Selectboard Meeting Notes: Should Non-Payers of Property Tax Contribute Anyway?

The Brattleboro Selectboard chose an architectural engineering firm for the Police Fire Facility project at their Tuesday meeting. The board also started a discussion about asking property owners with tax exemptions to pay something anyway for the services they receive.

Arkham fought for and received their outdoor consumption permit, the Town got a clean bill of health from auditors, the Grand List is up, and an upcoming Selectboard vacancy was officially announced. Read on for details.


Chair David Gartenstein began the meeting by noting that Ken Schneck was absent in the name of a good cause, a bike ride to fight AIDS, and is expected back for the next meeting.

He invited the public to take part in Strolling of the Heifers this weekend, noted that the Paint the Pavement project went well, and reminded people that curbside composting is being picked up each week from 800 households.

Gartenstein commended the Police for prompt and effective responses to a recent kidnapping as well as a chase that ended in Hinsdale.

He said he had seen some comments asking about increases in drug related activity in town, and said that while it is not clear if there has been an increase, citizens should remain vigilant and let the criminal justice system work.  He thought it was important to address issues that lead to criminal activity.

On Wednesday, there will be an Emergency Management drill, said Town Manager Barb Sondag. It’s a graded exercise, she said, and there would be “lots of people in town,” emphasizing that “It’s just a drill.”

David Schoales said that the Career Center winners of a statewide competition would be in the Heifer parade and would get a banner in the school.

John Allen wanted to talk about drug-related activity and wanted the Town to be more proactive, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. “We’re aware of what’s going on,” he said, and “not burying our heads in the sand.” He promised that they would do their best.

“The response requires coordination among various agencies, and discussions are beginning to occur,” said Gartenstein, being careful not to reveal any specific plans.

There was no Public Participation.

Liquor Commissioners

Before discussing licenses, David Gartenstein offered each of the applicants a chance to postpone if they’d prefer to have five members present. Everyone chose to proceed with the four at hand.

One of Arkham’s owners returned to tell the board about plans for enclosing a drinking space in Harmony Lot. It was an issue that held up their outdoor consumption license at the previous Selectboard meeting.

Alan Blackwell came prepared. He had a photoshopped rendering showing a white picket fence, and spoke at length about his meetings with both the police and fire departments to go over and address all concerns.

Arkham will limit the space to a smaller area approximately four feet wide and add a four foot fence that police can see over and firemen can knock down in case of an emergency. The area will only be open if staff are available, and will not have much in the way of seating. There will be no tables.

Blackwell said he’d be willing to do this on a trial basis for 90 days and let everyone see how it goes.

“We can’t shorten the time,” said Barb Sondag, “but after 90 days the board could revoke the license or you could turn it in.” 

Police Chief Wrinn said they also talked about noise. “He’s willing to work with us.”

Blackwell said that in pursuit of a happy area, they’d be happy to use decibel meters and respond to any complaints.

“I like the test period, and having a way to evaluate it,” said John Allen. “Happy to hear it.”

“Do people go out there already to smoke?” asked Kate O’Connor. Blackwell said they did.

“So people are out there already,” she said.

“We already monitor outside noise,” affirmed Blackwell.

David Schoales said he thought it would work out fine.

David Gartenstein, however, said he still had concerns about permitting alcohol outside in a small fenced in area. “Elliot Street and Harmony Lot have been a consistent problem for law enforcement. People don’t feel safe.” He said he couldn’t support the request for a license.

Blackwell responded that Gartenstein had mentioned problems at the parking garage at the previous meeting. “whether you vote yes or no you have my respect,” he began,” but honestly, to compare my business to those structures is unfair.” He said they had made significant efforts to improve that area and has received praise for improving the block.

He said all of that effort is to improve the perceptions of the area. “We’re proud of a safe environment we’ve created. We’ve made a change, and I’m so proud of it,” said Blackwell. “So, to be compared with a public structure I have no control over seems unfair.”

Gartenstein repeated that his concern was solely with alcohol being available in Harmony Lot. He didn’trecall mentioning the parking garage.

David Schoales had a different view. He said that crimes occur in the lot now, but “with people watching the lot, this could have the opposite effect. It could be positive.”

Blackwell said his guests already call officers to report events they notice in the lot.

In the end, Arkham’s liquor license was approved w/conditions and will be re-examined in 90 days. The vote was 3-1, with Gartenstein against.


Georgio’s Pizza & Pasta of 419 Canal Street received a first class liquor license. Owner George Leristis said he wanted to sell wine and beer, and hoped to be open in 2-3 weeks. The vote was 4-0 in favor of his license.

The Cue Bar received an outdoor consumption license for their bar at 747 Putney Rd. They have an enclosed patio, which pleased the authorities. The owner said the deck had been replaced, and they wanted to open it back up. The vote was 4-0 in favor.

Dandelion and Sage is the new name of the restaurant at the Colonial Inn on Putney Road, and they’ll likely be able to serve liquor with a new first class liquor license sometime in the future. The application was temporarily withdrawn.

Municipal Appraisers Office Report

Russell Rice came to tell the board about the Municipal Appraisers Office as part of the board’s goal to hear from departments early and plan budgets more effectively.

Rice told the board that unlike other years since 2005, Brattleboro’s Grand List is up 1% this year.

He said the department had four people. “We produce the Grand List which underlies the tax rate.” As listers, they act as an appeal board . They have a budget of $156,000 of which 90% is salary.

David Gartenstein asked Rice about properties that were not taxed, and if he had any ideas for generating revenue from them.

“The one theme to pursue is the need for contributions to reserve funds rather than solving budget gaps,” said Rice.  “Engage people who aren’t required to pay taxes by having a specific fund to give to. That’s all I can offer,” he told them, adding “Inspiration is more effective than chainmail.”

Town Manager Sondag pointed out that people often ask about PILOT payments. She said they come from the state for properties such as the courthouse.

“There is an idea that some owners — the Retreat or Hospital — don’t pay taxes. They do pay taxes on the homes they own around their properties,” she said, and the majority of those not paying taxes are doing so by statute. “It’s not negotiable.”

Sondag said that the “low hanging fruit” was to stop approving local property exemptions at Representative Town Meeting.

She liked the idea of asking for contributions toward capital equipment expenses.  In addition to the benefits of donating such as goodwill, she said, “it is a different conversation.”

She said that if the board looks at the list of exempt properties, they would want to go to all of them, not just a few.

David Schoales suggested that if they knew the true value of the exempt properties, they could calculate the cost of services provided to them by the Town, and “could present those organizations with the information and make the argument.”

“But some properties aren’t sellable,” cautioned Sondag. “If you go to the Brattleboro Housing Authority and say ‘this is the assessed value.’ It doesn’t mean anything They can’t rent it at market rate, so they can’t sell it the same way.”

“They use town services and we could tell them how much it’s worth,” pressed Schoales.

“We can’t use their fair assessed value,” said Sondag. “Who’d buy a hospital?”

Gartenstein said they could begin by getting a list of the properties in question. “We can identify properties not being taxed. We know which they are.” He said the Grand List could be 18% higher. “We’d like a list of those properties.”

“Town properties are exempt, too,” Russell Rice reminded them.

Sondag said it was a difficult process. “The Windham Housing Trust upfits derelict properties and makes them nice. It could have stayed derelict. We’ve reached out to them to work on buildings. If it were easy, we’d be doing it.”

John Allen said that the Land Trust does fix things up but “gets a lot of funding that people who could do that can’t get.” He wondered if at some point they have saturated the market.

Sondag said that was a different issue.

Allen disagreed. “But they buy up properties and are taxed at a different rate, without someone else doing it who could.” He hoped the request for donations would be successful.

Gartenstein said they should be very cautious. “We don’t want to be adversarial. There are many parts to make this town come together as a whole.”

“We are facing extreme pressure on our tax rate,” he continued.  “We’ll set the rate in July, and there will be more pressure in coming years.”  He felt they should look at the issue and start gathering data.

Schoales asked if the town paid the school portion of taxes on properties they exempt at Representative Town Meeting.

“It depends what they vote on,” answered Rice. He said in recent years it is often only a municipal tax exemption.

Sondag said the department was doing well and had implemented many time-saving efficiencies, including one of the states most accurate E-911 systems.

Rice felt the E-911 system should be handled by the Police, but conceded that it was well situated in their department.

FY12 A133 Report

Finance Director John O’Connor reviewed the FY12 A133 Report, also known as a “single audit,” with the Brattleboro Selectboard Tuesday evening. The report is required if an organization receives over $300,000 in federal funds.

O’Connor read from the report, which he characterized as a “clean bill of health” with no reported deficiencies or weaknesses, and no “findings” for the first time in many years. All previous findings, too, had been resolved.

David Schoales asked about the segregation of duties in the Utility Fund. O’Connor said that auditors prefer that those doing billing and those doing collecting are separated. Brattleboro doesn’t do this, but instead has other controls in place to audit our billing internally.

David Gartenstein asked if there would be a final report listing all expenses and money for tropical storm Irene.

Sondag and Moreland said there were projects that remained to be done. O’Connor said he could provide a report when a report could be provided.

O’Connor said that the year end forecast was good and showed, possibly, a $200,000 surplus even after the ice rink compressor repairs.

Sondag warned them not to get too giddy. “That’s the Washington Street retaining wall. It’s close.”

Selectboard Vacancy Announcement

Chair David Gartenstein reminded the board that Ken Schneck was resigning effective June 19, and reviewed the memo he had recently sent out on the topic.

“We have two sets of rules,” he said. “The Charter says we appoint the new member until the next election once a resignation is effective.” He said the other rules were their own Rules of Conduct for filling vacancies.

“If we don’t suspend our rules and announce the vacancy now, we’d have a delay before getting someone new on board,” he said. “I recommend that we suspend the Rules of Conduct and then set a schedule for the appointment proceedings, announcing it today, then setting a deadline for letters of interest, interviews, and election by appointment.”  

He said they also need to generate questions for candidates, hopefully beforehand so it could be given to candidates before their interviews.

He said they did get some public comment to the memo he had sent to the Reformer and iBrattleboro. “There were 2-300 reads on iBrattleboro, but that could be 50 people reading it six times each,” he noted.

“The one suggestion I saw was having interviews, then waiting to do the election a day later rather than voting right away,” he told them.

Town Manager Sondag endorsed the suspension of the Rules of Conduct. “The person won’t begin until July, so it gives a bit of time for an orientation.”  She said the sooner a new board member was appointed, the better prepared that person could be for budget decisions later in the year.

“We can vote on the same day,” said John Allen. “It is simple for me to vote right away.”

Gartenstein said he asked if Schneck could vote and the Town Attorney said no.

The board voted to suspend their Rules of Conduct, Section F  with a vote of 4-0. With that Gartenstein formally announced there would be a vacancy on the Selectboard as of Wednesday, June 19.

Anyone wishing to be considered for the position should send letters of interest to the Town Manager’s office no later than Thursday, June 13, at 5 p.m.

Interviews will be held on June 20 starting at 5 p.m. with a Special Selectboard meeting at 6 p.m. to fill the vacancy.

Selectboard suggestions for questions will be compiled by the Town Manager for the board’s consideration. The board hopes to have these available by June 13 for the candidates to review.

Architectural Engineering Contract for Police Fire Facility Project

Robin Sweetapple and Tony Farnum joined project manager Steve Horton to tell the Selectboard about their recommendation for an architectural firm for the Police Fire Facility Project (PFFP).

Horton said that 12 good firms responded. The committee reviewed their proposals and chose the top three for interviews. After interviews, it was unanimous to choose Northeast Collaborative Associates of Middleton, Connecticut.

Part of the reason for choosing them was that they had done many similar projects, including stations in Keene. The chemistry was good, too, said Horton.

“If you approve them, we’d negotiate the contract terms,” said Horton, adding that the fees came in below budget. “Then we’ll start on the design process.” He estimated that to take 8 or 9 months with construction beginning in early spring 2014.

Horton said he had been getting to know the department heads as well as the objectives and goals for the project. He’s toured facilities, answered questions, and helped the committee with the RFP process. He said he’s spent much time studying the budget.

He said in his view, “the taxpayers own it, you represent taxpayers, and I represent you, so I look out for Town’s best interest in long-term outcomes, in communicating, and saving money.”

Continuing, he said that a successful project needs three stable entities: an owner, a design entity, and a builder. The builder can be a construction manager, or it can go out to bid. He said the next choice that was facing Brattleboro would be how to choose who will do the building.

Horton seemed to favor the construction manager approach. “Construction managers are interviewed to become part of your team.” He said a bid process would result in general contractors and the low bidder doing only the work listed in the contract.

Kate O’Connor asked if there would be opportunities for public input before the architectural plan was completed. Steve said yes.

“Communication to everyone is paramount,” said Horton, and regular meetings with the public are being discussed by the committee.

David Schoales asked the difference between the feasibility design and the final architectural plan.

Horton said that the difference was similar to an outline for a play compared to a full eight act production. The final plans will give full information including code requirements, tile and paint choices, and other details so the budget will be accurate. “We have about 10% of the information now.”

John Allen asked if the final plan would be different from the one shown to the public.

“It’s possible,” admitted Horton. “It depends on us as owners.” he said he understood that the town voted for some specific ideas and outcomes. “It may not match exactly, but the voters saw concepts and we should stick within some certain boundaries,” he told the board. “If we can save money or do things better for taxpayers, we should.”

“You know how architects are,” said Allen. “Their ego comes into the design.”

The board voted 4-0 to enter into contract negotiations with NCA for the PFFP.

John O’Connor told the Selectboard that the PFFP bond documents had been drawn up and “July 29th is the date.” He told them they could sign them tonight to get them back to the bond bank.

By The People: Brattleboro Goes Fourth Parade Permit

The parade will be held Thursday July 4th from 10 am to 12 noon. It starts at Brattleboro Union High School, travels down Main Street, and ends at the Common.

Kate O’Connor said there would be about 50 units in the parade, with events at Living Memorial Park starting at 1 p.m., and fireworks after 9 p.m..

She said this year was the 40th anniversary of the event, and the fourth put on by a citizen committee.

They raise nearly $15,000 each year, primarily for fireworks, and would appreciate any donations. Call Tim O’Connor at 254-5347 to do so.

“Call anytime day or night,” joked John Allen.

Despite one very obvious conflict of interest, the parade permit was issued 4-0.

Annual Dog Warrant

Unlicensed dogs need to speak with their owners. The Animal Control Officer will begin issuing tickets for any unlicensed dogs in Brattleboro. The Brattleboro Selectboard approved the list of questionable canines.

According to the rules, dogs can be destroyed if there is no compliance, but Sondag said it has never happened.

Committee Appointments

With no contested appointments, the Selectboard approved a list of citizens to a variety of committees and boards.

I shall continue as a Fence Viewer, being joined by Don Webster. (Hi Don!)

The full list is available on the Town website under Selectboard supplemental materials, item F.

The Calendar

Ken Schneck wasn’t there to read the upcoming events as he often does, and David Schoales volunteered to read the calendar. It went smoothly.

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