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Towns Find Creative Ways To Keep The Lights On Despite Social Distancing

A man signs a local town order while another man looks on.
Nina Keck
Brandon Select Board Member Doug Bailey signs an order the board approved at a previous meeting held by video conference. "This is how we do business now!" says Brandon Town Manager Dave Atherton, who looks on.

Many of Vermont's 251 towns have changed the way they operate to adhere to Gov. Phil Scott's March 25 "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order. VPR's Nina Keck and Howard Weiss-Tisman followed those changes in Vernon, Brattleboro and Brandon.

Vernon: Of Zoom meetings and camper quarantines

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced town governments across Vermont to close libraries, cancel recreation programs and shut down town offices. But municipal officials have to keep vital services like wastewater plants and roads operating.

The Vernon select board recently called an emergency meeting to discuss which town employees should continue to be paid while parts of the town's government are shut down.

The selectboard was able to hold their meeting online after lawmakers passed a COVID-19 bill that relaxed some open meeting laws.

"When this is all over I would like to think that all of those departments are in a place to just pick up business as usual, and welcome our residents back in." — Vernon select board chair, Chris Parker

At the meeting, select board chairman Chris Parker said that, for now, he wanted to keep everyone on payroll, so when this period ends, the town is ready to reopen in full with a smooth transition.

“When this is all over I would like to think that all of those departments are in a place to just pick up business as usual and welcome our residents back in,” Parker said, “and I would like the recreation [department and facilities] to be up to speed and clean. And I would like the highway to be operational. And I would like the library to be ready to just open those doors as soon as the Governor says we can.”

The board also took care of some immediate concerns, and talked about the limitations of its phone system and the Internet capabilities of some its workers who are now at home.

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They also came up with a (very Vermont) solution to what might happen if the town has to self-quarantine a Vernon resident: 

“Todd had also suggested the possibility of towing his camper down behind the fire department and plugging that in there, and they could self-quarantine inside of the camper,” Chairman Parker suggested at the meeting.

So that’s what it’s come to in Vernon: planning to set up a camper to address the public health needs, and making sure the town pool is ready for summer.

Brattleboro: Mud season stops for no virus

Towns across Vermont are operating in this strange new world where everyday jobs like road grading have to continue, despite an uncertain future.

As far as Brattleboro Public Works Director Steve Barrett can tell, the new coronavirus has not had any impact on mud season in Vermont.

Man and grader
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Brattleboro Public works director Steve Barrett directs a road grader while the town keeps up on mud season work.

Barrett said that while his department has made some adjustments for social distancing and cleaning and his administrative staff are now working from home, for the most part, it’s business as usual for the road crew and wastewater plant operators.  

“My demands haven’t decreased at all, and in the department either,” Barrett said. “And so what we’re doing is we’re kind of reallocating our services and focusing on, again, the real needs — the water, the sewer, the roadways, — to make sure that those are all safe.”

Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell said this crisis is not like a regular disaster, where a few sections of town are flooded, or a major fire has wiped out one downtown block.

Every single resident and business in town has been affected by COVID-19 — some severely.

Town governments are tasked with the managing the mundane along with the potential for disaster. At the moment, Elwell is doing things like deciding to proceed with leaf pick-up this week, while making plans for how Brattleboro will handle a surge if the new coronavirus hits the town hard.

“The need is not just throughout our community, but throughout all of our society,” Elwell said. “And so it’s not anything like normal business and it’s also not like a normal emergency. And we are finding ways as best we can to provide as much ongoing town, sort-of administrative work as possible under these circumstances.”

Library doors, closed
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro is closed though many departments in town government are as busy as ever.

Brattleboro has been sending out daily email newsletters to residents. Elwell says sometimes there are important updates, and sometimes there is nothing to report.

That's OK, he says, because the daily reports are an important way for town government to connect with its residents who are self-isolating in their homes and yearning for some sense of normalcy.

Brandon: Business as usual, but on the back porch

In downtown Brandon, most of the shops and restaurants now have signs taped to their front doors notifying customers they are temporarily closed.

“To protect staff and you, our great customers!” says the hand-written sign in the window of Gourmet Provence, a specialty food and pastry shop. “Stay healthy!”

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Like many businesses in Brandon, Gourmet Provence is temporarily closed because of coronavirus concerns.

Just a few doors down, there are multiple COVID-19 notices on the Brandon town office building. They provide updates on the public health crisis at hand and remind locals that only essential municipal workers can go inside.

It’s why town manager Dave Atherton met me around back, on the town office building’s small back porch.

“Yeah – it used to be the police station entrance when this was the [police department],” he said.

Atherton was dressed in shorts and a sweatshirt that had the Brandon town logo on it.

“I thought it was going to be warmer today,” he laughed. “At least it’s sunny out for a change.”

Meeting on the porch gave us a chance to talk while maintaining a safe distance, something he said the town staff have been adapting to over the last several weeks, like everyone in Vermont.

“Brandon is running with a skeleton crew, and many town employees are working from home,” he told me. “But we still have to keep the lights on in the town, and still be responsible to residents. Whether it’s a tax issue or a dog that’s gotten away, there's always an issue. We’re trying to do it as a joint effort.”

Because the town’s accounting is now stored in the cloud, he said it's easily accessible for employees working at home, making some town functions easy to accomplish from afar.

However, that's not the case for every department.

For example, Brandon’s two wastewater treatment employees have to work on-site. So to keep them safer, Atherton said the two staff members alternate working a week at a time. “It’s only a two-person department, but those guys can’t do their work from home.”

The guys in the highway department have each been assigned their own trucks.

“Everyone is just trying to keep their distance,” he said, nodding.

Public Health notices are taped to door of Brandon Town Office Building
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Brandon's town office is closed to all but essential town employees.

For a lot of municipal groups, that’s meant video conferencing.

“We did do a select board meeting Monday night and it went pretty well,” Atherton said, “better than expected for our trial run.”

While we were talking, Doug Bailey walked up and patiently waited a safe distance away.

Bailey is a member of Brandon’s select board. Because the last meeting was held remotely, he had to come to the town office to sign one of the orders they approved.

The papers he needed were on a clipboard on the back porch, which he proceeded to sign.

“You are watching official town business right now,” Atherton said with a laugh. “This is how we do things now!”

And it’s working.

“I’m here now to do this,” said Bailey, “But I also stopped in to put a check in the tax box out front to license my two dogs.”

Dog licenses were due April 1, and Bailey said he emailed the town clerk who told him she’d mail his dog tags to him.

“It shows that every little thing [still] needs to get done. We need to continue to pay the town’s bills; we need to look at construction processes; we need to pay our employees and we need to license our dogs, so that everything continues on, one way or another," Bailey said.

Credit Nina Keck / VPR
Shawn Erickson of Brandon's Roads Department now works alone in the cab of any vehicle he uses for municipal work.

The fact that towns are managing all this is pretty amazing. But when COVID-19 has run its course, things won’t necessarily get a whole lot easier — at least in the short term.

With many businesses on hold and tourism all but shut down, town officials statewide are bracing for a drop in tax revenue and for more requests from local taxpayers for abatement or deferrals.

What towns will do to pay education costs if tax revenues fall short remains unclear.

It’s an issue the Vermont League of Cities and Towns is pushing Vermont lawmakers to address by providing added assistance to every city and town in the state from federal relief funds.

In the meantime, town employees and leaders are finding creative ways to make sure that the roads still get graded, the dogs still get licensed and their communities have what they need to get by. 

Questions, comments or concerns about COVID-19? Fill out VPR's brief survey, here.

Correction 9 a.m. 4/8/2020: This story has been updated to reflect there are are 251 incorporated communities in Vermont.

One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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