Somerset supervisor relishes obscure job

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SOMERSET — Rickey Harrington oversees two southern Vermont towns, and his job titles include budget preparer, tax collector, planner, dog licenser, constable and truant officer.

So it's a good thing he's responsible for a total of 11 full-time residents.

Harrington is the new state-appointed supervisor of Somerset, an unincorporated town on the western edge of Windham County. It's a good fit, he says, because he's been supervisor of neighboring Glastenbury - an unincorporated Bennington County town where he also resides - for the past 14 years.

The supervisory positions are catch-all jobs that don't pay much and come with a fair share of administrative responsibility. But Harrington says he takes pride in the work, while also acknowledging the oddness of maintaining towns that host approximately 0.16 residents per square mile.

"It's just a funny position," he said.

Vermont is divided into nine cities and 237 towns. But the state also has nine less-populated, lesser-known governmental entities: There are five unincorporated or "unorganized" towns; three gores; and one "grant."

Both Somerset and Glastenbury, established by New Hampshire grants in 1761, had long histories as official Vermont towns. But both were stripped of that title in 1937, when the state Legislature said Somerset and Glastenbury should "cease to exist as a municipal corporation" and ordered the towns' records transferred to the clerks of their respective counties.

Declining population seems to have been the main issue. Geography played a role in that, as noted by author Esther Swift in her 1977 book, "Vermont Place-Names."

Somerset initially "was granted to 62 people, but it seems highly unlikely that any of the grantees could have known much about the territory he was buying," Swift wrote. "Somerset perches on the Green Mountains in rough country that, then even more than now, must have seemed a long way from the older-established towns of Bennington on the west and Brattleboro on the east."

Both Somerset and Glastenbury still live on, however, as unincorporated towns.

Rather than the standard Select Board setup, Vermont's unincorporated towns and gores are run by supervisors who, according to state statute, have a wide variety of responsibilities.

In addition to planning, financial and school-related duties, the law says a supervisor "shall act as a selectperson in matters of road encroachment." A supervisor also serves as "town clerk in the matter of licensing dogs, and as town clerk and board of civil authority in the matter of tax appeals from the decisions of the board of appraisers."

For Harrington, though, most of the supervisors' work centers on collecting taxes and developing a town budget. Somerset's spending plan barely exceeds $100,000, with the vast majority of that - $80,000 - allocated for roads.

Roads also occupied most of Somerset's annual meeting, held earlier this month at a resident's home. While road care is a sometimes contentious topic, Harrington is quick to point out that he has limited authority in that and many other matters.

"I am nothing more than an agent for the state of Vermont," he said. "I have no real power beyond what the statute gives me."

Financial and road issues aside, Harrington said he's sometimes called on to be an authority or mediator in other matters. For example, he recently addressed a complaint about use of a shooting range in Glastenbury, and he says he has been getting regular calls from Somerset's property owners since starting work there a few months ago.

"There's nothing really big about it," he said. "(But) it's always something."

Harrington points out that, while the U.S. Census Bureau says there were just three residents in Somerset in 2010, there are about three dozen landowners in town. The largest owners by far are the U.S. Forest Service and Great River Hydro, which maintains the town's defining feature - the sprawling Somerset Reservoir.

The presence of hydroelectric facilities leads to an interesting paradox, Harrington said: "It's a hydro dam, and it produces hydro power, and this town has not a drop of electricity in it."

In fact, Somerset seems designed to dissuade development or attention. Ten miles of dirt road lie between Route 9 and Somerset Reservoir, and it takes Harrington about an hour to get there even though he lives in the next town over.

His route covers about 26 miles, and "two and a half of it is blacktop," he said. "The rest is all dirt."

But Harrington isn't complaining. He seems to relish the job, and he says he actively sought Somerset's supervisory position after the previous supervisor resigned.

Gov. Phil Scott announced Harrington's Somerset position on Sept. 15 as part of more than 150 appointments to state boards and commissions.

Harrington notes that he first got the Glastenbury job from a Republican - former Gov. Jim Douglas - and he has landed the Somerset position from Scott, another member of the GOP. Harrington identifies himself as a staunch Republican and a conservative.

But, while there's lots of room to stretch your arms in Glastenbury and Somerset, Harrington says there's no room for politics.

"It's all about doing what's right for the position," he said in an interview on the banks of Somerset Reservoir. "I don't play politics. There's no reason to have politics in this town, or Glastenbury."

After all, the job doesn't exactly bring a financial windfall.

The state provides for a salary based on an unincorporated town's taxes. Harrington is budgeted to make $16,000 in Somerset, but he said Glastenbury's salary is much smaller - about $3,000.

So the 64-year-old is happy to keep his day job - running Harrington Steel LLC, a Bennington County fabrication company - while also fulfilling his town supervisory duties and serving on the board of Southwest Vermont Career Development Center.

Harrington says retirement wouldn't suit him.

"I'd probably play more golf and maybe drink more, and I don't think either one of those is particularly good for me," he said with a smile. "Especially in the wintertime, because there isn't that much golf I can play then."

Mike Faher reports for the Brattleboro Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.


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