RUTLAND >> A group opposing refugee resettlement in the area has called on local legislators to press the State Department to block establishment of a new resettlement site until more of the application has been made public and the city's Board of Aldermen is fully engaged in the process.
The plea came at the end of a two-hour presentation Monday evening organized by the group Rutland First that included discussion of the application process, Rutland's capacity for taking in refugees, potential fiscal effects on the city, and the process of vetting refugees before they enter the country.
In addition, the audience heard from Patrick Long, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives who is an alderman in the city of Manchester, which has been a resettlement site since the mid-1990s. He offered his assessment of the mostly positive impacts of accepting refugees.
One of the event's organizers, Matt Howland, indicated that mistrust surrounding the plan runs deep. "A veil of secrecy, dishonesty and lack of transparency has continued and only intensified as local leaders and Rutland First members have sought information and answers to vital questions," Howland said.
Rutland County Sens. Kevin Mullin, Brian Collamore and Peg Flory said they will not sign the letter asking the State Department to hold off, but they say they support efforts to open up the process and obtain more information.
"I'm not willing to just sign the letter that was presented to us," said Mullin, adding that the delegation was not made aware of the letter before the meeting.
After the meeting, the three Republican senators agreed to draft their own letter asking for greater transparency and all documents that have been requested under the Freedom of Information Act.
"I believe that release of the requested information would be helpful to 'clear the air' and identify any legitimate concerns," Flory said.
"A lot of constituents want information," said Mullin. "We're doing the best we can to get that information."
Both Mullin and Collamore said they had not been approached by Rutland's Board of Aldermen.
Rutland state Reps. Butch Shaw and Larry Cupoli also said they would not sign the letter presented at the meeting.
Rep. Thomas Terenzini said he hadn't had a chance to look at the letter but that local politicians were "in a tough situation." Terenzini noted it's an election year and said the city "is pretty divided."
Reps. Dennis Devereux and Doug Gage, who were also at the meeting, could not be reached for comment.
Applications for refugee resettlement in Vermont are written and submitted by the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nongovernmental organization. The committee's Vermont affiliate is the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
Much of Monday night's meeting focused on USCRI's handling of the refugee resettlement application for Rutland and the fact the Board of Aldermen wasn't included in the decision-making process. In late April, Mayor Chris Louras made the announcement that Rutland was being proposed as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrians. Of the board members, only President William Notte had been notified in advance. The application was submitted weeks later.
On July 5 the board drafted its own letter to the State Department withholding support for the program until more information was made available and the board was included in meetings with USCRI. The board voted 7 to 3 to send the letter.
The Board of Aldermen, Rutland First and others have tried to obtain the full application through Freedom of Information Act requests. The State Department has said the document will be available once cooperative agreements have been finalized with national agencies regarding resettlement. A decision on resettlement is now expected in October.
So far a three-page abstract included in the application has been released. The head of the refugee resettlement program in Vermont has said a more detailed section dealing with Rutland is about 10 pages.
Beyond the issue of transparency, Rutland First contends the city lacks the economic resources to support a refugee population. David O'Brien, former executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., presented figures showing Rutland lagging the rest of the state on key economic indicators such as unemployment and wage growth. "Based on the numbers," O'Brien said, "I see we are in very tough shape economically."
"On the scale of 100 refugees being proposed," he added, "I don't see how that is something we can bear."
City Treasurer Wendy Wilton predicted a significant jump in property taxes based on increases in spending.
Chris Ettori, a member of the Board of Aldermen who supports resettlement, said he was disappointed to see Wilton and O'Brien paint such a gloomy picture of Rutland's economic well-being. According to Ettori, REDC is working to reverse the city's declining population and revive the economy.
"That negative perspective of Rutland doesn't do us any favors as we try to move forward," Ettori said.
Wilton predicted that based on the "forecasted impact of refugee resettlement," property taxes in the city would increase 35 percent over the next five years. The figure is based on a more than $600,000 increase in the city's municipal budget from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2018 and substantially larger increases in subsequent years. It also assumes a roughly 7 percent annual increase in the Rutland public school budget from fiscal 2017 to 2018 and through 2022.
Louras said he has not discussed his budget with Wilton. Louras is currently drafting next year's budget and plans to present it to the board Nov. 1. The mayor has said repeatedly that his budget will not include funding for refugee resettlement.
Louras said the projected 35 percent increase in property taxes as a result of resettlement was "a complete fabrication."
"It is a lie," he said, "and the treasurer is completely making numbers up for the purpose of furthering her biased agenda."
School Superintendent Mary Moran said the school system has capacity to serve new students learning English and doesn't anticipate anywhere near a 7 percent annual increase in the budget. "Those numbers don't make any sense to us," she said.
The final speaker of the evening was Long, the New Hampshire official, who offered a view of refugee resettlement that often contradicted the claims made by Rutland First.
He said there were challenges early on in large part because the program was not well understood and communication between the city and the resettlement agency was poor. The agency working in Manchester, The International Institute of New Hampshire, is also an affiliate of USCRI.
Long said Manchester experienced some of the same problems obtaining information that Rutland has encountered and that the resettlement agency wasn't following up with families after the first few months. But things improved, he said, after the city's Board of Aldermen took on a greater role in the program, along with church groups and nonprofits.
The total number of refugees coming in on a yearly basis also declined, from 350 to between 150 and 120.
Today the refugee population is an important part of the workforce, has a high rate of high school graduation and college attendance, and is not a burden on the city, Long said.
Presenter Gary Shattuck said refugees pose a security threat, and he predicted the system would be exploited by members of terrorist groups. Long, however, said Manchester has been taking in Iraqi refugees for the last three to four years and hasn't had issues with security or crime.
"I'm not giving you what I think," Long said. "I'm giving you my experience of the refugee population."