pressure,” McCarren said, “and I think, to the extent we can, we need as a town to maintain control over the important things, and this is a critical one.”

In Brown’s telling, the town had opted into the program initially because it had “wanted to play a role in ensuring the prevention of wastewater in the lake.” He noted accounts by septic designers of “inconsistent interpretation of wastewater rules” by staffers at the department of environmental conservation’s regional offices.

Brown praised Charlotte’s consultant, Eli Erwin, who himself “used to be a permitting officer for the state.”

“If you’re looking to cut from the planning and zoning department, this is kind of the one major chunk that you could take out without affecting staffing,” Brown acknowledged.

After the vote, the board moved on to discuss an ongoing initiative to save taxpayer money by considering changes to municipal workers’ health benefits and annual cost-of-living adjustments.

Earlier this month, a local volunteer committee tasked with studying employee compensation on the town’s behalf advised against making any immediate cuts. But Devine, who chaired the working group, urged the selectboard to ask a professional consultant for a second opinion.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns referred Charlotte to Hickok & Boardman HR Intelligence, which drafted a sample agreement for health insurance advisory services. The firm would charge $500 annually, plus $15 per town employee per month.

Outgoing town administrator Dean Bloch also submitted a memo outlining two possible restructurings of employee health benefits. Under one scenario, the town would continue to pay 100 percent of insurance premiums for its employees, but it would cover only 50 percent for their family members.

The second scenario focused on health reimbursement arrangements, also known as HRAs, which currently refund 90 percent of municipal employees’ out-of-pocket medical expenses. Bloch suggested that, in the future, the town could limit its share to 80 percent.

Two town employees testified that they felt “blindsided” by the proposals. Mathew Citarella, a member of the Municipal Employee Compensation Working Group, disputed accusations of employer largesse, pointing to data showing that an average Vermont town of comparable size spends more on its workers, as a share of its total budget, than Charlotte does.

Sensing the possibility of a protracted debate, the board determined that the conversation should continue at a special meeting dedicated to the topic on Thursday, Nov. 30.

With municipal workers facing potential austerity measures, employees of Charlotte Volunteer Fire & Rescue Services, a nonprofit contracted by the town, may soon begin pushing in the opposite direction.

“They’re trying to join a union,” selectboard chair Jim Faulkner relayed. “They have a petition already in process. The hearing is, I think, the 5th or 7th of December.”

“We don’t know what effects that has on the town,” Faulkner added.