Gov. Phil Scott has repeated innumerable times the same trio of initiatives he laid out when he took office three years ago: grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable and protect the most vulnerable.
For many Vermonters, his proposed budget falls short of those goals, and dozens of people from the Lamoille County area gathered this week to urge more funding to protect vulnerable populations from going hungry or going without housing, to increase state funding for college and to provide tools to start small businesses.
A public forum on the governor’s budget, held Monday at Peoples Academy, was one of several that evening around the state hosted by members of the House and/or Senate appropriations committee. Lamoille County has one of each — Sen. Rich Westman and Rep. David Yacovone.
About 80 people attended Monday’s forum, and dozens of people spoke. Some requests fell into the same categories, and some were singular asks.
Doug Boardman, a teacher at Green Mountain Technology and Career Center, plugged funding for public access television stations like the tech center’s Green Mountain Access Television. Boardman said “the airwaves we broadcast on belong to the public,” and “self-serving corporate greed” is eroding the public’s access.
Speaking of the public access channel, it was taping Monday’s proceedings. There’s no way to include everyone’s comments in the newspaper, but the whole forum can be watched at bit.ly/2ONOtnI.
Food for thought
Nicole Grisgraber, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Lamoille County, said the organization has seen a 17 percent increase in meals recipients and, with more and more baby boomers entering retirement and onto fixed incomes, that number is expected to increase.
Cathy Snow, a driver for Meals on Wheels, said she has seen too many older people have to go into nursing homes or move in with their kids because they are unable to stay in their homes. And even if they do manage to stay, they can get lonely, and Meals on Wheels provides just a little social interaction along with a healthy meal.
“This is maybe the one social interaction that person has that day,” Snow said, and as seniors have to juggle rent, electricity and heating, “Let’s not have food be the one thing they have to go without.”
There was support for more funding for Vermonters Feeding Vermonters, a Vermont Foodbank program that focuses on access to local fruit and vegetables. Michelle Wallace, the program’s director, asked for $500,000 for the program, noting that it provides 40 types of vegetables.
“It’s good for farmers. It’s good for the local economy,” Wallace said.
Tony Risitano supported that request, saying that, as a farmer, “going into the growing season is a leap of faith every year.”
Jodi Martin, who works at the Lamoille Family Center, advocated for full funding of the state’s family centers. Martin said the family center was a key support as she raised her son through an “emotional roller coaster” of early childhood development, all while she opened a child care center in her home.
The family center teams gave her training and support with food systems, but, more importantly, respected her and listened to her ideas and concerns, telling her “you know your child the best.”
Eileen Paus, a board member for the family center, also advocated for family center funding, using her time to talk about adverse childhood experiences such as struggles with unstable housing and food. She said of the family center’s efforts, “This is truly an ounce of prevention that is worth more than a pound of cure.”
Ceilidh Galloway-Kane gave a plug for REACH, the Hardwick-based after-school program that serves three elementary schools — she’s the project director — with a budget of less than $300,000.
She said 22,000 students aren’t in after-school programs, but would be if there were more of them.
Stay at home
Kathy Demars, director of Lamoille Home Health and Hospice, asked for more funding for the state’s Choices for Care program, which she said is not slated for an increase. She said the program locally serves 46 Vermonters who are “nursing home-level of care” by helping out with tasks around the house so they can stay in their homes.
Demars said the one nursing home in Lamoille County has 72 beds, and they are almost always full.
Mark McAndrew, director of the Craftsbury Community Care Center, said that 24-bed facility has 13 beds for those who can pay privately, with nine reserved for low-income residents. He asked that the center be included among centers that receive annual cost-of-living increases.
“We’re a little overlooked,” he said of centers like the Craftsbury one.
College funding is also a big perennial ask. Beth Walsh, head of creative development at Northern Vermont University-Johnson, said that the state government provides state colleges less than half of the appropriation it did in the 1960s.
Walsh said the colleges ask for more money every year, “and you’ve come through for us in recent years,” but Vermont still ranks at the bottom of the nation in funding for higher education.
“It would be devastating for our communities” if the Johnson college had to shutter, Walsh said. “Don’t let it fall apart.”
Brady Rainville, a former student and current faculty member at Johnson, said he came across a story that listed Vermont as 49th in the nation in college funding. He was surprised when he realized the article was published in 2002.
“At the time, I was 8 years old. So, this is not a new issue, and it’s something that we’ve been putting off for way too long,” Rainville said. “It’s time that we take action to increase the funding for our system.”
Super small businesses
Offie Wortham, a board member for Capstone Community Action, asked for a reversal of the cuts made in a microbusiness development program that Capstone offers “which has been embraced by community action agencies throughout Vermont and across the country.”
Wortham said the five community action programs across the state have helped 10,000 Vermonters start or expand 2,000 businesses.
Mary Johnson, a money coach who also works at Capstone, also gave a plug for the microbusiness program, saying the majority of small business in Vermont are run by one person.
Johnson talked about a woman who moved back to Vermont after a stint in California “and found herself using every single program that’s available many of which you spoke about tonight,” despite never thinking she’d be using social services. After all the help, she started a business and borrowed $62,000 and generated $80,000 in her first year.
Note: Cathy Snow is Tommy Gardner’s aunt.