With ‘no direct financial incentive,’ can Burlington get Telecom back on track?


NOW HIRING: Burlington Telecom offers $19.70 an hour for help-desk employees as scandal controversy continues.

By Jon Street | Vermont Watchdog

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Burlington Telecom is hiring.

The municipal broadband company, owned by the city of Burlington, has been at the center of a years-long controversy that is costing Burlington city taxpayers millions while providing service to just 4,000 subscribers. Now, the financially battered company is seeking to continue support for its customer base by hiring two “help desk technicians.”

The new hires would keep the number of help desk technicians at four. That equals a single help-desk technician for every 1,000 network subscribers.

According to the job description offered by the city’s Human Resources Department, each technician will be paid $19.70 an hour and eligible for a full-benefits package equal to 50 percent of their annual wages. Before taxes, the wage and benefits combined is the equivalent to $1,182 per week. The city uses “50 percent of salary or 50 percent of wage” to calculate the cost of benefits, said Ben Pacy, a human resources generalist.

“For every employee it’s different,” Pacy said “Some employees don’t take the benefit package.”

For an employee who does opt for the benefits, it’s “pretty much a full package,” Pacy said, including health care, dental care, retirement, short-term disability and long-term disability.

So what does a help-desk analyst do each day?

“They’re a little bit more technical than a customer service rep, but they don’t handle any of the billing aspects of it,” Pacy said. “So you would call and say I can’t figure out how to get channel 22 on my television. They would talk you through that.”

Julie Hulburd, another of Burlington’s human resources generalist, said the help desk employees also would respond to basic and technical questions by email or over the telephone and help with some troubleshooting.

If they can’t fix the problem, the help-desk employee would schedule and dispatch an outside tech.

While the job doesn’t seem too demanding, and the offered wage is more than double the state’s minimum wage, the right candidates will need to hold at least an associate degree “in computer science, information science or a related field.”

“… four years comparable experience as a (help desk or) customer service representative may be substituted for the educational requirements,” reads the advertisement on the city’s website.

It might seem like a harmless move at first, but given the boondoggle Burlington Telecom has become for city taxpayers, it’s questionable whether the government should even be involved in this business in the first place.

“A lot of them aren’t business people by and large,” said Andrew Moylan. Moylan is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based free-market think tank who spoke with Vermont Watchdog about a government’s ability to create and maintain such a business.

“I don’t know about Burlington in particular, but (in) a lot of municipalities … these are not people who are engaged full time in operating something that has a real bottom line in terms of (having) a business aspect to it,” Moylan said.

“I think it’s really unfair both to ask of them and for them to ask of taxpayers to allow them to run these sorts of businesses when these are high stakes we’re talking about — real large amounts of money that are placed on the backs of taxpayers. From my perspective, it’s the wrong thing to do at public expense when private businesses exist to serve these sorts of demands.”

Moylan said that unlike private businesses, a government has “no direct financial incentive” to get it right.

“A private business has the incentive to get it right because if they don’t, they will go out of business,” he said. “They will cease to exist. That risk is diminished substantially for municipalities because they can always lean on taxpayers for more money to bail out whatever failing project it might be that’s causing a problem.”

Burlington Telecom offers three basic services to its customers — cable, telephone and high-speed internet. Customers can choose from 11 “bundles,” or purchase services individually. Telecom’s cheapest bundle is $50 a month, while the most expensive bundle is $175 a month.

Contact Jon Street at jstreet@watchdog.org and find him on Twitter @JonStreet.

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