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Any Way You Cut It

Fair Game


Published January 13, 2010 at 9:59 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

It seems like public workers and elected officials are lining up to take symbolic pay cuts to prove they, too, “feel the pain” of Vermont taxpayers.

At year’s end, Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) voted overwhelmingly to accept a 3 percent pay cut and two-year wage freeze, to save state government about $5.6 million in FY 2010.

Gov. Jim Douglas joined hundreds of other nonunion workers and elected officials earning more than $60,000 a year when he took a 5 percent salary reduction in May 2008. Estimated annual savings: $780,000.

Lawmakers will be paid 5 percent less this session, saving the state about $100,000.

One group of workers bucked this trend in 2009, “Fair Game” learned from a late December public-records request examining promotions, merit bonuses and pay raises.

Vermont’s state’s attorneys and 12 county sheriffs took the 5 percent pay cut in 2008, but in July 2009 they unilaterally voted to restore it. Since their salaries are set by statute, the attorneys and sheriffs simply told personnel officials to put the money back; they didn’t need to ask Douglas or lawmakers.

Sheriffs apparently resented the fact that their counterparts in the state police had not seen their pay slashed a penny, said Lamoille County Sheriff Roger Marcoux, executive director of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association. Sheriffs earn about $65,000 a year.

“When we took the cut initially, we told the administration that we would continue to do so as long as we saw progress toward making it equitable across the board,” said Marcoux.

When the troopers failed to step up, the sheriffs asked for the money back.

How do the state cops get away with it? The troopers broke away from the VSEA last fall and are currently in bargaining talks with the administration.

While the VSEA’s political action committee backed Independent Anthony Pollina for governor in 2008, the trooper’s PAC supported Douglas for reelection, and word is they’ll be rewarded. They may see wage increases rather than cuts.

Like the sheriffs, the state’s attorneys also felt they had done their fair share by taking the pay cut for one year, says Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who serves on the executive committee of the state’s attorneys’ association. Most state’s attorneys earn around $90,000, except for the ones in Grand Isle and Essex counties, who make $66,000.

Donovan said the attorneys are meeting on Thursday to vote on whether to reinstate the 5 percent pay cut. “We recognize the current, difficult fiscal situation of the state, so we’re going to have to consider taking the cut again,” said Donovan.

The sheriffs recently told the administration they were willing to slash their pay anew. “We have no other way to meet our budget targets, and we don’t want to lose state-paid deputies,” said Marcoux.

Deputies aren’t all they’re worried about losing. Many sheriffs and state’s attorneys are up for election this fall.

Check, Please!

A few top officials in the Douglas administration are making more money than they did before the recession. Percentage-wise, the two largest raises went to former PR staffers who got promoted to other jobs.

Sabina Haskell received a 38 percent pay boost when she was moved from administration spokesperson to the $85,000 job of deputy secretary at the Agency of Natural Resources. John Zicconi has seen 23 percent more in his paycheck since he went from Agency of Transportation spokesman to the $75,000 post of director of planning, outreach and community affairs.

Other double-digit promotions went to: Tayt Brooks, who received a 19 percent pay raise to become the $79,000 economic development commissioner; and Lisa Menard, who got a 28 percent bump — to $84,000 — to take the job of Deputy Corrections Commissioner.

Tom Pelham moved up from tax commissioner to deputy secretary of administration for a 10 percent increase and now earns $98,000.

Another big double-digit raise went to Joe Juhasz, who was named deputy state auditor by Auditor Thomas M. Salmon. Salmon, you may recall, got popped for a DUI after celebrating the promotions of a few office staffers, including Juhasz. Juhasz’s salary jumped 28 percent, to more than $87,000 year.

Cause for celebration? Not for taxpayers, who have to pick up the tab and suffer the hangover.

Feast & Famine

Last week, all 180 lawmakers agreed to a 5 percent pay cut that is expected to save taxpayers $100,000.

But that hundred grand will likely be chewed up — sometimes literally — as lawmakers receive larger reimbursements to cover their food and other expenses.

This year taxpayers will fork over $61 a day in meals allowances, up from $54 last year. Lawmakers will also receive $101 for every overnight stay in Montpelier, up from $93. Only mileage reimbursements have gone down, from 55 to 50 cents per mile.

If each lawmaker takes the full meal allowance, four days a week for roughly16 weeks, that amounts to $3900 per lawmaker — $444 more than last year. That’s an additional $79,920 in 2010 — just for food.

You call that belt tightening?

Riding Roughshod

It seems like just yesterday that five Democratic gubernatorial candidates were wooing the state’s environmentalists at two high-profile debates: Within 10 days in November, they attended the Environmental Action Conference at Vermont Technical College and a Burlington forum sponsored by the Vermont Alliance of Conservation Voters.

What never came out is that four of the five Democratic candidates support allowing all-terrain vehicles on state lands. Not sure how that equates to cleaner air and water.

Three Dems met with ATV riders over the weekend in Barre to talk about the contentious issue.

Only Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin told the group he is opposed to letting ATVs on state lands. He thinks ATV riders need to do more work developing private trails and proving they can be responsible users of public lands.

Sen. Doug Racine, on the other hand, believes the state needs to come up with a way to allow ATV use on state lands. “Vermont lands belong to all of us and Vermonters who use motorized vehicles should be respected.”

That sounds strikingly similar to the position taken last year by Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie, who is also running for guv. “All Vermonters pay for public land with their tax dollars. There should be reasonable opportunity for all Vermonters to enjoy these public assets,” Dubie wrote in a letter to environmental officials.

Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Bartlett, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz and former Sen. Matt Dunne all say they are interested in finding ways to allow limited connector trails, or even pilot projects, to determine if wider use should be allowed. This is sure to rev up the primary.

Life of Brian

The first week of the legislative session was a very good one for Brian Dubie’s gubernatorial campaign. Gov. Douglas had his lieutenant in tow at two high-profile media events — one touting savings in government, the other promoting the governor’s economic development proposals.

This week, Dubie will take a page direct from Douglas’ political playbook and embark on a six-day, statewide “jobs tour,” on which he plans to blame Vermont’s economic woes on the tax-and-spend, Democratic-led legislature.

Dubie is also hiring paid campaign staff. He’s contracted Corry Bliss, 28, a Virginia-based campaign manager who met Dubie through the Republican Governors Association. Bliss joins longtime Dubie political aide Susan Hudson.

Additionally, Republican fundraiser and former U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia Rodolphe “Skip” Vallee tells “Fair Game” he will not challenge Dubie in a primary.

“My issues are national and international, and if you don’t have the fire in the belly to run, then you shouldn’t run,” said Vallee. “I like Brian, and I get the sense that he’s reaching out and working hard, and that’s what he needs to do.”

Bye Bye Bob

Burlington residents have successfully garnered enough signatures to get instant-runoff voting on the March ballot. Voters will weigh in on whether they want to repeal the IRV system of conducting elections that is credited with putting Mayor Bob Kiss in City Hall.

The IRV debate is hot and heavy on our staff blog, Blurt! One post has 135 comments and counting.

One of the main anti-IRV proponents — former City Council President and Republican Kurt Wright — may also be on the March ballot. He bested Kiss in two out of three IRV rounds, but lost out in the final round.

Wright is considering a comeback council run against Ward 4 Democrat Russ Ellis. Sounds like the 2012 mayor’s race is already underway.

Media Notes

After roughly 20 years at WCAX, reporter Brian Joyce will bid adieu to his television audience on Wednesday.

He’ll be putting his investigative skills to good use in a new job, for a private firm subcontracted by Homeland Security. It’s a different take on the cops-and-crime beat. “I’ll be working … to identify and locate fugitive immigrants wanted on warrants for committing violent crimes after they illegally entered the U.S.,” Joyce told “Fair Game” via email. He begins his new job on January 19.

Got a news tip? Email Shay at [email protected]

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