Selectboard Meeting Notes: Tax Stabilization For Brooks House, Departing Board Members Say Good-Bye

Amidst discussions of Brooks House tax stabilization and other business came the final thoughts and words of three Selectboard members sharing a final regular Tuesday meeting together. The two longest serving agreed that Brattleboro could use a mayor.

The Brooks House got their savings, Chris Chapman started a discussion about future plans for the Brattleboro’s earliest existing train station, the utility budget was approved for FY14, and many liquor licenses were approved en masse.



Tuesday evening’s Brattleboro Selectboard meeting was the final regular meeting with Dick DeGray, Dora Bouboulis, and Christopher Chapman on the board. Each had their own version of closing remarks.

DeGray began by letting Bouboulis make some remarks.

She spoke of her longtime interest in politics and activism as well as the intersection of government and the public process. People, she said, want the opportunity for input and appreciate a complete debate of issues of importance.

Bouboulis said that as funds tighten, it matters even more that public debate includes everyone, not just those with existing power and money.

“We need a complete overhaul of the political system,” she said. “Representative Town Meeting makes decisions for everyone else.” At the very least, she said, it needs to be easier to challenge those decisions.

Bouboulis felt one reason for public frustration was a lack of a person to turn to who is accountable. “We need a mayor,” she said. “One person to take responsibility and be voted on their record.”

She thanked town staff and the community and pledged to “keep working to make it work for them.”

Chris Chapman said that being on the Selectboard had been both a great experience and a learning opportunity. 

He praised the Town Manager and staff as a winning team. “It’s a town that works so well we take it for granted.”

To make Brattleboro great, he said, it takes knowing what is going on, following the news, remaining open-minded, and listening.

Chapman said he felt that he had accomplished a great deal personally and for the Town.

DeGray had a few words of congratulations for the incoming board, hoping they would be respectful in their differences, but saved his final remarks as Chair for the end of the meeting.

Town Manager Barb Sondag had no remarks, but did have a cold. 

There were no Selectboard Committee Reports.

During Public Participation, John Wilmerding told the board that he was part of a committee to save the River Garden for public use. He had no details yet, but invited anyone interested to get in touch. 

James told the board that he  was “going to miss the trio – the three musketeers.”  He hoped they wouldn’t go far.  “We may need you.”

Liquor Commissioners

The Brattleboro Selectboard voted to approve the annual list of liquor and tobacco license renewals, 5-0. The establishments on the list were required to comply with new criteria set by the board last year, which they did.

New criteria included having a written sales policy, being present when the license is discussed, responding in writing to incidents in a timely manner, and giving information about prior liquor licenses. 

Rocky Top topped the list of local incidents reported by Police Chief Wrinn (DUI’s and disorderly conduct). They had five total, but were closed and not up for renewal. 

The Roadhouse was noted in the report for failing to respond in writing about a fight in October. Metropolis and Inferno were praised by the Chief for having a “great response” to their reported incidents. Ken Schneck said he was happy to see the reporting and response.

Saxtons River Distillery was granted a special event permit for this year’s Spell Check at the Latchis.

Vermont Inn Pizza’s liquor license was re-established in the name of the new owner, Giota Livanis. The former license holder is no longer involved with the restaurant, hence the need for a new license.

Water and Sewer Commissioners

Public Works Director Steve Barrett was joined by Rick Ethier to give the Selectboard the monthly update on the Waste Water Treatment Project. The plant is 99.5% complete, Spring Tree Pump Station upgrades are 29% complete, and the Black Mountain gravity fed system is just getting underway.

There is, of course, remaining work to be done on the mesophilic and thermophilic digesters, a bit of finishing work in some of the buildings is taking place, and contractor equipment is being taken away. “The heavy lifting is done,” said Ethier.

Barrett said they began accepting septic waste recently, which he felt would be of interest to the Brattleboro area.

He said they are “holding their ground” in final debates over changes to the project. There will likely be liquidated damages, Barrett told the board, as the project has been delayed and that may add engineering costs. “There needs to be a discussion and we’re having that discussion,” said Barrett.

Final completion is expected in July. Ribbon cutting is Friday, March 22, at noon. The public is invited to this historic event, added Dick DeGray.

Dora Bouboulis asked about the list of items given to the board in their packet. “When something says it is not recommended by an engineer, what does that mean?” 

Barrett said that once a project gets underway, there is a back and forth process with contractors, engineers, and the client. Contractors will ask for a change (i.e., more money or an adjustment of some sort) for something they decide wasn’t in the original contract. If the engineers disagree they don’t recommend the change. He said that’s why some items on the list have that designation. 

He and Ethier both gave examples of possible scenarios. A contractor might recommend a more durable paint that would only require two coats, but the contract says three, and they may ask for a change. Specific wiring in a building might differ from the engineered design.

Chris Chapman asked about the $2.4 million balance of funds not spent.

Barrett said the number was real, but that work at Spring Tree and Black Mountain pump stations still remained to be completed. He hoped to come in under budget.

Finance Director John O’Connor wasn’t present, but told the board in a memo that the WWTP’s project finances were in good shape, drawing just over $29 million of about $31.5 million in funding.

The Brattleboro Selectboard voted unanimously to adopt the FY14 Utilities budget. The budget has total revenues of $4,914,976 and expenditures of $5,550,800. This is for operation only, not capital expenditures.

Barb Sondag explained that the deficit of $635,624 is due to the depreciation of $2,307,500. On a cash basis, she said, it shows a surplus. Sondag also said it was the last year of the 5 year rate schedule.

David Gartenstein asked about money set aside to repair a water tank – a repair that has been delayed.

Sondag said the capital budget would be available at the next meeting, and that they could wait and approve it all at once. Gartenstein didn’t see a reason to wait, since the current board is most familiar with the FY14 numbers.

Dora Bouboulis asked if the public could get a sense of the next five years and the expected rates. Will they go up, she asked.

Sondag said she wasn’t sure and that it depended on “too many variables.” For example, she said, the board could look at wastewater and water together, or decide to make each account balance itself.

“We’ve had growth we didn’t project,” said DeGray.  He said the new board needs to understand pro forma, which he called “a great tool to use.” 

He also pointed out that as people conserve more water, rates would go up, and that the Town is in the position of advocating water conservation and encouraging water usage at the same time.

They approved the FY14 Utilities budget unanimously.

Monthly Financial Report with John O’Connor

In his monthly finance report to the Brattleboro Selectboard, Finance Director John O’Connor usually provides an overview of the General Fund, the Utility Fund, and the Parking Fund, plus information about loans and grants. 

This month he was absent. Barb Sondag pointed the board to the report in their info packets telling them that with 66.7% of the fiscal year complete in February, all three budget expenditures were below that threshold and on track.

Chris Chapman noted that the parking cards were doing well and asked why.

Patrick Moreland said that handing them out to people was a successful campaign, but cautioned him that the revenue isn’t really new, additional revenue, but money that offsets the money lost from meter use. “It’s just coming from a different source.”

There was no mention of loans or grants, but it is probably safe to say that O’Connor would agree that the grants program remains very active.

Tax Stabilization for the Brooks House

The board voted unanimously in favor of a tax stabilization plan for Mesabi, Inc. and their Brooks House renovation project. Bob Stevens represented Mesabi before the board.

Barb Sondag announced the deal, which had been worked out between town staff and in Executive Session.

She said that Brattleboro would give tax stabilization at 35% for eight years to the two-thirds of the building that would be non-residential. The residential portion would remain subject to usual taxes. As part of the deal, the value of the building gets re-evaluated in year seven. 

Stevens said the project continued to gain speed and things continue to be lined up, but that it was still a financially fragile project. He said that any tax stabilization savings would be put to use improving the building.

The level of debt for the project is high, Stevens told the board. “For the next 10 years, we’re probably operating as a non-profit,” he said, adding that refinancing in seven years was a concern.

He said they hoped to begin construction in a few more months. Stevens pointed out that the construction workers might like parking permits.

David Gartenstein said that the proposal had largely been out of public view, and wanted to take a moment to explain things to the public.

Gartenstein said that the request was to lower their taxes for a period of years under our tax stabilization program, which permits us to grant up to 35% (reduction) of total tax owed, and a period of time up to 10 years.

He said the board looked at a few considerations. “We all agreed that the Brooks House is of fundamental importance to the health of downtown.” Other priorities included tax stabilization for the part of the building that qualifies for the program, and making sure that tax dollars weren’t being used to enrich private investors. The review in the 7th year, he said, will help make sure the correct base value is being used and that there was “no unjust enrichment of private individuals. 

Gartenstein said they got good advice and that the agreement serves the Town and taxpayer’s interest.

Dick DeGray hoped the project would return vitality and growth to downtown.  “I’m a big supporter and glad a local group is doing this. Your team knows the pulse of the community. It says a something significant that we have people to step up to the plate. You could fall flat on your face, but I appreciate your team taking on the project.”

John Wilmerding said that Brattleboro may lose some short term tax dollars, but that it was an investment in the community. He said he was astounded that the second floor of the Brooks House would be entirely used for state college facilities, and praised a “new academic part of our community life.” He thought it was a tremendous opportunity for the town to invest in its future.

James ? said that two years after the Brooks House fire, the community was still pulling together for this valued institution. “God bless and my wishes go to them,” he said.

Reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman asked what the total amount of tax savings would be.

Sondag said they couldn’t project the future tax rate. “We haven’t calculated it.”

“You entered this contract and you don’t know what it is?” pressed Weiss-Tisman.

“Of course we know,” said Sondag. “We used a tax rate then added a bit each year. The taxes the town was getting prior to the fire would be higher under this proposal than two years ago.” She said the property value has gone up since the fire.

Gartenstein said that it was a $22 million dollar project to end up with a building worth about $9 million when complete. “The money we’d take in in the first year is more than what is currently being paid, and what was paid before the fire.”

“I don’t recall the assumptions,” said Sondag. She estimated that about $377,000 was what the Brooks House would pay.

“Between $350-400,000 paid in over the 8 years,” estimated Gartenstein.

Stevens pointed out that the stabilization plan was for only Brattleboro taxes, and that state taxes would still need full payment. 

“No one is giving away the store,” said Chris Chapman. “This project couldn’t survive without this stabilization.”

The board voted unanimously in favor. 

HSU Swift Water Grant Application

The board approved applying for a grant in the amount of $17,492.40 to buy swift water rescue equipment and related gear for the Fire Department, such as a vehicle, gloves, boots, and properly sized long underwear.

Homeland Security Grants Accepted

The Brattleboro Selectboard accepted just under $11,000 from Homeland Security for training of fire-people in swift water rescue and incident command.

Community Justice Grant Accepted 

The Brattleboro Community Justice Center will receive $8,000 in supplemental income from the Vermont Department of Corrections.

State Town Road and Bridge Standards

The State of Vermont has issued new standards for the construction, repair, and maintenance of all town roads. The Brattleboro Selectboard adopted them unanimously.

Historic Train Station

Fulcrum Arts had submitted a proposal to the town in 2012 to re-use the historic train station building known as the Archery Building. Their proposal was accepted by the Selectboard, but Fulcrum Arts withdrew from the project. 

Chris Chapman asked for an update on the building.

Barb Sondag repeated the history of the Union Station project, that the building was found to be “significant and historic,” and that without plans for re-use it has sat empty. 

She saw three options: Demolish, sell, or rent to a third party, though each had drawbacks.

To demolish it would take some time and money, she explained, and would require hiring a historic preservation consultant to tell us that demolition was unavoidable.

Sondag said it wasn’t really in condition to sell or rent, needing half a million dollars in improvements and without significant parking.

She recommended the town get better information about costs to stabilize the building to prevent deterioration.

Chris Chapman said he had brought it up because that part of town has gone through a tremendous revitalization in the last few decades, and this remains one of the final pieces to improve. He wanted to use a bit of his time before leaving the board to bring it up and make it a public discussion.

Dora Bouboulis noted that they had just disbanded the Union Station Committee, but that other committees or departments might take the lead in gathering public input.

Danny Lichtenfeld of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center said that the museum was going to be looking at ways to increase use of the museum by people up to an hour away, and as part of that planning would be happy to think about whether they had a use for the train station. He said they’d know within a year. “A definite maybe. 

DeGray said that the next board would decide, but it would come down to impact on taxpayers and financial impacts. he pointed to the taxpayer’s ongoing support of BMAC maintenance costs as an example. “Trying to get this building into a useful state without it having an impact on taxpayers is a critical piece. I’m not sure I can support the municipality rehabbing and maintaining it.”

Lichtenfeld said that the museum absorbed all renovation costs and the $7,000 the town contributes to a maintenance stipend didn’t cover the full costs.

Chapman said that his “takeaway” was that there should be no plans to take down the building. “At least not yet.” 

Gartenstein asked Sondag to continue to look at costs of stabilizing the exterior, environmental issues, demolition issues, and the possibility of a new RFP process.

Assigning Motions for Representative Town Meeting

Each of the Town’s motions at Representative Town Meeting are read aloud by Selectboard members, and each year prior to the meeting they decide which motions each will be assigned to read. 

This task was successfully completed. 

The meeting is Saturday and will be viewable here thanks to the streaming video magic of BCTV.

New Selectboard Organizational Meeting 

New Selectboard members will take the oath of office on March 25 at 6:15 p.m.. New officers will be elected for the coming year. 

This year is the first under the new Charter rules that now elect candidates on Town Meeting Day but swear them in the Monday after Representative Town Meeting. 

DeGray’s Farewell 

The final moments of the meeting were left for Dick DeGray. 

He said his seven years had come and gone, and that he’ll miss it.

He thanked his wife for being supportive of his time away at meetings, and suggested that anyone interested in downtown should talk to her, since she’d been on Main Street a very long time, second only to Pal Borofsky at Sam’s. 

DeGray thanked the townspeople for the great support from the community. He said he had his detractors, “but we all have those.” He said it was okay to disagree as long as people remain respectful.

He listed the other Selectboard members he had worked with over the years, there was always a diversity of opinions, and said he learned from each of them.

He thanked Barb Sondag, who was an assistant manager when he started, then “acting” Town Manager, then officially Brattleboro’s Town Manager. He said Brattleboro was a better town with her managing.

DeGray said he didn’t disagree with Dora Bouboulis that Brattleboro should have a mayor, and that he’d volunteer to lead the campaign for Barb Sondag if she chose to run.

He thanked the great department heads and staff, especially for their work in times of crisis, going beyond their job descriptions when faced with Irene or the Brooks House fire. He said that behind the scenes, town staff help people in a vulnerable state, and that seeing this made him proud.

He recalled that not all days were wonderful, mentioning the change of Town Managers, trials, and problems with the Police Department. “The reality is that we are a better community for it.”

DeGray wished future selectboard members the best of luck with the challenges they’ll certainly face. “Finances will always be a challenge,” he said. Everyone needs to be part of the conversation about generating revenue or decreasing services, he told the room. “We can overcome our challenges.”

“I’ll miss you. Thank you, good night,” said DeGray, before accepting a motion to adjourn.

Comments | 15

  • Sage Advice ...

    “To make Brattleboro great, he said, it takes knowing what is going on, following the news, remaining open-minded, and listening.”

    Chapman’s advice, I assume, was being offered to all members of the outgoing and the incoming Selectboard?

    To Dick DeGrey,the Chair of the Selectboard,I say, “Ta ta.” I respect your hard work as much as you’ve shown respect publically (and privately) for the hard work and commitment of others (e.g., the citizens, the Brattleboro Planning Department,the Brattleboro Tree Advisory Committee, BaBB, etc.) and for so successfully uniting the town of Brattleboro on sensitive issues that are important to “the people” who live here.

    • Sage Advice ...

      “I respect your hard work as much as you’ve shown respect publically (and privately) for the hard work and commitment of others (e.g., the citizens, the Brattleboro Planning Department,the Brattleboro Tree Advisory Committee, BaBB, etc.) and for so successfully uniting the town of Brattleboro on sensitive issues that are important to ‘the people’ who live here.”

      Do I detect a bit of irony here? Sarcastic praise for possibly the most contemptupous selectboard chairman ever?

      • A True First-Responder

        When there was a fire, a flood, natural disaster or other town emergency, Dick Degray was always one of the first people on the scene.

        I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have spent two years sitting a seat away from Dick as I witnessed firsthand just how much care and devotion he has channeled towards making Brattleboro a better place to live.

        • A first (and last) responder

          Dick was on Williams Street with an official delegation after the flood, he gets due credit for that.

          Dora was in the cellar with a dust mask and shovel, mucking out heavy, stinking mud — arriving early, and the last to leave. Without fanfare she continued in various locations for months, totally giving her time, energy, effort, with all her heart.

          And she was always kind.

          • Different Views

            Again, I think we have different perspectives on the contributions of people on the Selectboard as we have interacted with them (Dick, Dora and everyone else) in very different contexts.

            Everyone has had SUCH vastly different contributions to the Selectboard and I have a hard time elevating any one person’s efforts over another’s. In my mind, there is no reason to compare them as they’re so very different due to our different styles, daytime schedules/commitments, expertise and talents.

          • Different Legacies

            Agreed, each person’s contribution is unique. It also seems that what occurs at selectboard meetings often look quite different from opposite sides of the dais.

            Beyond the distortions of each of our individual lenses, it would be interesting to know how things will look from the perspective of local history as it will be written 50 or a hundred years from now.

          • Most definitely on that

            Most definitely on that history piece. I would love to find some sort of great activity that would help us all look at current action from that perspective.

        • hundreds and hundreds of first responders.

          We saw Dick arrive at the Brooks House fire and at the Whetstone Bridge during the floods of Irene. Many were there at the beginning, then shoveled, donated, and offered our vehicles to get the work done in the weeks ahead, in addition to the genorous efforts so many make every day.

          They just aren’t endowed with authority and don’t trumpet their contributions or make demands for respect.

          Laud the everyday people.

          • Right On!

            Exactly ~ there were people who helped out week after week in my neighborhood far more than any could ever imagine, ask, or hope for. (Dora was here, too – and unbelievably had spent her own money right down to her pocket change when clean-up supplies ran out! )

          • Apologies if I made it seem

            Apologies if I made it seem like one person’s contribution trump anyone else’s. That was most definitely not my point. I was only trying to offer a different perspective on one individual’s contribution from another perspective.

  • When A Deficit Is A Surplus

    The only thing that jumped out at me as a bit perplexing was the $635,000 shortfall in the Utilities budget between revenue and expenses.

    Barb explained it but I don’t remember my advanced accounting well enough to know what this means:

    “Barb Sondag explained that the deficit of $635,624 is due to the depreciation of $2,307,500. On a cash basis, she said, it shows a surplus. Sondag also said it was the last year of the 5 year rate schedule.”

    So I guess my question is: is this $635,000 a deficit or a surplus, and if it is really a deficit, then what does that mean to the financial condition of the Town of Brattleboro and the utility bills of Brattleboro’s residents? In the past, big deficits used to be bad news. Is this one different? It didn’t appear to get much discussion or concern from the Selectboard, so I’m guessing it’s no big deal but it’s still a pretty big number.

    • Deficit and depreciation

      I’m assuming that’s asset depreciation, such as aging equipment. If so, it has little effect on anything except paperwork but will show up as a budget deficit because it throws things out of balance.

  • Mayor

    What I found most interesting was that the two longest serving Selectboard members thought that the Brattleboro should have a mayoral system.

    Dick and Dora agreed on this point. Both suggested and supported having an elected mayor.

    Interesting thing to bring up as a final thought, I thought…

    • and Wave Bye Bye

      That struck me, too. The idea of a mayor has been bandied about for years.

      Thanks are owed to Dick and Dora, and Chris, for serving Bratt through so many things happening and big changes. What a long strange trip it’s been. Vaya con Dios.

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