A Tale of Two Cities


The southeast corner of Vermont, that includes Brattleboro and Windham County, is a unique place. There is an abundance of people whose sense of fair play compels them to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to commitment to social, political and economic issues.

Although there are what some might consider too many non-profit organizations, local people are generous and give time and money freely when they see a need. Windham County has a reputation of being a very liberal area and that has most people characterizing it as a harbor for activists who consider themselves far to the left on the political spectrum.

While Windham County votes more to the left, there is also room for all opinions. Part of the charm and attraction of the area is that it generally accepts all and does not exclude divergent opinions. The recent debate over the problems related to homelessness and opioid addiction are a good example.

Non-profit and human service agency leaders have come together with law enforcement and municipal officials to work on solutions to these all too visible problems. Their approach has been humane and inclusive and that is something that makes all of us better human beings.

But there is another side of Brattleboro that needs to be considered unless we all want to wear the label of Pollyanna. We need to be mindful of how the more influential organizations in our area operate. Consider Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH) and the Brattleboro Reformer as examples.

Both organizations serve the community well. The staff who work at these places constantly display a high level of professionalism, but their efforts are not always rewarded enough by the people at the top of these organizations. Despite a disconnect that may exist between staff and management of these two places, we can rest assured that high quality medical care is always available in this community and that there will always be a daily newspaper to tell us some of the local news.

Looking at some of the finances of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital based on IRS 990 forms from the period of 10/1/16-9/30/17 will shed some light on one type of disconnect. During that time period BMH paid out $43,848,151 in salaries, other compensation and employee benefits to its roughly 500 employees.

The ten highest paid employees earned about $3,864,000 of the total in salaries, other compensation and employee benefits. That is nine percent of total payroll for two percent of the staff. That two percent is part of the one percent Bernie Sanders often rails against. Six of the ten are MD’s and they earned over $2,856,000 and averaged a yearly salary of $476,000 in a range from $770,597 to $301,714. (How can a salary of over $700,000 a year be justified for anyone, MD or CEO, in this area?)

Four of the ten are administrators and they earned a total of $1,010,000 with an average annual salary of $252,000 in a range from $372,632 to $188,182. There is no doubt MD’s and upper level administrators should earn more than others in a medical organization, but the gap between these ten and the rest of the 500 employees points out that the world of economic and social inequality also exists in places within our small community.

We may not be able to change this kind of inequality, but it is a symptom of a society with a reward system that needs to be changed if we are ever going to solve any of the social, economic and political problems that need fixing.

The finances of the Brattleboro Reformer and their tax returns are not public information. There may be as much of a gap between staff and management at the Reformer but, chances are, we will never see those numbers.

The Reformer has control over the flow of information in this community and that is no small thing. They had a monopoly on information for many years but with the addition of The Commons and social media that monopoly is gone. They are the paper of record and we need to know when they could be doing a better job.

The current local staff is seasoned, professional and hard-working, but if the Reformer had more reporters on staff they certainly could provide greater in depth reporting and more comprehensive local coverage.

I recently severed my 25 year relationship with the Reformer and I want to make that bias clear. An incident a number of months ago made it clear to me that the Reformer has more potential power than many of us realize.

I wrote a column critical of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital based on facts presented in a letter to the editor to local media. My column was printed when one of the Reformer editors was on vacation and when he returned he blasted me for what he perceived to be a column that could open his paper to a lawsuit. I don’t know who approved publication of the column in his absence.

BMH officials called the Reformer and I was put on notice that from that day forward my columns would be reviewed by three editors before publication. I should have severed ties with the Reformer then but I accepted my punishment. A column about BMH in subsequent weeks was edited more than usual by the Reformer but the unedited version ran in the Commons. A Reformer editor accused me of having a vendetta against BMH. Nothing could be further from the truth. Right after the publication of that column in The Commons I learned that BMH stopped advertising in The Commons. I do not know if they have resumed using that advertising venue.

Advertising dollars mean a lot to a newspaper and BMH buys advertising. They also control a lot more than most of us in this community will ever know. We all need to find ways to do a better job of looking at how power is used locally. We have an obligation to make those in power more accountable to the community if we are to maximize our efforts to promote social and economic justice.

Comments | 2

  • Maximum wage

    “They had a monopoly on information for many years but with the addition of The Commons and social media that monopoly is gone.”

    One historical detail: iBrattleboro broke that monopoly in 2003, before the start of the weekly paper and corporate social media. : )

    One of the reasons we started iBrattleboro as an alternative local news source (and helped start the Commons) was just for these reasons – the paper wasn’t doing a good job (16 years ago…), people crave news about where they live, and we knew that residents here are smart enough, when they choose to, to write about it. We also feared living in a place with a single news outlet.

    Our model doesn’t rely on advertising (though we like sharing our audience with local businesses that would like to reach them.) Readers might remembers that BMH used to buy ads here. They started advertising after some critical reviews appeared, and stopped when staff changed in the marketing department.

    “How can a salary of over $700,000 a year be justified for anyone, MD or CEO, in this area?”

    That’s about $350/hr. It can’t really be justified, but usually is defended by saying it a going rate and to attract high quality employees one must pay competitive salaries.

    $700,000k spread out could give $33k to 21 people each year. (Maybe rather than hire one at $700,000 BMH should hire three at $35k and shave some costs? : ) )

    I’m all for a maximum wage. An individual is simply not worth that much more than another. We’re more or less equal beings at the core. I can see getting a bit of a bonus for special talents or skills, and I don’t mind raises to reward long-time employees, but it really is time to stop paying some people small fortunes and others nothing at all.

  • To clarify: To my knowledge, BMH never retaliated again

    To clarify: To my knowledge, BMH never retaliated against The Commons by pulling any advertising — at least not that I know of. If they were upset by Richard’s contribution in our pages, they never let us know about it. (If you’re going to make a statement, it’s counterproductive not to be explicit. Right?)

    BMH has been a big advertiser over the years. (So, for that matter, have the Retreat and the Co-op.) All have been treated critically in our pages in both our news reporting and opinion in our Voices section.

    We love our advertisers because they make our newspaper possible. But we don’t love them so much that we won’t piss them off. Reporting and criticism is essential, and I hope when we do so, we do it fairly and reasonably. That, in turn, makes a good, honest, principled newspaper and earns respect and readership. And … guess what. That means it’s an even better advertising venue when it does its work properly.

    Nobody likes being pilloried in the newspaper (and I’ve personally taken some shots this summer because of decisions I’ve made), but I hope people will respect it, engage with it, respond to it, and be better for it. And advertise in it. Ditto for iBrattleboro.

    —Jeff Potter, editor, The Commons

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