The town of Vernon is bracing for the loss of its biggest taxpayer – the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant.
Yankee has allowed Vernon to offer amenities and services far beyond the reach of most Vermont communities. Yankee's largess can be seen at the town's elementary school, where the gym is pretty impressive. Seth Deyo, the town’s recreation director, said it’s used a lot.
“It’s an NCAA regulation basketball court,” Deyo said. “We’re fortunate in that it has a great dividing wall so we can actually host two programs at the same time.”
On this Thursday evening, there’s pickup basketball on one side of the gym and a Brazilian jujitsu class on the other. The town also offers line dancing, a fitness class, aerobics, volleyball and, in the summer, an outdoor recreation area and swimming pool.
Much of Vernon’s wealth is tied to the nuclear power plant across the street. Its towers and flashing lights are part of the landscape here – and the reason why this town of 2,100 people has more amenities than most Vermont municipalities.
Entergy, the company that owns Yankee, says the plant will shut down by the end of the year. Now that the plant is closing, Deyo said, some things in Vernon will have to change. The town has discussed selling swimming pool memberships to out-of-town residents, and charging a dollar per person for pickup basketball.
Every town department has been asked to make as many cuts as possible for the coming budget year.
But a one-year tax stabilization contract between the town and Entergy, the plant’s owner, has bought Vernon some time to contemplate the really big changes ahead.
Patty O’Donnell is the Vernon select board chair. After town meeting in March, she says, the board will resume negotiations with Entergy in an effort to reach a five or ten-year tax agreement.
The Vernon board has also been studying the budgets of other small southern Vermont towns that haven’t had a taxpayer like Vermont Yankee.
“We have a police department that no one else has,” O’Donnell said. “Guilford, Dummerston, Putney, Londonderry – most of them don’t have a rec department. We have more employees and our employees are better paid. So we need to look at each and every one of those and look at how we can bring our spending in so that it’s something that Vernon people can afford to pay into the future.”
Last fall, state legislators traveled from Montpelier to hear the town’s concerns.
People spoke of a possible exodus from town, declining home values and the prospect of much lower wages for those who stay.
Norma Manning is a substitute teacher with two children in college and one in high school. Her husband is a control room supervisor at the plant.
“I have 10 years left to pay on my house,” Manning told the lawmakers. “My husband is six years from retirement. Our student loans are based on an income that we will not be able to continue paying on those loans because that type of employment is not available here. How do we stay?” she asked. “That’s what I’m looking for, a way to stay here with my family.”
Vernon lister Carol Hammond said that some of those fears have settled down. Housing prices have held steady and she hasn’t seen a major exodus. But the plant hasn’t closed yet.
Hammond has talked with colleagues in Wiscasset, Maine and Rowe, Mass., where nuclear power plants were closed in the 1990s.
“They said, 'Yes, people did leave, but not in droves,'" Hammond said. “Not enough to really drive down the cost of houses.”
Misty Parker, the Wiscasset town planner, has a different story. She said taxes have more than doubled. And the town has trouble maintaining the elaborate infrastructure it built during better times.
“The town has not recovered,” Parker said. “When Maine Yankee was in operation we had the best schools; we had low taxes. And once that was gone, we do not have one of the best schools in the state anymore and we have a decreasing student population.”
Back in the Vernon gym, Lara Haskins, a teacher, is watching a rec league basketball practice. Haskins thinks people are worried.
“It’s definitely a scary situation,” Haskins said. “I think we try to have faith, that this is a town where people take care of you. But it is scary, knowing what’s down the road and that big changes are going to happen if we’re going to make it.”
Haskins said her family loves the Vernon school, the Vernon community and the Vernon Recreation Department. And they’re not planning to leave any time soon.