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City Stands Off With the Feds

Local Matters


Published August 3, 2005 at 2:03 p.m.

VERGENNES -- Vermont's oldest city is getting rotten to the Corps. The Northland Job Corps, that is. A financial dispute between the city of Vergennes and the U.S. Department of Labor has Mayor April Jin threatening to cut off police and fire protection, street lighting, road maintenance and other municipal services to the vocational training center unless the federal government pays the city $134,000 by August 13.

But the DOL's Employment and Training Administration, which funds the facility, says it won't pay, claiming the federal government is immune from local taxes under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, the DOL warns that if the city refuses to provide those services, students may be moved to other Job Corps sites in New England.

"It is not acceptable that students' safety is being used to press this issue," Emily Stover DeRocco, the assistant secretary for U.S. employment and training, writes in a July 22 letter to the city. "Termination of municipal services would be a serious breach of the City's civic responsibility."

The Northlands Center was established in 1978 on the grounds of the former Weeks School, a 66-acre state reformatory for troubled teens. Since then, the Center has provided diplomas, career preparation and other training to thousands of disadvantaged youths from New England. About 280 students attend the residential school. About a third are Vermonters. The center is privately run but receives more than $7 million annually in federal funds.

For years, the DOL paid the city an annual fee to cover municipal services. But five years ago, the General Accounting Office determined that those payments violated federal law. To fill the gap, Vermont's congressional delegation secured a $596,000 appropriation for Vergennes. The DOL considered it a final settlement of its obligation.

But Jin, who was elected in March, disagrees. "I'm not so sure the city looked at it that way," she says, "but they took the money anyway." Last year, Vergennes exhausted the last of the appropriation -- about $37,000. It now faces the prospect of raising taxes on all city residents to cover the lost revenue.

On July 1, Jin sent the DOL a letter requesting $134,214 -- or 10 percent of the city's budget. Jin contends that since the Job Corps houses 280 students in a city of about 2800 people, the center should pay one-tenth of city expenses.

"It's not that we're trying to chase the Job Corps out," Jin emphasizes. "We just hope we can work this situation out. But if they do choose to move, there are other potential uses for that property." Jin adds that she's checked with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and believes Vergennes isn't obligated to provide services for free.

But Vermont Secretary of Administration Charlie Smith isn't so sure. "The city has obligations for public safety," he says. "In terms of strict liability, I don't know, but I think there's a moral obligation."

The federal government rents the Northlands site from the state for $210,000 per year. That money goes into the general fund, which in turn reimburses Vergennes about $30,000 annually. Smith notes that other communities host state and federal facilities -- Waterbury has the Vermont State Hospital, Burlington the Vermont Department of Health -- but get no additional money for their expenses.

Northlands Center Director Denise Jones says this dispute is primarily between the city and the feds and she's not letting it interrupt the organization's work. "We're all just ready to say good-bye to this [dispute] and get on with doing what we came here to do." She adds, however, that the center is making contingency plans in case the city follows through with its threat. She won't specify what those plans are.

Jin acknowledges the many benefits Vergennes reaps from the Job Corps. The Center employs about 119 people, many of whom live and spend money there. Job Corps students also volunteer thousands of hours in community service worth an estimated $15,000 to $20,000.

Nevertheless, Jin believes it's unfair to ask Vergennes residents to bear the cost of services for such a large complex. "If you have a property owner who doesn't pay their taxes, you have a recourse because you can take their property for tax sale," she says. "But this is state land and state buildings and we really can't do anything else about it."