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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Town Manager Peter Elwell Interview - Part 3: Brattleboro and the Future


We continue our series of occasional interviews with Town Manager Peter Elwell with some general questions about towns and governing. This time, we look at "the future."

I suppose we should define “future.” What year do you generally think of as “the future”? (I generally think about 2050 or 2100 as markers of “the future.”)

Your markers are out further than mine. Beyond 5 or 10 years, projections involve more and more speculation and carry more and more risk. I think longer term futuristic thinking can be stimulating as an intellectual pursuit, but I don’t think it practically informs most municipal government actions. There is one important exception to that: capital infrastructure (especially utilities). Our investments in physical infrastructure are both very expensive and very durable. These facilities typically last 30 to 50 years or even longer. It is important for us to use the best available information and reasonable future forecasts to ensure that we are sizing facilities appropriately and building them to last.

Beyond knowing that we owe money for bonds and will need to maintain and keep up our buildings and equipment, are there any things we know for certain about Brattleboro’s future?

There is little that we “know for certain.” There is quite a lot that we can “reasonably expect” in the near future. However, as I suggested above, it gets speculative and risky to make public spending decisions based on forecasts that extend beyond a 10-year horizon. Think about technological advancements in computing and communication during the past 40 years:

  • In the 1970s, computers were large, expensive, and (relative to today) slow. Many businesses did not have them and no homes did. Our telephone conversations were exclusively over land lines.
  • During the 1980s, use of computers exploded in business and expanded into people’s homes. At the end of the 1980s, fax machines arrived. Still, almost all telephone conversations were on land lines.
  • As the 1990s started, cell phones were changing from emergency use “bricks” to smaller and handier business tools. By the late 1990s, personal use of cell phones was expanding, but it was limited and expensive. Personal computers were common in people’s homes and use of the internet was rapidly increasing. For written communication, email was replacing printed hard copies.
  • In the 2000s, email exploded both for business use and for personal use. Cell phones became ubiquitous and much more powerful (as mini computers and cameras, etc.). Then came the emergence of social media, which rapidly expanded and frequently morphed from one platform to another as the preferred application of the day.
  • Today, most people have a cell phone, have access to a personal computer, and work in an organization that is dependent upon computers and electronic communications. Fax machines, pagers, and mainframe computers have disappeared from most businesses, as land line phones have from many homes.

This timeline will not be informative to your readers. Most of us have experienced these changes during the course of our adult lives. I list them here only to underscore this point: Town officials in the 1970s couldn’t have envisioned the degree to which communications would change in these 40 years, but they and their successors could (and did) deal with the incremental transitions that occurred from decade to decade. We fell behind a bit in the past decade on IT, but we are rapidly making up for that now in a cost-effective manner that is not only improving our efficiency but also the security of our systems and data. This communications technology example is easily transferable to other aspects of our town where we can plan well and spend wisely in 5-10 year increments but would likely make some “bad bets” and waste precious resources if we tried to accurately foresee the future beyond that.

How many years out is it wise or practical for a Town to plan for?

For the reasons I described above, I believe that depends on the topic but is about 5-10 years for most purposes and can be 30-50 years or even longer for infrastructure.

Is the human pace of town bureaucracy capable of keeping up with the modern world?

Yes. This is challenging and can be expensive, but Brattleboro has shown itself (both in Town government and as a community) to be resilient and adaptable in bouncing back from adversity and changing with the times. I believe this has been a key factor in Brattleboro’s success at maintaining many aspects of our traditional small town character while still modernizing over the years and staying vibrant while other towns in our region have suffered and shrunk. Also, as I’ll discuss more below, it is important for us in the conduct of our Town government to reinforce our shared experience and our obligations to each other as a community. To that end, working within the constraints of “human pace” is actually an advantage. Making big community impacting decisions slowly and collaboratively allows us to increase information sharing and the exchange of ideas in settings where we are relating to each other as members of a community rather than just as sources of electronic communications. Both have their place, but we would lose something very important in Town government if we accelerated the pace of decision making in a way that reduced the amount of person-to-person interaction and limited the ability of any of our fellow citizens to participate in Town affairs.

What would it take to get us to virtual town meetings and citizens weighing in on all issues electronically?

We are already using electronic communication and technological advancements to increase public awareness and access in the conduct of Town government business. We can do that more and better, and we are developing plans for increasing Town use of social media and improving the Town’s website. Nevertheless, I believe we should keep making decisions in settings where people can share space and interact person-to-person. That is a distinct advantage we have as a small town and it would be a shame for us to lose it by conducting decision-making sessions electronically.

Should we develop a new utility - municipal broadband?

This has been pursued elsewhere and has been explored here. It can be viable in settings where private sector is not providing the service. That is not a problem for most properties in Brattleboro. It is an enormous undertaking both for cost and for disruption of other facilities. We considered including this among the action items in the CRTO and decided not to because we believe there would be insufficient benefit to warrant the required investment of both money and other resources.

Do you expect Brattleboro’s population to change significantly from about 12,000, in either direction? Why or why not?

No. Brattleboro has the most stable population I’ve ever seen. It has fluctuated up and down between 11,522 and 12,241 since 1950. It is a statistical anomaly to have so little population increase or decrease for almost 70 years, especially since the demographic composition of those 12,000 people has changed a lot from decade to decade. I don’t see a reason for that to change materially in the future because decrease would only result if we wither (and we are, instead, getting stronger and more vibrant) and increase would result only from pushing our urban compact out into the woods (which is limited both by the economy of our region and by our locally adopted land use regulations).

Some say our population is aging. How will an “aging population” impact Brattleboro’s future? (Anything we can learn from retirees in Palm Beach?)

There is not much for Brattleboro to learn from Palm Beach, due to the significant differences in the financial status of individual households in the two communities. Also, the median age in Palm Beach is 67.5 while the median age in Brattleboro is 41.6, so “aging population” is definitely a matter of perspective. The median age is increasing almost everywhere in Vermont and throughout the United States due to the “rat in the snake” demographic impact of the baby boomer generation. This will present some challenges for us here in Brattleboro, but we will be addressing those challenges within a statewide and national context.

Do you think we’ll be removing snow each winter in say, 20 years? What are your thoughts on adding a full-time climate protection position?

We are currently reviewing the possibility of adding a sustainability officer position to the Town staff. I’ll have more to say about that in the proposed FY19 budget. In the meantime, I believe we’ll still have snowstorms here in 20 years, but our winters may be shorter like they traditionally have been in the mid-Atlantic and southern Appalachian states.

Is climate change the biggest threat we currently anticipate?

I prefer not to use superlatives like biggest, most, etc. Climate change will continue to pose great challenges, but many other aspects of modern life pose great challenges, too. There are a wide variety of needs we must address as a community both in the short-term and in the long-term. I believe it is better for us to identify and act upon a broad array of threats and opportunities than to focus on just a few as being the most, biggest, best, or worst.

Which department do you think will have the first robots in regular use?

I think that one is out beyond my 10-year future planning horizon.

Depending on one’s definition of “robot,” use may already be occurring in DPW. We sometimes “televise” sewer lines to locate cracks and other abnormalities that need maintenance. The process of “televising” the line involves feeding a remotely controlled camera into the pipe and then viewing the footage to inspect the inside of the pipe. Probably – sorry! – a bit like a colonoscopy but on a larger scale. The camera doesn’t “think” about what it “sees,” but it does give us access to places we would not otherwise be able to inspect.

Which departments might want drones?

In the relatively near future, there could be applications for drone usage in the Police Department, Public Works, and Planning, and perhaps in the Fire Department and Assessor’s Office, too. Cost and the balancing of private and public interests will be two important factors in determining when and how using drones would be appropriate.

Are there any issues that you feel are worth exploring, but feel would be too radical or innovative to pursue? (Do you feel constrained in your long term thinking in any way?)

No, I don’t feel constrained. I don’t feel like there are taboo topics. However, I also don’t spend much time imagining a distant future in a sci-fi manner because I think it is better to devote my energies to our current challenges and near-term needs. There is plenty of opportunity to use imagination and creative thinking even in that “now and soon” realm.

What are some good topics for Brattleboro thinkers to ponder about the future?

Transportation changes, with or without a monorail. : )

Changes in the natural world around us, due to global climate change and other factors.

Continued changes in communications technology.

Continued changes in demographics.

Changes in economic conditions and opportunities, not just here in Brattleboro but also throughout the tri-state region and throughout Vermont.

(I’d love to see topics added to this list by iBrattleboro contributors.)

Thanks for spending some more time with us.

Thanks, Peter

...

You can read other articles in this series here:

Town Manager Peter Elwell Interview - Part 1: Meet The Town Manager

Town Manager Peter Elwell Interview - Part 2: About Town

»

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A great part 3

All three of these have been terrific, thanks Chris/Lise and thanks Peter.

Frankly, reading this fills me with pride once again for Brattleboro since it's such a great testament to the kind of thoughtful and reasoned approaches that so many of our town staff bring every day to their jobs.

Now as far as additional "ponder topics"... I might put some thought into that myself and chime in soon! :-)

 
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Gratitude

I am so grateful for Peter Elwell and his return to this town. Thank you, also, to his wife and children who were willing to move here, and give us his wisdom, practicality, and care for the people of Brattleboro.

 
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Define the Future

Chris has a future horizon of 50 and 100 years. Peter's is 5-10. I find this opening to the piece fascinating and thought-provoking.  Should Brattleboro have a 'futures committe' that helps Peter and the Town to think in 50 and 100 year time horizons?  Haven't we had such before?

Th energy committee is grappling with this very issue in a very indirect way.  We have asked the Town to make capital purchases based not just on lowst purchase price, but on a life cycle analysis of the purchase.  If a renovation is going to last 50 years, or a vehicle 15, we think that the entire cost of the item is what should be weighed, not just the sticker price. 

The problem is that it gets really, really hard to project things like energy prices out more than 5-10 years.  How do we gauge a life cycle cost of something like a new building when we are using future energy costs?

Bioregionalists like to think in a 1,000 year timeframe as that seems to be a frame long nough to shift human consciousness in a fundamntal sort of way.

Good topics for Brattleboro thinkers to ponder about the future:

1. Change in ownrship structures: what if vehicle ownership changed substantially in the next 5-10 years, pople stopped owning cars, and electric vehicles became the norm?  What if WWHT continues its growth and becomes the standard for living arrangemnts?

2. Wealth: what if the disparity between rich and poor continues, and more and more wealth gets accumulated in fewer and fewer hands, and more and more people are in poverty and destitute?

3. The Environment: what if climate change starts washing out roads on a regular basis, and the town doesn't have the funds to repair them?  And farms get hammered year after year and can't produce crops reliably? And the forests all get trashed by invading pests?

4. The Grid: what if the grid becomes unstable and unreliable, and power supplies become patchy?

 
 #

Elwell is responsive and intelligent

The one encounter I have had with Town Manager Peter Elwell was quite positive.

One day I saw that the two-hour parking signs on both sides of my street (Canal Street, below Elm) had been changed, and there was now no parking on the side with houses. That was strange: There is adequate space for parking on both sides of the street; parking is needed on Sunday morning when people arrive for services at Agape and on weekends for the Three Stones Restaurant.

I contacted the town manager. Peter quickly looked into it an found that there was a previously unenforced ordinance and the new, no-parking signs were to conform to the ordinance. Frankly, I can think of "petty tyrants," whom I have met who would have insisted that the rules are the rules, even if they do not make sense. Fortunately Peter has common sense.

He agreed that the ordinance was inappropriate and should be changed. He explained the process to me, including why it would take a month or so and assured me that he was on it. Peter was cordial, friendly, respectful, and knew how to facilitate the process, keeping it simple and painless.

 
 #

"You are now living in what used to be the future."

The difference between a practical future and a theoretical one is important. I personally think and act while looking ahead seconds, minutes, hours, days, and months, but not beyond a year for most ordinary living/business. Very rarely do I plan something concrete and definite beyond a year.

But I can think in much longer terms - world population is increasing, species are dying off, the climate is changing, AI and robotics will replace human workers, and so on.

Historically, transportation changes have been game changes for Brattleboro - the river, the trains, the highway. (The monorail will also be in this category.*) I'd expect any future changes in transportation and delivery of goods to have a similar impact. We're not far from drone delivery of good ordered online, and 3-D printing of previously-shipped parts and pieces. If I can print a toothbrush, it doesn't need to be delivered nor do I have to go shop for it.

Brattleboro has also been shaped by the dreams and actions of the wealthy, and what they build and invest in. Past visionaries built factories, public works projects, opera houses, churches, and the library. More recently we see theaters and performing spaces, and specialized schools.

One of my biggest concerns beyond environment is that of jobs. I have a feeling we're really unprepared for the coming onslaught of robotics and artificial intelligence, and how many humans will be out of work. The optimist in me says we'll figure out single payer health care and come up with a universal basic income in time, but the realist says greed and distraction will prevent it.

I think we can count on increasing environmental stress and failure in coming decades. An article this week, obscured by all important tweeting, said that we are now in a period of "biological devastation"where we are rapidly killing off species. They call it the earth's 6th mass extinction event: "The resulting biological annihilation obviously will have serious ecological, economic and social consequences. Humanity will eventually pay a very high price for the decimation of the only assemblage of life that we know of in the universe."

Also: “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”

So, there's that to think about, too.

One other issue that concerns me is that really poor educational system we subjected kids in the US to for the last 20 years. Not all of them, of course, but I worry that a substantial portion of that generation don't have the critical thinking skills to be of much help to themselves or others. Perhaps a mid-life educational system will be needed.

...

* The Brattleboro Monorail Authority is currently entertaining proposals from cities with existing monorails (Seattle, Orlando, etc.) to see if they would be willing to extend their current lines to a potential North American monorail hub to be built here. Direct service from the Municipal Center to the Space Needle may someday become a reality. All of this, or course, depends on the successful testing of the mag-lev monorails now under consideration. Volunteers for test runs of the bullet monorail on the temporary track to Putney are being sought.

 

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