Cambridge, VT town government

ML and GPThis post has been long in coming, which I regret since Marguerite Ladd, the administrator of the Town of Cambridge, and George Putnam, the selectboard chair, were incredibly generous with their time.  Marguerite has been in her newly created position for about a year, coming from finance work in New York but with her roots in Vermont.  George is a long-time Vermonter and has retired from a career with the farm credit system.  The Switchel Philosopher is his blog that asks, “What is a proper relationship between a free people and their government?”  (Not familiar with switchel?  I wasn’t either.)

The elected selectboard meets twice each month, and goes deep into the running of the town.  (Minutes from a recent meeting can be found here.)  There’s also an annual town meeting each March, attended by the citizenry.  (Minutes from last March’s meeting can be found here.)  Marguerite and those in other permanent staff positions follow through on and carry out decisions made by the selectboard and town meeting.  As I noted right after my visit, the Town of Cambridge, Vermont includes two incorporated villages, Jeffersonville and Cambridge.  This sounds like a similar arrangement to what we found in Cambridge, NY, but there the village didn’t fit completely within the town.  The administrative lines are more clearly drawn in Vermont.

My conversation with George and Marguerite was wide-ranging, including what folks in Cambridge call themselves.  Though the town is believed to have been named after Cambridge, MA, there’s no special name for the town’s residents.  Nonetheless, George said that “most people identify with the town rather than the villages.”  He said that towns are Vermont’s common administrative unit, and some towns include incorporated villages while others don’t.  An incorporated village can assess taxes and create municipal services.

Freedom of Speech, Rockwell
From the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Rockwell created a series of four paintings in 1943, collectively called the Four Freedoms. The picture to the left shows “Freedom of Speech,” based on a Vermont town meeting. A print of the painting hangs in the Cambridge town offices.

I started our conversation by asking what is going well in Cambridge.  Marguerite immediately summed it all up by saying, “Everything.”  She continued, “Cambridge is trying to do all the ‘right things,’ and looking for an equitable quality of life for everyone.”

George added, “There is a great mix of people here.  There’s good volunteer engagement, both in town government and other organizations, like the rescue squad.  The population is growing slightly, and moderate growth is a nice place to be.  Many towns in Vermont are shrinking.”  He further pointed out the unmissable.  “There is great scenery, with mountains and rivers.”  Marguerite said there’s a very active bike culture, along with paddling, hiking, and snowmobiles.  “Vermont needs that four-season utility of its resources.”

Something I’ve enjoyed while talking to Cambridge leaders is when our conversations wander to critical municipal issues that I know little about.  Marguerite noted, for example (and I hope I have this right), that Cambridge has the most road mileage out of all the towns in the county.  This is a big issue if snow removal is part of the annual routine.  There are several state roads that the state plows, and then the town plows the rest, including in the villages of Cambridge and Jeffersonville.

I’ve mentioned before that I have had more discussions of wastewater treatment on these trips than I ever would have imagined.  In this conversation, I learned that the village of Cambridge has a public water supply, the Village of Jeffersonville has a public water supply and a sewer system, and the rest of the town offers neither.  Unless they live in one of the villages, everyone is dependent on wells and septic systems.  Unlike in Cambridge, NY where wastewater treatment was a major issue, George called it a small issue, though he said that “sewers aren’t the bottleneck [to development], but the water is.”  The Village of Jeffersonville needs to expand its water sources and, they said, find ways to protect those sources.

I also raised the topic of broadband.  George said that “Some towns around Cambridge have broadband committees.  We’re in the process of organizing an economic development committee and looking at bringing broadband to town.”  The telephone company provides DSL access but Cambridge is “not served by any of the large cable companies.”  There are two smaller companies — Stowe Cable, and Mansfield Community Fiber — and the town wants “to work with those two companies to wire up the town with fiber.”  He continued, “A lot of people want to work remotely and can’t do that,” though he pointed out that there is “better cell coverage than in many rural towns.”  Marguerite added that realtors report that potential buyers routinely ask about internet access before they consider buying a house or property.

I told Marguerite and George that I had spent the previous afternoon at Smuggler’s Notch, the ski resort, which George called “good neighbors.”  He said, “They employ a lot of people seasonally.  Some retirees work there in the summers, leading hikes.  And all the tourists lead to spin-off business, like lodging.”  Marguerite explained that Smugg’s helps Cambridge’s “grand list,” the list of property in town that may be assessed taxes, especially because many of the condos at Smugg’s are second homes, used in the summer or during ski season.  In Vermont, “If it’s not your main residence, it can be taxed a little higher.  It helps the town have those services that other towns might not be able to afford with this population.”  She also noted that “A lot of people who work there are on our committees and volunteer here.  It’s clear they value the town.”

I still have so much to share from my conversation with Marguerite and George that I think it will be best to finish my report in a second post.  I’ll be back soon.

Town Office sign, VT

The Cambridge Rescue Squad

As I’ve written, my meetings in Cambridge, VT were arranged around learning about the relationship between the town and the ski resort.  After leaving Smugg’s, I drove five minutes down the road to the station for the Cambridge Rescue Squad, a volunteer group that supports the town, including the ski resort.  I met with Tracy Myers, the squad’s assistant chief.  Like Mike at Smugg’s, Tracy struck me as a person who had really found her passion in life, though their two roles are so different.

Tracy told me that there are four permanent staff members on the squad and the rest are volunteers, of which “a good handful live in town,” but the remainder live in surrounding towns.  I had thought it was astounding that the small town could staff a volunteer rescue squad.  It turns out that people from other towns will travel to be part of it!  The volunteers work 12-hour shifts, from 6:00 to 6:00, whether starting in the a.m. or the p.m., and they commit to 24 hours per month.  Tracy and the squad’s chief work three 12-hour shifts per week.

The rescue squad isn’t Tracy’s only connection to public safety.  She’s also the “second constable” for the Town of Cambridge and for nearby Johnson.  Her work in those positions is basically animal control.  She also volunteers for a rescue squad in another town. She said that at times she has had six different jobs, something of a Vermont way of life.  Her entry into the field was working security in a Connecticut casino.

Tracy, rescue squadNot surprisingly, Tracy said the work depends on the season.  In the winter, they deal with trauma experienced by skiers, and in the summer it’s people up on the hiking trails.  Then there are the more mundane cases, such as cardiac events and calls from the assisted living facility in town.  Depending on the nature of the injury or concern, the squad generally takes the patient to Copley Hospital in Morrisville, which has a strong orthopedics department, or the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, which is best for cardiac events, children, traumatic brain injuries, or major multiple trauma injuries.  Tracy said their distance from the hospitals (25-35 minutes from Copley, 45 minutes from Burlington — “quicker with sirens”) is one of their main challenges.

The squad just marked its 30-year anniversary.  It was started by citizens to support the nearest rescue squad, and a few volunteers go back to the early days.  Within three years the squad had its first ambulance and started transporting patients.  They now run two ambulances and cover all of the town of Cambridge and Smuggler’s Notch, answering about 450 calls each year.  The ambulances carry narcan, but Tracy said that the opioid epidemic isn’t much of a concern in Cambridge at this time.

(I should note here that the Cambridge Fire Department is also a volunteer force, with the town providing financial support for both units.  Security support comes from the Vermont state police.)

Some special challenges the squad faces include language barriers with the tourists.  “There’s a variety of people coming up here to ski.”  Tracy described long drives with a lot of shared “thumbs up” signs to reassure patients.  The squad has installed white boards in the ambulances for working with deaf people.

The squad stays close to the community.  They put together a barbecue, host schoolkids who want to see the ambulances, and provide observation opportunities for high school students training for careers in nursing.  “We try to do a little extra for the community.  We feel mutual appreciation and respect.”

There’s a lot more I could say about what I learned about the operation of a volunteer rescue squad, but most of all I was drawn in by Tracy’s description of a very difficult job.  She said it was especially challenging in a small town, where it’s “hard to go on a call to a house,” of a friend.  Staff “have to be compassionate yet distant at the same time.  It’s a hard balance.  Some people can’t handle the bad calls.”  They have a crisis management team to call on if needed, but she said it’s important for volunteers to have good support at home.  “The person I’m going home to needs to understand” if it has been a day with a bad call.

As part of the hiring process for her job, Tracy was asked for a statement of what she would do for the community.  The cadet program she proposed now has four cadets who go on calls and come to trainings.  “There’s nothing for kids to do in these smaller towns.  The cadet program is something to do.  They can hang around with good people.  It keeps them out of trouble.”

Tracy told me about a 22-year-old who had died despite the squad’s best efforts.  Her young son visited the rescue squad with flowers and a check for funds he had raised and that he wanted to donate.  “This town’s pretty good with little things like that.”  Over all, Tracy’s perspective on a volunteer rescue squad in a small town is that one supports the other.  “They do for us, and we do for them.”

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is generally a pretty peaceful little town.  Everybody knows everybody and there aren’t a lot of problems here.  It’s a nice little town.


The economy, Cambridge, ME

A thriving economy is a goal for any town or city, but is hard to achieve for a small town surrounded by other small towns.  Town selectmen Mike Watson and Ron Strouse described for me the challenges facing Cambridge, Maine.  Mike said, “The economy here is gone.  The big factories are out.”  He also said that at one time there were 35 dairy farms and two beef cattle farms.  Only one of each remain.

Most Cambridge residents commute to larger towns (including Bangor, an hour away), are engaged in businesses requiring regional travel, or work from home.  There are a couple of auto-maintenance garages, some woodworkers, and, Mike said, “a lot of retired people.”  He pointed out that Maine has one of the largest senior citizen populations among U.S. states.  “It’s old and getting older.”  But he said the town is “always looking” for development opportunities.

Future development may be linked to the arrival of broadband internet, expected in fall of 2019 with the help of a grant from the State of Maine.  The town had appointed a committee to study the issue and the options, and an announcement of the timeline appeared on the town website after my visit.  Lack of access to high-speed internet is an obstacle to development throughout rural Maine, and Mike looks forward to its arrival.  “I like this broadband coming in.  If you have good internet, you’re the center of the world, and you can do whatever you want to do.”  He continued, “The internet is going to make it possible to buy or sell anywhere in the world.”  People will be able to “live the country life” while continuing their work life.  “It’ll be a plus for us.”

Related to Cambridge’s short list of enterprises and limited internet is the town’s scarce presence online.  Aside from the town’s own website, there are few web pages to be found about Cambridge.

East Outlet BrewingAnother potential boost to the economy due this summer is a brewery.  East Outlet Brewing can be found on the road leading into town.  No one was around when I went by, but I’ll try to follow their story.

It’s possible to imagine a future, not too far out, when young tech workers who can be situated anywhere will be drawn to Cambridge, with the brewery as the center of evening life.  Mike has confidence that the town will carry on.  “People like the seclusion that a small town affords them.”

Mayor Carman Bogle reflects on Cambridge, NY

While I travel to Cambridge, NY, I’d like to share this Q&A with Mayor Carman Bogle, who took office in April 2015, following the village’s March election. 

I should note that Mayor Bogle was extremely generous in answering a long list of questions that I have since learned was simply too long.  But her kind response made me think that I might be onto something with this blog — that there is a lot to learn from each other. I’m excited to visit her village and to meet her this afternoon.

Carman Bogle
Mayor Bogle (waving from the front of the cart). Photo credit: Eric Fellows

How would you describe Cambridge?
The village of Cambridge is a charming walkable community with a population of about 2,000 people. Most properties are historic with a mix of Victorian and Colonial homes and businesses.

Because of close proximity and a smaller population, Cambridge is a close-knit community. Everybody knows their neighbors and fellow community members. People are always ready to help each other, as well as welcome new people to the community. Smiles and friendly waves of hello are readily available as you walk down Main Street. There is no shortage of those willing to volunteer to make and keep Cambridge a warm inviting place where people want to raise their families.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Challenges facing Cambridge right now are a lack of infrastructure and economic development, particularly with regard to wastewater infrastructure. This has deeply impacted business development since property sizes are small and too close together to meet standards. Jobs are hard to come by in Cambridge.

What are one or two national issues that particularly affect Cambridge now?
I would say a national issue affecting Cambridge as of late has been the negativity that we see displayed through the media and social media, and the overall divide that seems to be developing nationally. While we are close-knit, there have been times when attitudes and treatment of each other have not reflected our local core values. We often need to remind ourselves that we are friends and neighbors, and ultimately we care about each other more than our opinions.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what concerns you most?
What has me most concerned for the future we leave for our children is that the economic conditions will leave them with no option but to leave Cambridge.

As you look ahead to the Cambridge our children will inherit in 25 years, what leaves you feeling most hopeful?
What leaves me most hopeful when I think of the future we are leaving our children is that this is always home. There is always someone here who cares about you and wants to see you succeed in life. The feeling of community and belonging has been instilled in our children, and I hope they pass that on to their children.

From the Cambridge, MA mayor’s viewpoint

Marc McGovernMy goal for Our Cambridge is to include many voices and perspectives, and I’ll be reaching out to community leaders to describe the town or city they lead. 

Cambridge, MA’s mayor, Marc McGovern, has lifelong Cambridge roots.  He served four two-year terms on the School Committee (elected) before being elected to a seat on the City Council in 2013.  Following a vote by the City Council, he assumed the position of mayor in January 2018.  In this Q&A, he shares his perspective on the city.

How would you describe Cambridge?
Cambridge is a diverse community dedicated to ensuring that all of its residents live in a safe and thriving city. We are home to two of the world’s best universities and the greatest concentration of biotech companies in the world. But there is another story. Cambridge has a higher poverty rate than the state average. 50% of our public school children live in affordable housing, and we have over 500 homeless on our streets every night. So, although one story of our city is of increased prosperity, another story is that many in our community are not accessing that prosperity.

What is going right in Cambridge?
Cambridge has a strong commercial tax base that allows us to do things that other communities can’t. For example, due to our AAA bond rating, we are allowed to borrow money at very low interest. That is allowing us to build three new, net-zero public schools at a cost of half a billion dollars, without raising residential property taxes. We are also investing in climate resiliency, infrastructure, public safety and our public schools at very high amounts. Although we still have challenges to overcome, the quality of life in Cambridge is very good.

What are Cambridge’s current challenges?
Our biggest challenge is the lack of affordable housing. With Cambridge being such a desirable place to live and having such a strong job market, people are moving to Cambridge in droves. Because those moving here are being paid higher salaries, they are able to pay more for rental housing and home ownership, driving up prices. The result has been that many moderate and middle income residents, those who earn too much to qualify for subsidies, but not enough to pay market rent, are being forced out of the city.

What concerns you about the Cambridge that our children will inherit?
As someone who has grown up in Cambridge and is raising my children here, I have seen our city go through many changes. Most of those changes have been positive, but some have not. The loss of middle income residents and the challenges of maintaining our diversity is a serious concern. In addition, on a wider scale, I am deeply concerned about climate change and resiliency and what the world will look like for the next generation.