VERNON — Windham County leaders want Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont Legislature to inject about $2.2 million in state stimulus dollars into the regional economy to mitigate the impact of Vermont Yankee’s upcoming closure.
The call for help came Monday at a joint hearing of the House Committees on Commerce and Natural Resources and Energy. Throughout the day, roughly 100 local residents and officials filed in and out of Vernon Elementary School, just across the street from the 41-year-old nuclear plant.
Entergy plans to close the plant at the end of 2014, eliminating the lion’s share of the plant’s 620 jobs, which pay an average of about $100,000 annually.
“The loss of these jobs and commensurate buying power in the region, as well as the contracting and purchasing Vermont Yankee does with area businesses, will have a significant impact on our already challenged economy,” Patricia Moulton Powden, director of Workforce Development for the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., told legislators. “We need the Legislature, administration and others to see it is time to invest in the Windham County economy.”
Vermont Yankee is the largest employer in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s home county. While the plant provides about 2 percent of the jobs in the region, it accounts for roughly 5 percent of wages. This is one of the key findings of the Windham County Post-VY Economic Mitigation and Growth Report, which is guiding the region’s response to Vermont Yankee’s closure.
The report projects that the plant’s closure will result in the loss of about 400 outside jobs that rely on the spending of Vermont Yankee and its employees. Due to the loss of discretionary spending, the region’s $660 million in retail sales are expected to fall by $26 million. The authors of the report — all local business and development leaders — expect the plant’s closure to result in a high level of vacant homes and a major decline in real estate values. If the regional vacancy rate hits 3 percent, they predict a reduction in home values of about 15 percent.
Others joined Powden, telling legislators the plant’s closing would take a toll on an already hampered regional economy.
“Wages have been stagnant here since the 1970s,” said Laura Sibilia, director of the Southeast Vermont Economic Development Strategy. She showed lawmakers an analysis that indicated less than half of personal income in the county comes from wages.
Powden and Sibilia’s organizations and the Windham Regional Commission, which is the county’s planning commission, say the region needs economic help now more than ever. The $2.2 million they want from the state would pay for positions such as a director of redevelopment and a marketing coordinator for Windham and Bennington counties. The groups want $300,000 for redevelopment studies, such as a market assessment, and $150,000 for a business start-up fund.
Chris Campany, the director of the Windham Regional Commission, told lawmakers: “What we’re trying to do is grade the steepness of the cliff so that people are able to stay here longer with their families, find new jobs, open new businesses and mitigate the real estate impact, which would mitigate grand list issues.”
The Windham Regional Commission wants more than $200,000 to better participate in the regulatory process, advocate for regional interests and conduct research, among other initiatives.
“We have had no dedicated source of funds for our work related to Vermont Yankee, and we cannot and should not have to continue to rely on dedicated volunteers to support this very important ongoing effort,” Campany said.
Campany also called on the governor to create “a transparent deliberative body” to oversee the decommissioning process for the state, and he wants his commission to have a seat on it.
Sharing the wealth
Patty O’Donnell, chair of the Vernon Selectboard, told lawmakers that when the state was in financial trouble in the 1970s, the late Vernon Rep. Erma Puffer offered to share local revenues from Vermont Yankee with the state.
As O’Donnell tells the story, Puffer catalyzed the creation of the state generation tax that is currently imposed on Vermont Yankee.
“For 40 years, because of this town, the state of Vermont has remained strong,” O’Donnell said. “You have reaped the benefit of (millions and millions) of tax dollars because of the decision that the people from this town have made. Now we need your help.”
Vermont Yankee does not pay a statewide property tax, but it pays about $12 million annually in a state generation tax, which legislators are eager to replace with a new levy.
The tax impact on the tiny town of Vernon will be significant. This year, Vermont Yankee is responsible for $1.3 million in municipal taxes, or about half of the town’s total tax receipts, according to the Windham Regional Commission. Exactly how Vermont Yankee’s closure will affect this arrangement with the town is yet to be determined.
Since Vermont Yankee was taken off the grand list, the town treasurer’s office says Vernon is only responsible for paying 75 percent of its statewide education tax rate. O’Donnell told legislators the town would like to maintain a cushion of at least this size.
Later in the evening, Vernon residents voiced similar sentiments.
Paul Miller is a longtime Vernon resident and a former Vernon lister.
“They always said Vermont Yankee was too big for Vernon, so the taxes went up to Montpelier. Now that the plant is going to be devalued because of its closing is it small enough so these taxes would be Vernon’s?” he asked the lawmakers. “That would solve a lot of Vernon’s problems. … I’d like to see a lot higher percentage of this tax stay in Vernon.”
Martin Langeveld, a Vernon resident, told the legislators that they should feel responsible for mitigating the impact of Vermont Yankee’s closure.
“In this situation, the governor and the Legislature did the exact opposite of what you usually do,” he said. “Instead of trying to preserve jobs, instead of trying to attract and support a large employer, they actively sought to close one down. That is unique. That is what makes this one different.
“I suggest you need to consider what the Legislature’s responsibility is now that it has gained that objective it sought for so long,” Langeveld said. “In this case, you have a special responsibility to permit a mitigation effort to go forward and to generously fund that mitigation effort.”
Norma Manning has four children and her husband, Wayne, works for Vermont Yankee. She doesn’t know how she can afford to continue to live in Vernon.
“How can we stay?” Manning asked the legislators. “I have 10 years left to pay on my house, and my husband is six years from retirement. How do we stay? Our student loans are based on an income that we will not be able to continue paying … because that type of employment is not available here … that’s what I’m looking for — a way to stay.”
‘The game is over’
O’Donnell and other local leaders urged lawmakers to put their differences with Entergy aside.
“Entergy has always been an extremely wonderful company for us to deal with — always,” O’Donnell said, adding that the town has litigated with other large entities. “It’s time to put politics aside. The game is over. I’m done fighting. I’ve had it. I want to live in a community, a county and a state where everyone gets along.”
In recent years, Entergy and the state have become entangled in a number of lawsuits, ranging from a generation tax hike to whether the Legislature has the authority to close the plant.
Campany urged the state and Entergy to work together, saying that “continuing litigation further burdens each participant.”
These statements come as the Public Service Board considers whether to relicense the plant until the end of 2014.
Rep. Tony Klein, who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, told those in attendance Monday that his committee would not interfere in the decommissioning process, which is controlled by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He said it is time for the state and Entergy to work together.
“The bottom line, as you all know, is we don’t have a say,” Klein said. “I’m not entertaining doing any work on impacting the decommissioning process. We’ve been down that road before. The game is over, and I agree the politics need to go away on this. … The plant is going away. We need to find the best way forward.”