It’s not official yet, but the Brattleboro Selectboard promised that the town will take steps to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a town holiday, despite concerns of complexity voiced by the Interim Town Manager and the results of an informal poll of town staff.
Sidewalk plowing on Cedar Street was debated, but with the snow season coming to an end the board decided to contemplate the issue for a while longer before making any decisions.
Duo gets a loan, CRT gets a memo of understanding, and the Fire Department is staffed well. All this and more follows below.
An occasionally giddy and somewhat silly Selectboard began their meeting Tuesday night with Chair David Gartenstein thanking those attending the informational town meeting last week. He said he looked forward to a lively discussion at Saturday’s Representative Town Meeting.
He also thanked his fellow Selectboard members for a “productive year” and their hard work. He said he looked forward to continuing to work with them next year.
Gartenstein said the Selectboard planned a trip to Montpelier next week to meet with the Governor, Senate President, Speaker of the House, and various agency representatives to discuss the economic challenges of being a regional hub, regional development issues, and road maintenance. “We’ll report back.”
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland had no opening remarks.
For Selectboard comments and committee reports, John Allen read Kate O’Connor’s birth certificate, testifying to her 50th birthday. He and the others wished her a happy birthday, and thanked O’Connor’s parents for supplying dinner.
David Schoales noted that the Energy Committee had won the Vermont Home Energy Challenge, and with it comes a $10,000 prize. He thanked Senator Galbraith for changes to the net metering bill, which will allow for solar panels at the landfill if we want them. He said the town could generate electricity and revenue. “A roadblock is gone.”
Donna Macomber thanked the Chair for his leadership style, and reported that the Arts Committee would be coming soon to talk to them about issues of diversity and accessibility, and how the arts can play a part. She appreciated that Brattleboro was facing challenging issues and addressing them with creativity.
Susan Rockwell, owner of a B&B at 19 Elm Street appeared before the board for a second time to again complain of police harassment at the direction of town staff and the town attorney. She was upset and complained that the law had been unequally applied to her and someone at her B&B.
Rockwell said she was arrested for trespassing on her own property, and that the police had helped a dangerous man re-enter her property. “I’ve been harassed by police and town officials. They said I’d be arrested if I didn’t turn the electricity back on. It’s outrageous,” she said. “I don’t know what’s behind this. Do I have an empty unit?”
Liquor and Tobacco Licenses
The Brattleboro Selectboard as Liquor Commissioners approved the (second) annual list of liquor and tobacco licenses en masse. Applicants were up-to-date and without recent violations.
Memo of Understanding With Connecticut River Transit
Brattleboro has agreed to pay $50,000 toward the operation of the bus service in Brattleboro. The Selectboard authorized the Interim Town Manager to sign a memo of understanding with Connecticut River Transit to seal the deal for another year.
Total cost of operating the three lines is nearly $360,000. Hinsdale, SIT, NH Job Access & Reverse Commute, and rider fares also contribute to the operation of the system. CRT had hoped for an additional $3,000, but the board stuck with last year’s level of contribution.
The Red, White, and Blue lines had a total ridership of 56,893 in FY13.
Gartenstein asked Randy Shoemaker of CRT how the public hearing had gone. Shoemaker said none of the 12 attendees liked ending general token sales, but were supportive of drivers and the system as a whole.
“I really like the transit,” said John Allen. “Can you wash the bus? It’s driving me crazy.”
Shoemaker said the closest place to wash them was currently Rockingham, but they were looking for better places to park and clean the busses near town.
Kate O’Connor asked when the new schedules would be ready. Shoemaker said 2-3 weeks. “We’re finishing up some maps,” he said.
Staffing Level Review - Fire Department
Recently, the Selectboard voted to review staffing levels of departments when vacancies occur. The first such vacancy, the departure of Gregory Seymour from the Brattleboro Fire Department, triggered Tuesday night’s discussion.
“We began this discussion in executive session,” said David Gartenstein, adding that nothing was discussed, “and will probably take no action.”
Patrick Moreland felt that current staffing levels should be maintained. He gave some background information to begin.
The board was told that the Fire Department has twenty five employees: three platoons of seven firefighters each, plus a fire alarm superintendent, office manager, assistant chief, and chief.
Union contracts stipulate that a minimum of six firefighters be on at a time for safety reasons. The board was told this can be difficult to maintain with platoons of seven due to sick days or vacations. When the numbers fall short, others are called in and are paid overtime (2.16 times their regular hourly rate.)
Moreland said Seymour was paid at level 4 and will be replaced by a level 1 firefighter, which could save about $15,000 a year in salary and tax obligations, depending on health care costs. Moreland said the health care costs could exceed the savings.
Chief Buccossi reported to the Selectboard on the implications of not filling the position, noting that it would throw off the balance of the shifts, making things less efficient and less safe. He thought the overtime costs would be significant.
David Schoales appreciated the presentation but felt any action or decisions would be premature. He wanted to see what other towns do, and what is recommended. “It looks cheaper to pay overtime than hire an additional employee ,” he said, “so, it points out to me we aren’t ready to do this until we have more information.”
Gartenstein asked the Chief why they needed a minimum of six firefighters at any given time.
“We work in pairs,” he said. “We make sure everything is done in teams. If we have two people inside, we should have at least two people outside able to rescue them.”
John Allen asked if these staffing levels were related to town size. Chief Buccossi said they try to follow national standards.
“The odd man is the pivot man who steps in. They have to know everything. That’s been my feeling,“ said Leon Boyd, a member of the public.
“Patrick will make a hire tomorrow,” said Gartenstein.
The board took no action, and David Schoales departed the meeting.
Monthly Finance Report with John O’Connor
Finance Director John O’Connor presented his monthly finance report for February 2014 to the Brattleboro Selectboard and made himself available, as always, for any questions they might have.
With 66.7% of the fiscal year complete, the General Fund expenses are at 70.9% of their annual budget. This includes a transfer to the Capital Fund.
Utilities Fund expenditures are at 61.9% and the Parking Fund expenditures are at 67.5% of their respective annual budgets. The Town has spent $181,777 for Police-Fire facilities thus far.
Just over $4 million has been loaned out, and just under $500,000 remains to be loaned out at this time.
There are 26 active grants and 19 in the application process.
The board got very confused, temporarily, over a question about $510,000 in capital transfers. Everyone struggled to explain how and where it came from.
John Allen asked where it came from. John O’Connor said it was unassigned.
Gartenstein recalled that there was a vote last year to take $765,000 from a surplus and apply it to this year’s budget, but wondered why it was showing up now.
Moreland clarified. The surplus was in the Capital fund, he said, and the way the motion was worded, it got transferred to the General Fund for Capital projects.
John O’Connor said the $510,000 was the amount paid back to the Capital fund from the General fund, to date.
“We’re spending it down by transferring it to the Capital fund from the General fund after it came from the Capital fund,” Patrick Moreland said, trying to be helpful.
“It’s coming from the committed fund balance,” said O’Connor. $765,000 will no longer be committed by the end of the year.”
“Next year we’ll show a gross deficit, and we had gross profit last year,” said Moreland. “The two years need to be looked at together.”
Farm Tax Stabilization Agreements
Amended ten-year farm tax stabilization agreements for the Thurber, Robb, Hamilton, Chamberlin and Bailey farms were approved by the Selectboard. The agreements help preserve farming activities in Brattleboro.
Moreland said the farms must demonstrate that 2/3 of their income comes from farming to qualify. If so, they are assessed at zero for municipal taxes, but are still required to pay education taxes.
Utility Ordinance Amendment -Second Reading and Public Hearing
Utility rates will go up, according to the second reading and public hearing for the ordinance that governs those rates.
The ordinance wasn’t actually read a second time, and no one participated in the public hearing, but the official bases were covered.
The Brattleboro Selectboard accepted and appropriated the barely enormous sum of $366 to support video conferencing at Brooks Memorial Library. The money comes from Google via the Vermont Department of Libraries to support use of their video conferencing product.
SBAP Loan for Duo Restaurant
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved a loan of $40,000 from the Small Business Assistance Program for Duo Restaurant, recent recipients of a liquor license for their soon-opening establishment in the renovated Brooks House.
The loan is contingent on a few other loans and promissory notes, and will be repaid over ten years with 3% interest added. Arnold said they’d be looking for additional funding, too.
Co-owner Keith Arnold told the board the money would help them finish. He said designs are ready to go out to bid, and they looked forward to working with local framers, ranchers, brewers and others for their farm to table concept.
Brattleboro grant manager Kim Ellison told the board that loan funds come from loan repayments to the town. “A business can apply for up to $40,000 for this sort of thing,” she said of the restaurant loan. She said a committee meets to review financials and plans, and they recommend this loan.
“A big endeavor!” said John Allen.
Additional Sidewalk Plowing of East Side of Cedar to Myrtle
The Traffic Safety Committee recommends that Brattleboro use the sidewalk plow to clear snow on the east side of Cedar Street between Western Avenue and Myrtle Street. Safer walking for school children is the reason.
The town currently plows 14.36 miles of Brattleboro’s 38 miles of sidewalk.
Gartenstein said the Traffic Safety Committee had made the recommendation to the board, and the board could decide what to do.
Patrick Moreland said due to budgetary restraints, the Town couldn’t increase plowing at this time. He also noted that the plow is wider than the sidewalk, and could potentially damage property along the route.
Steve Barrett and Hannah O’Connell of the Department of Public Works agreed.
“In 1995, we did 18 miles,” said Barrett, “and most of that neighborhood had the plowing. The department reduced employees, and the policy has been that requests for any additional plowing comes before the board. He said the number of sidewalk miles plowed had been reduced, but was creeping back up which adds service costs.
Those costs are hard to quantify, though. “It’s cumulative,” said O’Connell. “Overtime and wear and tear. It takes 16 hours to do the route once.” She said Cedar Street would be a narrow sidewalk for the tractor.
Moreland said another cost is to the amount of time it takes to clean up after a storm, “which the public already finds frustrating. If you add additional service, it will take even longer.”
“Should the program be revised?” asked John Allen, wondering if some other sidewalks could be dropped from the sidewalk plow map.
Barrett said they reconsider the route every year. “If traffic patterns change, we look at that area more closely. At budget time, we look at what we can save.”
“Why Cedar to Myrtle?”asked Donna Macomber. Barrett said a crossing guard saw a Green Street school student slide off a snowbank into traffic.
Gartenstein said the crossing guard asked for it to be plowed to Acorn Lane, but resident asked that it continue all the way until the sidewalk ends on Cedar, to accommodate a disabled child. They settled on Myrtle for the request.
“If the plow can’t do it,” said Allen, “it is moot.”
“We can do sidewalks other ways, too.” assured Barrett. “We do Grove Street with a grader.”
“We could ponder this,” suggested O’Connor.
Gartenstein said he walked on the plowed sidewalks and didn’t necessarily find them safer than walking in the road. He said the town plows many sidewalks for students going to schools, and asked the Town Manager to schedule a meeting with the school district to see if they could contribute to the safety of kids walking to schools. “It does seem that the school district should have some part of the responsibility for safe routes to school. They need to look at these issues and look for funding to support it.”
Mr. Boyd said he liked snowblowing his neighbors walks for the exercise. He appreciated what the DPW did with limited staff and equipment. He also wanted to note that kids had been climbing over the St. Michael’s cemetery fence, and suggested they are doing it to avoid cars.
Nancy Braus wondered if the owners of Lawton Dry Cleaners was fined for not cleaning their sidewalk for months this winter. “This was treacherous. What’s the story?”
Moreland said he had just learned of this problem. “If we get another storm, we’ll reach out.”
“It was an ice sheet for three months,” said Braus.
“I’m on it,” assured Moreland.
The board passed on taking any immediate action. He thanked the DPW for their memo on cost overruns associated with winter storm cleanup.
Committee and Board Appointments
The Selectboard approved John Wilmerding II to be on the Connecticut River Transit Board of Directors, and Leon Boyd, Jr. as Town Service Officer. Town Service Officers help needy Vermonters obtain assistance through state programs.
Holidays in Brattleboro
A request from Nancy Braus for the Town to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a holiday was discussed and generally supported by the four members of the Selectboard late into Tuesday night’s meeting.
In her letter to the board she told them “Every year we have local residents and customers from out of town who find it disconcerting, unsettling, backwards, and, to some, racist that the town collects parking fines on Martin Luther King day, but no other major holidays.” She said she hoped the town would “enter the current century” and make a statement with a change in policy.
At the meeting she said “It’s morally wrong that we don’t consider Martin Luther King day a holiday. I have to explain our town to customers each year. Enough is enough.”
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland recommended the board not add any new days to the schedule, citing complications and difficulties that would arise from such a move. Labor agreements would need to negotiated. “Managing a fair system of holidays for a business this size is a little tricky.”
He said there were already too many holidays from November to February, and too few the rest of the year, leading to an “imbalance.”
He said he asked department heads and they spoke to their staff. “The overwhelming thrust of the staff was to ask that the present holiday status be maintained,” he reported, adding that maybe we could recognize the value of Dr. Martin Luther King. ”Staff are in favor of keeping it as is.”
Kate O’Connor objected. “I don’t like the thought that it is just a day off. It’s supposed to mean something.”
“It means different things to different people,” said Moreland.
O’Connor said they needed to switch another day and make Martin Luther King day a holiday. “It’s a holiday, not a day off. With the contracts, will there be a revolt?”
“I’d like to believe the unions will see the switch as fair,” answered Moreland.
“I’m bugged by wanting a day off and not celebrating the holiday,” said O’Connor.
John Allen said he agreed with O’Connor and Braus. “Most people really look at a day off as a day off. Maybe the people I know just want a day off. Is there a compromise?”
“I’m for switching this out,” said O’Connor. “What compromise?”
Allen said he could see the problem of logistics and the importance of Dr. King.
Jan Anderson suggested the board designate another day entirely, to celebrate Dr. King and others who do great things for people. She suggested renaming Columbus day to Diversity Day, for all who do things for human rights.
To that, Mr. Boyd objected. “Columbus Day is in the history books. You can’t take it out.” He said he thought Dr. King needed to be recognized on his own, distinct additional holiday. “Don’t remove a day. Trust me. It will cause more problems than you need.”
Gartenstein noted that the votes were there to make the change, but they would wait and get a report on the logistics from Moreland before voting for Martin Luther King day to be a holiday in Brattleboro. He expected they would take the issue up again in six to ten weeks.
“I’m in favor of this,” said Allen. “It just bugs me that people don’t appreciate the day they are taking off.”
Braus had two final comments. She reminded the board that there is a non-white population in Brattleboro. “It’s not an all white town.” She also told them that she was impressed that they are taking the harder path and making it an official holiday. “It’s symbolic, but I feel strongly.
The board assigns the duty of signing warrants to a single Selectperson for equal portions of the year. In order, Donna Macomber, David Schoales, John Allen, David Gartenstein, and Kate O’Connor will take their turns.
Assignment of Motions
The board also assigns each motion for Representative Town Meeting to individual Selectboard members to read at the meeting.
“If there are any you don’t want, David [Schoales] can read them,” joked David Gartenstein.
David Schoales will read all of them, jokes the writer of this story.
Not really. The board will equally share the responsibility for the 22 articles.
Schedule Special Organizational Meeting
The Brattleboro Selectboard scheduled an organizational meeting for March 24 at 8 am (or maybe 5 p.m.) to swear in newly re-elected board members and decide officers for the coming year.
Schedule Selectboard Goals Meeting
The board passed on the setting of their goals meeting until after town meeting and their meeting in Montpelier.