Town employees’ share of municipal healthcare costs likely to increase

After months of discussion, members of the Charlotte Selectboard have put together a plan for saving taxpayer money on municipal employee benefits. It will come at a significant cost to the town’s workers, whose share of the bill for their employer-provided health plan appears poised to rise by 150 percent.

“There’s a lot of change coming,” said selectboard member Lewis Mudge, who presented the proposal on June 24. Its co-author, Kelly Devine, was not present for the meeting.

According to Mudge, municipal employees who currently contribute 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance premium, with the town covering the rest, will soon pay 25 percent instead. And rather than choosing among 11 plan options from BlueCross BlueShield of Vermont, they’ll likely pick one of just two: the insurer’s “Bronze Select” or its “Silver Select.”

The new cost-sharing structure will apply to municipal workers’ Health Reimbursement Arrangements as well. Currently, Charlotte refunds 90 percent of its employees’ out-of-pocket medical expenses. Moving forward, it expects to cover just 75 percent, with “the first chunk,” in Mudge’s words, paid by the employee.

“That’s going to be a considerable hit for employees, and we recognize that,” Mudge said. “And yet we are in this difficult position of increasing healthcare costs and a mandate from the taxpayer to reduce those costs as best as we are able to.”

Discussions with employees, including an open meeting, will take place before the change becomes official. Mudge expects the board to approve a revision to the Town of Charlotte Personnel Policies by Sept. 1.

Tree fund to become 501(c)(3)
In the hope of clearing up confusion as to whether it operates as a private or municipal entity, the Rutter Family Tree Fund has applied to become a tax-exempt charity. Once the IRS has processed its paperwork, the town of Charlotte will donate some $32,000, following a motion by the selectboard.

Seeded by a $25,000 gift by William Rutter to the town in 2006, the Rutter Fund has paid for the planting of trees in parks and along public roadways. Until now, its finances have stayed within the municipal coffers — supported primarily, it seems, by the Rutter family but supplemented also by taxpayers, as well as other individual donors. The fund’s representatives contend, however, that the town has never had powers of administration over it, which, in their view, have always belonged at least in part to an “advisory committee” whose members do not serve as town officials.

“It never was meant to be the town’s money. It was meant to be a charitable organization,” said Robin Coleburn, one of three signatories to a June letter sent by the Rutter Fund to the town.

This spring, controversy arose as a result of a plan to install new trees on private land in Charlotte for the purpose of shading a public hiking trail. The saplings, paid for by the Rutter Fund, generated questions about whether the town was helping and advising a private landowner to plant trees that would block a view.

The precise nature of the future relationship between the Rutter Fund as a private charity and the town remains unclear. The fund’s new mission statement mentions the planting of trees on both public and private land. Former deputy tree warden Alexa Lewis suggested that the town’s tree warden could potentially serve on the nonprofit’s board of directors to facilitate the former, but she also wondered whether that would again muddy the division between the municipality and the organization.

“Perhaps it’s just a working relationship, without having a vote and a board seat,” Lewis speculated.

Coleburn noted that, as a 501(c)(3), the Rutter Fund will stand a better chance of receiving grants from foundations to help support its operations.

Fire & rescue expects temporary service cuts
Due to a labor shortage, Charlotte Volunteer Fire & Rescue Services has found itself unable to respond to calls at certain times. During unstaffed and understaffed shifts, Charlotters who dial 9-1-1 can expect to encounter one of the organization’s “mutual aid partners” instead, according to President John Snow, who updated the selectboard on Monday.

“Since the first of the year, we’ve operated with three of our seven full-time positions vacant,” Snow said. “But we’ve kind of hit a perfect storm in the last month and a half that has robbed us of the resilience to cope with this without having any effect on our service.”

In Snow’s telling, area college students who had filled in on a per diem basis have now gone home for the summer. The department’s own “overworked” employees have also scheduled vacations. Finally, a workplace injury has sidelined one of the organization’s four full-timers.

Sometimes, when a local emergency arises, fire & rescue has the capacity to send just one EMT, who supplies on-site medical aid while another town’s ambulance service arranges transportation to a hospital. On other occasions, it can’t muster anyone at all.

By Snow’s estimation, service interruptions will continue for “one to two shifts a week for the next month or so.” He noted that fire departments all over the region struggle with staffing “because there simply are not enough qualified people to fill all the positions that are out there.” By his judgment, Charlotte’s has withstood the challenge better than most, despite current difficulties.

“We’re recruiting,” Snow assured town officials. “We’re using every financial incentive we can think of that isn’t a permanent cost change to try to get people in the door.”

New awning for library
Charlotters who attend the Grange on the Green summer concert series can anticipate an improved view of the band on sunny evenings in July, thanks to the upcoming installation of an awning on the Charlotte Library’s porch.

“The sun has been a huge problem, so I contacted Kris and Sarah Larson, who own Otter Creek Awnings. They live in Charlotte,” Francis Foster recounted on behalf of the Charlotte Grange. “They came up with a beautiful awning solution.”

Private donors will cover the cost. According to Foster, the awning has a life expectancy of 25 years and can stay up in the winter. She hopes to see it installed before the Buck Hollers’ performance on July 11, scheduled for 5:30 p.m.