Conjuring visions of budgets past, the Brattleboro Selectboard discussed pay As You Throw and the 1% local sales tax as possible revenue-raisers for the town. This was in reaction to Tuesday evening's dire forecasts for the FY15 budget and associated taxes that property owners will likely encounter.
ASL interpreters gave an account of the meeting to the hearing impaired for the first time, both the Planning Services and Library department reports were presented to the board, Strand Avenue will eventually be repaired, and the cost for using a tower on Wantastiquet jumps from $10 to $12,000 per year. And, of course, much more.
BCTV technical difficulties delayed the start of the meeting. A blank screen alternated with a blue screen (of joy?) for a few minutes.
The meeting began for viewers with a blue screen, but the audio worked.
Chair David Gartenstein said that he saw sheep grazing on Solar Hill a few days ago (see Photo Fun). They don’t have a permit, he said, but he looks forward to seeing them again.
In bigger news, he spoke of the closing of VY. He said that when he ran for office, all of the candidates spoke of closing VY. He said the town voted 2-1 for a resolution to close the plant. “It’s the culmination of years of effort by those wishing to see a transition to green energy,” he said. “We congratulate those who worked in that effort.”
Gartenstein said he wanted to make sure the plant was cleaned up safely and that the “economic dislocation is mitigated.” He pointed to the needs of area businesses who say they lack qualified applicants for tech jobs as a possible way for VY employees to stay in the area. “We look forward to continued economic strength and growth.”
Gartenstein said he’d request a report from the Department of Public Works later in the meeting to discuss stalled work, again, at Strand Avenue.
His final remark was a proclamation honoring 30 year police officer and long-time, active American Legion participant Sherwood Lake, Sr.
The television screen flickered from blue to black, then came to life with the board and a new ASL interpreter in the lower corner of the screen.
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland also spoke about the closing of VY, saying that the next decade will be more challenging than in years past. “There will be a slow decline. Future boards will have a harder time with budgets.”
He hoped people would again look at the post-VY report at the SeVEDS site.
Moreland said Brattleboro was just notified that the town surpassed the state Energy Leadership Challenge, a 7.5% goal for energy reduction, and that the new Waste Water Treatment Plant helped us in passing the goal. Efficiency Vermont issues the challenge results.
“I’m not as jubilant about VY’s closing,” said John Allen during Selectboard Comments. “We have rough roads ahead. We’ll get through it, but I’m not as excited as other people. It will effect our budget.”
Kate O’Connor agreed. “Whether you know it or not, you know someone who works there or does business with someone at VY. We need to remain vigilant in letting the rest of the state know we need their assistance.”
She promoted a BaBB-organized meeting on September 9 at 5 p.m. at the Latchis to discuss visions of downtown. She said consultants were coming “at the behest of the state of Vermont” in response to Irene.
O’Connor also praised the chocolate chip pancakes served at a recent Fire Department pancake breakfast.
David Schoales said that town electric bills are down now that new streetlights are in. Gartenstein reminded people they can ask to turn them off and help save the town money.
Donna Macomber made note that board meetings are now ASL interpreted. “Thanks to the town for setting it up.”
A man rose and told the board that “the paper on your table” represents an effort in town to attract partners, and is “a human services outlook on the way we talk about community development.” He said he brought it to their attention for further discussion.
Liquor Commissioners - The Return of Arkham
At the June 4 meeting, the downtown establishment Arkham was granted an outdoor consumption permit for a year, but the board was unsure of the impact their decision might have on the community. They decided at that meeting to revisit their decision by inviting the owners back after 90 days.
Alan Blackwell and Alyssa Blittersdorf, co-owners of the establishment at 16 Harmony Place, represented their business.
Blackwell thanked the board for the permit. “It has been wonderful. It’s been a lot of fun and a fluid extension of how we’ve done business.”
He said they had done a survey of neighbors last week in preparation for the meeting and the results were positive. People told them it was a safe, social place, it looks inviting, the staff handle things well, it is lively, and that the safety in Harmony Lot has increased with a “public eye” to ward off bad elements in the parking area.
The Brattleboro Police said there were no objections to the outside permit continuing, but sent the Selectboard a report with limited interactions with Arkham since the approval, such as having chairs and tables in the outside area. There was also one altercation with patrons in Harmony Lot in July.
The Fire Department’s only interaction was to help someone who was stuck in their bathroom, which led to door repairs.
John Allen said his sons enjoy the place and like the outside area. “Nothing but good feedback,” he relayed.
Donna Macomber said she had heard favorable things and felt it should keep going.
David Schoales thanked them for their great attitude.
David Cadran said that he enjoys the establishment he describes to friends as a “classy dive bar.” He said it was clean and there was no tolerance for riff raff. “As a minority in town, my safety is something I take into consideration and I feel very safe going there.” He suggested the board allow the bar to install a rail to rest drinks on if tables and chairs weren’t allowed.
Amy Gallant said she was in favor of outside consumption. “It’s a success for a small business. I own Humble Kitchen on Flat Street. When we’re around, troubles move on. Business improves a situation.”
Blackwell asked the board if they could have a ledge for drinks and a bench to sit on.
David Gartenstein said it was a fire safety and zoning issue.
"It sounds so simple and innocuous,” said John Allen. “I’m inclined to say try it, as long as it is legal.”
“The permit relates to your property, not town property,” said Gartenstein. “A change of use doesn’t come to us.” He suggested they go to the Zoning, Police and Fire departments for guidance.
David Cadran encouraged those in the Zoning, Police and Fire departments to look to Burlington for ideas. He said they had multiple outdoor seating areas.
“That’s a completely different area,” cautioned Allen.
“It’s a leading example in the state of Vermont,” countered Cadran. “Some things could be learned.”
“There’s no traffic on Church Street,” said Allen, before Gartenstein ended the discussion.
Water & Sewer Commissioners - Abatement
The water and sewer balances for four Tri Park homes destroyed during Irene were abated by the Brattleboro Selectboard Tuesday evening.
The debris has been removed, utilities turned off, and the lots will no longer be used for development.
Properties included are 28 Brookwood, 36 Brookwood, 46 Village Drive, and 10 Winding Hill Road. The total abatement of outstanding bills is just over $1,300.
“It’s a very good thing,” said John Allen.
Planning Services Departmental Report
Planning Services Director Rod Francis gave his department’s presentation to the board at Tuesday’s meeting. He gave the board printed copies of the new Town Plan and also handed the board copies of the new Town Plan on USB flash drive. He said the library has copies for the public to read.
“This beats the Fire Department presentation,” joked John Allen.
“That was my goal,” said Francis before begin his report.
Francis told the Brattleboro Selectboard that the Planning Department’s three major roles are plan drafting and implementation, land development issues, and information systems such as maps and records.
Planning involves engagement with the public, boards and commissions, committees, other agencies and interested parties. The department works to develop plans, create action steps, draft regulations, provide support, write grants, and manage projects. This results in meetings, plans, projects, and regulations for land use.
Land development involves working with the Development Review Board, property owners, and others to review applications, hold hearings, and have “on the record reviews” of projects. This work leads to “defendable” regulatory decisions, effective records, and certifications. Neighbors and abutters are included in the review of applications.
Information systems are for the public, professionals, and staff to use to access and maintain land records, information sources, geo ID, and GIS data in maps. The result, says Francis, is accurate land records, data on municipal projects, efficient process with forms, as well as web-based and special purpose maps.
There are four full-time employees in the department. 50% of their time is spent on planning activities, 40% on land development, and 10% on information systems. Information systems is taking up more time as the town does more with it, said Francis, but the efficiencies it generates is a plus.
The number of permits hovers around 200 per year. Last year, 223 permits were sought and 216 were granted. In 2008, the numbers were 226 and 214 respectively.
“We have large commercial projects and small projects, but not much in between,” said Francis, “and low subdivision activity. Brattleboro has had the same population for almost 100 years. It hasn’t shrunken, and it hasn’t grown.”
Brattleboro saw 6 new residential and 1 new commercial lots created in 2012.
Upcoming work includes a rewrite of Brattleboro’s zoning ordinances which could cost as much as $100,00. Possible funding might include a state Municipal Planning Grant and a town match for a total of $26,000.
The rewrite will require two teams of consultants, said Francis. One to do the general rewrite and a specialist to help with environmental standards, like fluvial erosion.
A new draft is expected late in 2014.
“Much of your work is statutorily mandated,” noted David Gartenstein.
“Yes,” answered Francis. “And making the most of opportunities that arise.”
Questions about a 5% decrease or decrease were not asked of the Planning Department.
Brooks Memorial Library Departmental Report
Library Director Jerry Carbone was the second departmental presenter of the evening. He was joined by Jeanne Walsh, reference librarian.
Carbone began with some history. The library began as a private subscription library in 1842 that became a public library in 1886. It grew and expanded to become a municipal department in the 1960’s when the current building was built.
Carbone said the library uses strategic planning to serve its mission and identify priorities. The mission is to provide collections and services that support the learning, information, personal enrichment, and leisure needs of people of all ages in the Brattleboro community.
Today, that means access to printed and electronic publications using current technologies, hosting public meetings and events, and attracting patrons of all ages. “It’s a change of the use of the space,” he told the board.
The most recent priorities (2012-2016) are to support young readers from early literacy on, satisfy the curiosity of library users through life-long learning, be connected online, stimulate imaginations through resources for reading, viewing, and listening, and provide access to welcoming physical and virtual spaces for library users. New videoconferencing equipment will be available soon.
The priorities get organized into 23 objectives and 46 tasks, such as migrating to the Catamount Library Network, developing the Teen Board, and collaborate with the schools.
Carbone said the library is actually two departments, Adult Services and Children’s Services, and each is supported by circulation, reference, online, and technical services. There are six full-time, eight part-time, two on-call, and 35 volunteer staff. Six have professional library degrees.
Brooks Memorial Library is number one in the state of libraries our size for registered borrowers and interlibrary loan circulation. There are 73,250 books, and 6,047 tapes, DC’s and DVDs in the collection. Circulation is just over 177,000 per year. The web site gets 47,000 visits per year.
Over 15,000 reference questions were answered last year.
Funding comes from taxes, grants, non-resident user fees, and Friends of the Library benefits. Carbone told the board that the library will begin an annual appeal next year to increase regular revenue.
He said the new Catamount Library Network is helping to reduce interlibrary loan costs by allowing easier sharing of books. More volumes are available to patrons. There will be 250,000 titles available by the end of 2014. It uses open source software, which saves money to maintain.
The library will be connected to high speed fiber in the next month allowing faster access to digital content. Some of the library spaces will be reconfigured as well.
eBooks and Audiobooks are increasingly popular with patrons and have made Brooks Memorial Library the second ranked digital circulation desk in the state.
Carbone reported that a 5% reduction would result in severe cuts to acquisitions.
A 5% increase would be used to restore hours lost over the last 30 years, and also to sustain staff dedicated to young adults, lifelong learning, and digital content services.
John Allen asked if the digital age scares them.
Carbone said the Pew Center said the use of libraries by young people is steady. “Kids still like to hold books.” He noted that digital book use is leveling off a bit, too.
Walsh gave the board a tour of the Library’s web site.
She demonstrated that library card holders can access extra material on the site, such as databases including the Reformer archive with full articles, the small business resource center with sample business plans, and a testing and education center with sample tests and career tools. Online courses with instructors, a virtual reference library, access to Consumer Reports, and language instruction were some of the other features available. (Learn to talk “Pirate” using Mango.)
Allen said it emphasized his concern. “You can do this without entering the library.”
“You need a library card,” countered Carbone.
Walsh added that their goals included creating welcoming physical spaces, saying that feedback showed users want the library to be social environment in which to meet.
Williams Street Road Project
Lane Construction will mill and resurface 1,400 feet of Williams Street, between Elliot and Brannon. The road was damaged during Irene and the Federal Highway Administration is funding the $57,770 project.
Manning Construction has just completed new sidewalks along this stretch of road.
Total bids for both repairs was $31,235 below estimated costs, according to the Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett. “We’ll submit for less than what we originally thought.”
“But we’re not saving any money on the Town budget,” lamented Gartenstein.
Kate O’Connor asked why there was only one bid. Barrett said the other’s schedules, complications of the contract, and competition with other projects may have been the reason.
Cooke Road Preliminary Engineering
Clough, Harbor and Associates of Keene, NH was awarded a $16,000 contract for preliminary engineering services to replace the washed out Cooke Road Bridge. It is an approved FEMA project, as it was destroyed during Irene.
DPW staff looked at experience with Vermont bridges and FEMA, time schedules, and cost to determine the best candidate.
Hannah O’Connell said an engineering and construction company will collaborate to do the complete project. She warned that the engineering could find problems that could cause the project to be delayed.
Clough, Harbor has worked on many FEMA projects in Vermont, said O’Connell.
John Allen asked why they didn’t take the lowest bid of $9,000.
Barrett said their experience comes first, then their bids are considered. The total cost of the project is unknown.
Gartenstein then asked about Strand Avenue delays, his question from the top of the meeting.
Barrett said the size of the blocks has been corrected, there have been meetings with neighbors and email alerts, and road width markers were put on the street to help residents visualize the roadway.
“August 2nd was a shutdown,” he explained, “to wait for new blocks that need to cure for 28 days.”
He said the contractor was coming on Thursday to resume work. “We hope to finish by early November.”
FY15 Budget Preliminary Discussions
The General Fund budget is the annual working budget for the town, and each year the Selectboard takes on the responsibility of putting together a budget that will appeal to Representative Town Meeting members.
In previous years, the board has held about eight meetings (including an all-day Saturday marathon) to get to a final budget, but some of that time was meeting with departments. This year the board got started early.
David Gartenstein said he wondered if board members had any goals or suggestions for what should be considered so that town staff will have guidance and direction preparing numbers.
“Last year, there wasn’t direction before or afterwards, or discussions about what we want to achieve. I want to start it early and deliberately,” he said.
He said the current budget is just about $14.9 million, and in FY15 there will be added costs associated with bond interest repayments. “The additional bond payment will be significant,” he said. “A substantial increase.”
“Our heavy year,” added John Allen.
Gartenstein said there would be significant budget pressure this year and the total could reach $15.3 - $15.5 million for the year. “Just to run at status quo, there could be an increase without the interest payments.”
Kate O’Connor said she understands people are concerned about taxes and said that “everything is on the table for me.” She said the board had to come into this “with everything on the table so we’ll have a clear perspective.”
“This is the year there is no sacred cow,” agreed John Allen. “It’s not a personal thing. This year will be very tough to try to maintain a balanced budget. Southern Vermont is hurting and needs to find out why and adjust accordingly. This year we’ll have to adjust. This is a belt-tightening year.”
Donna Macomber called it “a sobering and important task.”
“We’re up to the task.” said David Schoales. “We’ve worked together for a few months and have listened to each other. It’s going to be hard.”
He said they needed to revisit the 1% sales and use tax as a source of revenue. ”People use our services but they don’t pay. We need to get money from them. We don’t want to raise taxes or cut programs.”
He said he didn’t see any fat in the budget. “There’s nothing in the budget we don’t need.” He just wanted to find a way to pay for things other than with property taxes.
Patrick Moreland said he could produce a number of budget scenarios for them to consider. He also cautioned that there were major capital expenses planned for 2015 that might have the be reexamined. “It’s going to be a different year entirely.”
Gartenstein asked that he bring back a level funded budget, and a level services budget. He said it would be understood that at this point, the bond payments will be added on top of what is prepared.
He said the town would need to begin the state-mandated switch to Pay As You Throw. “It won’t be up for voter approval, the legislature said this is the way it is going to be.” He said the town would need to collect money from the sale of bags. He didn’t think anyone is up for the sales tax debate again, however.
John Allen spoke quickly against a rush to selling bags for PAYT. “There are other systems beside pay as you throw that are legal for the state of Vermont,” he said. “A single stream system would work.”
“We need a plan for compliance,” said Gartenstein.
Wantastiquet Communications Tower
After years of sharing the communications tower on top of Mt. Wantastiquet with cable companies, Brattleboro finds itself as the sole party interested in leasing the space from CTI Towers of Franklin, MA.
The previous rate was a very low $10 per year to place town police and fire radio systems at the location. By going solo, the annual cost jumps to $12,000, plus a 3% annual rent escalator for a five year lease. The cost would be shared by the police and fire departmental budgets. The equipment placed there includes an omni antenna and four microwave dishes.
Chief Wrinn said the location was crucial. “It’s the main repeater for cruisers. We have no backup plan for losing it.”
Chief Buccossi said the tower allows their three sites to communicate by allowing each to rebroadcast signals to the other stations. He said safety would be an issue if the site was lost.
Joe Newton, the fire alarm superintendent, said the tower is critical to operations. “We need a line of sight to each tower, and this location does it.”
He admitted that there could be other areas in town. “We’d like this lease for five years, then be off the tower within five years.” He suggested the town build its own tower, save the rent costs, and lease space on it to create a revenue stream.
Moreland warned that a new tower could take years to build.
“To go from $10 a year to $12,000 is a huge jump,” said John Allen. “It seems like a hostage thing. We need the tower. It is a perfect site. We just got this dumped in our laps.”
David Schoales said there isn’t money in the budget for the expense. “I’m surprised we’re talking about using towers rather than satellites. Why go back to a previous technology?”
Newton said the current system isn’t outdated. He thought the town could build a tower for the cost of this contract.
Gartenstein said he’d like to help negotiate the contract for more favorable clauses after Allen questioned the five year terms.
“The stakes are so high. The tower provides safety,” said Macomber. “I don’t like the cost increase, but we need to proceed with the knowledge of the safety that tower provides.”
“I agree,” said Allen. “I can’t believe CTI would be that cold to say take your stuff down. It is unreasonable what they are asking for.”
“My rub is with the termination conditions of the contract,” said Gartenstein. “They can be drafted in different ways. We’ll bring the negotiated contract back for Selectboard approval.”
The board voted unanimously in favor of negotiating terms for the new lease.
Brattleboro Town Manager Search
Chair David Gartenstein gave the board and the public and update on the search for a new Town Manager.
Gartenstein said the application deadline was August 30 and over 40 applications were received. VLCT is ranking and sorting them and Brattleboro will have them within a week, he told his fellow board members.
He said the most effective way to find a new Town Manager will be to meet in executive session to go over the initial applications and develop a list of 4-8 candidates for first round interviews. “For the first round, they should be in executive session with the Selectboard and other representatives such as the Interim Town Manager, some citizens, and staff.”
Two or three final candidates will be chosen for a second round process of interviews and meetings. The Selectboard will make a final decision in October.
“I think that will work,” said John Allen.
Gartenstein suggested they start thinking about a citizen panel to help in the second, final round. The 26th will be the likely deadline for applications with an October 1 formation of the advisory group.
Review of Selectboard Goals
The Brattleboro Selectboard reviewed their goals at Tuesday’s meeting to see how they were doing thus far.
David Schoales asked for it to be on the agenda. “We need to have another look,” he said. He didn’t think they were off track, but “Donna wasn’t here, and some we haven’t touched.”
Schoales said “we’re not screwing up anywhere, but we need to look at the goals.” He focused in on increasing business, an investigation into Brattleboro’s role as a regional hub, and an evaluation process for employees and contractors.
John Allen said that the closing of VY impacts the goals. “We may have to rethink a few things. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
The board seemed most interested in the evaluations. “We need to set time aside to work on evaluations before March,” said Macomber.
“There are plenty of people who can help us with this,” added Schoales.
“We need to have a deliberate process for doing evaluations,” said Gartenstein. “The school boards have well-developed evaluation processes...”
“I don’t know if it is well-developed,” interrupted Schoales.
Gartenstein clarified. “I don’t want to start from scratch.”
Moreland promised to ask SeVEDS to present a report to the board.