MONTPELIER — According to the nearly three dozen witnesses who testified at a Nov. 7 hearing of the state’s Rural Development Caucus, Vermont’s small towns are losing population, have unreliable internet, fewer job opportunities, higher transportation costs and a smaller tax base that makes paying for essential services difficult.
Despite these challenges, they said, Vermont’s small towns offer an unmatched quality of life and are ready to make the investments needed to welcome new business and create new jobs.
The hearing, organized with support from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, and the Vermont Council on Rural Development, was held to help lawmakers determine what Vermonters think are the most significant factors impacting Vermont’s rural economy.
“The economies and economic development challenges of rural areas are different from those of more densely populated parts of the state,” said Rep. Chip Conquest of Newbury, co-chairman of the caucus.
Co-chairwoman Rep. Laura Sibilia of Dover, agreed. “While we have our own experience and ideas, we know there is knowledge and insight along the back roads that will help us improve legislation and enact better policies,” she said.
Act 46, a state law whose purpose is for school districts to work toward mergers with neighboring districts, and could result in the closure of some schools, dominated much of the two-plus-hour discussion.
Several witnesses said local schools define their communities and should not be forced to close. Act 46 was passed two years ago and modified this past session. Since July 1, 2015, voters in 139 school districts have agreed to merge into 32 unified districts, according to data posted on the Department of Education’s website. Voters in 22 districts have rejected merger proposals.
“Towns with schools grow, towns without schools, don’t,” said Elizabeth Burrows, chairwoman of the West Windsor School Board. Burrows said she spoke as a private citizen and not as a School Board member.
John Cassel, superintendent of schools for Holland, a tiny town in the Northeast Kingdom, agreed. “Education and economic development go hand-in-hand,” he said.
Ed Metcalfe, of Whitingham, had stinging criticism of the state’s efforts to control school spending. “Act 60 is a failed experiment,” he said.
The intentions, he said, may have been good — to make schools more equal across the state. But the law, “has failed miserably.”
Blaming small schools for the significant increases in school spending over the past decade, which prompted the passage of Act 46, is wrong, he said, because 90 percent of the increases since Act 60 was enacted have been from larger schools.
Act 60, called “the Equal Educational Opportunity Act,” was enacted in 1997, was passed in reaction to the lawsuit Brigham vs. the state of Vermont, which forced Vermont to change how education is funded in the state.
Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State College system, agreed that schools, including state colleges, are essential to rural Vermont. He urged the caucus “to shed light on the colleges in your backyard” by promoting the Vermont State Colleges system.
“Be a proud ambassador for the Vermont system,” he said. Spaulding thanked the lawmakers for an increased appropriation in this year’s budget but said budget increases must happen every year.
Promoting economic development in rural areas also was a top priority. Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, presented a five-point plan to encourage development including “illuminating the vibrancy of the state,” basically letting everyone know Vermont is a good place to do business, creating a “21st-century workforce” and assisting small towns build the infrastructure needed to compete, including reliable water and sewer and high-speed internet.
Jennifer Hollar, director of policy for the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board, said strategic investment in rural projects that promote housing and conservation make sense both for the towns, which get the grant funding, and for the state.
Paul Costello, from the Council on Rural Development, said one way to create new jobs is to expand the use of home-grown alternate energy sources such as wood.
The loss of young rural Vermonters to other states and to Vermont’s bigger towns was mentioned by several speakers as a serious problem. Seth Johnson, of Westford, said no one from his high school class still lives in Westford, mostly because there were no jobs for them.
Arion Thiboumery, who owns Vermont Packinghouse in Springfield, a meat processing facility, said his company should be allowed to do drug tests, which it cannot do now under Vermont law.
To ensure that everyone is safe, he said, Vermont Packinghouse, which has grown from 10 employees to 57 over the past five years and runs machines that can “cut a person in half,” needs to be sure that no employee is under the influence of drugs. There is no way his company can guarantee that now, he said.
The higher cost of transportation in rural areas compared to urban areas also was cited. Abby White, of Efficiency Vermont, said rural Vermonters spend 10 to 12 percent more in energy costs, much of that related to transportation.
The Rural Development Caucus, also known as the Rural Economic Development Working Group, is a nonpartisan group of Vermont representatives that ensures that the needs of rural Vermont are considered in public policy.
In the past, the group has supported initiatives such as rural broadband, Farm to School, and adding forestry to the purview of the Agriculture Committee. In the most recent session the caucus was instrumental in pushing forward the Rural Economic Development Infrastructure District legislation.
The next step, Conquest said, is “organizing a follow-up gathering among legislators in order prioritize and generate broad support for these proposals.”