Wednesday August 27, 2013

VERNON -- As Vernon Selectboard chairwoman, Patty O'Donnell knows the financial impact of Vermont Yankee's pending closure.

But on Tuesday, as she gathered news of the nuclear plant's demise, O'Donnell was thinking more about human capital - the loss of friends, neighbors and volunteers who will be displaced by the facility's shutdown.

"We're going to lose a whole lot of wonderful Vernon people," O'Donnell said.

The news that Entergy Corp. plans to shut down Vermont Yankee by the end of 2014 was welcomed by longtime critics who had vehemently argued that the aging plant was unsafe.

But there was a much different reaction among many in Vernon, where Yankee means jobs, tax revenue and residents.

State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, noted that this week marks the two-year anniversary of Tropical Storm Irene's devastating flooding. "Here's another disaster," Hebert said.

"Vernon, I think, right now, is in a time of mourning," he added. "Everybody's shocked."

O'Donnell used a similar analogy for her feelings as she attended Entergy's press conference at lunchtime on Tuesday.

"I felt like I was going to a funeral," she said. "This is the end of an era for the town of Vernon."

That era has included steady employment for hundreds of people at the plant off Governor Hunt Road. And a number of those employees, in addition to spending money at local businesses, also have contributed by volunteering in the community.


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"We're going to lose human treasure. We have hundreds of employees at Vermont Yankee who volunteer their time," Hebert said. "It's more than just salary. We're losing very good friends."

The loss no doubt will translate into fewer families sending their children to Vernon Elementary School, which sits across the road from Vermont Yankee. As a Vernon School Board member, Hebert said he spoke Tuesday morning with the elementary's principal about the plant closure's possible impacts.

"Vernon was an unusual school in that we have been going up in population," Hebert said. "If this reduces our numbers in school, how do we address that?"

Town officials also will have to take a hard look at finances, with O'Donnell saying Vermont Yankee pays about 60 percent of the town's taxes.

Because of uncertainty about the plant's future, Entergy had not renegotiated a long-term tax deal with Vernon. In May, the Selectboard approved another one-year extension of an expired tax-stabilization agreement keeping the plant's value steady at $300 million.

In fiscal year 2013, Entergy paid more than $1.3 million in property taxes.

O'Donnell noted that the company will continue to pay taxes on the plant even after Yankee ceases operations. She acknowledged that the payment is likely to decrease, but O'Donnell said she and Entergy administrators already are talking about an "exit plan" that may lessen the impact on the town.

"They want to sit down with the town of Vernon and work through this," O'Donnell said.

Nonetheless, there are decisions that will have to be made during upcoming budget cycles. Vernon officials already have been debating the future of curbside trash pickup, and that discussion may take on a different complexion due to the town's new financial reality.

"We're going to have to look at all the services that we provide and what services we want to keep," O'Donnell said. "But that's going to be up to the taxpayers, too."

Jeff Dunklee sits at the same Selectboard table as O'Donnell, and he'll play a role in such decisions. He looks at the town's recreation complex, municipal offices and other facilities and is well aware of the role that Vermont Yankee's owners have played in those investments.

"Things are going to be different. There are some things that our town enjoys that other towns do not. And that can be attributed to the largesse of Vermont Yankee," Dunklee said.

"There are going to be some tough decisions that we as community members are going to have to face."

Like O'Donnell, Dunklee's thoughts turned to the Yankee employees who reside in Vernon and in other nearby towns.

"These are people who have been good members of our community and volunteers," Dunklee said. "Vermont Yankee and the people of our area have been so intertwined for decades. It's just heartbreaking."

But the dairy farmer also noted that his roots - and the roots of many other town residents - stretch back to a time long before there was a nuclear plant in Vernon.

The town, Dunklee said, has "a lot to offer." And he believes that won't change when Entergy leaves.

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to be here," Dunklee said. "I'm going to try to take care of my community."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.