There will be no Town panhandling sign. That was the split decision of the Brattleboro Selectboard Tuesday evening.
The board had an active and long night. Much of it had to do with financial matters and planning, such as approving a letter of intent to rent space in the Municipal Center, reviewing long term financial plans, buying a fire truck, debating the thickness of single use plastic bags, and contemplating energy issues.
Budget season starts officially at the next meeting, but it peeked its head in and said hello this week.
John Allen was absent, so Chair Kate O’Connor began by noting that all items would require three votes to pass.
Town Manager Peter Elwell wanted to give an updated on the question of where to discrad syringes and other sharps. He said the State of Vermont’s Department of Health had recommendations, but the main point was to follow their instructions for handling, then dispose of them in a sturdy plastic container such as a detergent bottle, and label them.
For comments and committee reports, Tim Wessel remarked on a “bittersweet weekend” in Brattleboro, with both the Literary Festival and a ride in remembrance for Stanley Lynde. He said it really showed the love for the man in the community. “A celebration of life weekend.”
Brandie Starr agreed, adding that there were people from all walks of life at the Flat Street memorial. “Every circle in town,” she said. “It was a beautiful moment.”
David Schoales echoed the sentiments and added that there was also a rally this weekend for Mamadou Bah, who he said was in Canada seeking asylum after facing deportation here.
Schoales said he attended a Workforce Diversity Committee meeting, and that the idea of matching available jobs to people here in the community might be shaping up into an opportunity for collaboration between the Town and school system.
Mr. Nickerson told the board he felt Indigenous Peoples’ Day was “lame and nothing,” and that he was expecting the Abenaki to do something. He said the only real indigenous people were in Africa, and the rest of us were all from Africa. “I was hoping for more.”
Both O’Connor and Starr pointed out the celebration at Pliny Park, in the rain, where proclamations were read, songs were sung, and blessings given. “I hope it builds year after year,” said Starr.
Police-Fire Facilities Update
At Central Fire Station, the Chief and others have moved into their new offices, and work is continuing with an expected finish in about six weeks..
Demolition of the old West Brattleboro station is underway, and should resemble a parking lot at the end of a few weeks.
As work winds down, the financial picture becomes more clear and, in fact, a bit better than expected. Elwell reported that the Uncommitted Balance now stands at $416,369.34, after $33,733.45 was “freed up” by closing out some contracts.
The remaining funds may be spent on new police signage, a carport for the police station, and roof replacement for the police station. If so, about $160,000 is expected to be leftover when everything is completed.
The decision on the additional repairs and additions will come after all three facilities are complete, and early in the new year they can decide how to use the leftover money.
Dick DeGray asked if we were required to use the full bond amount, if Town Meeting Representatives weigh in, and whether it had to be spent on Capital projects.
Elwell told him the selectboard might keep the funds for future building maintenance, or redirect them to another project.
A new draft of the panhandling sign came back for discussion. “It was tabled at the last meeting so all five of us could discuss,” she said to the three other board members present.
David Schoales started off by saying he felt that data was missing from the conversation, and wanted information from a survey to help guide their decision-making.
O’Connor said the Chamber and Downtown Alliance were almost ready to launch a “really, really good survey” that she helped draft after looking at what other towns had asked in similar surveys.
Schoales wanted it to be distributed widely, and suggested getting word to schools so parents could weigh in.
Tim Wessel reminded them that a survey was not on the agenda, and got back to the panhandling sign before them, which read:
“Brattleboro is a compassionate community and recognizes that it is legal for people to carry signs or to ask for money in public places. We are also committed to the safety of every resident and visitor in our town and recognize that aggressive or threatening behavior can cause legal activities to become illegal. If you feel threatened, you can call the Police at 802-257-7950 or dial 9-1-1 in an emergency. If you need food, shelter, or other assistance, you can call 2-1-1 for referral to local service agencies.”
Wessel said he had been against any sign, and still didn’t think this sign would be effective, but would vote for it because it would make some people feel comfortable. “It shows we are listening to the larger issues the entire country should be talking about.” He added he wanted more energy put into the task Force initiative.
Brandie Starr said she had heard some in the community wishing the board would hurry up, but said that with important issues that have an impact on fellow humans the board needs time to take it in, internalize what is being said, and make a decision that is best for everyone. In other words, it takes time.
Ellen Schwartz said she was against seeing a sign of any sort, and felt the current one was sending mixed messages, of compassion and of suspicion. She called the language a “veiled threat – we have our eyes on you” and said she hoped the town would work on deeper issues such as poverty. “This doesn’t seem like a gesture of compassion.”
Mr. Nickerson said when he first arrived, he used the food kitchens. “It’s duplicitous to hold a sign begging for food,” he said.
Brenda Siegel said the sign’s newest incarnation was better, but she still preferred no sign at all. She didn’t like the stigma it encouraged. “The sign might make a few people feel more comfortable, but it won’t help anything and will encourage a stigma.”
Another man agreed, saying the sign wasn’t very compassionate. “It seems to say we care about a particular part of town and particular people we want to favor.”
Jim Levinson agreed the new sign was better, “but we don’t need one.”
Dick Degray agreed the sign might not make a difference, but it was needed for the people who felt afraid.
Tom Zopf said panhandlers weren’t doing it because they wanted to do it, but because they had to. He felt the battle between panhandlers and merchants might be showing a merchant problem in town. “Maybe they should know more about neighbors in need.” He suggested knowing more about panhandlers.
Kelly Junno said “instead of catering to subjective feelings about a group of people” there should be education about homelessness and the reality of their lives. “Would we talk this way about any other minority group,” she questioned, “or would we talk about prejudice?”
Others wondered how the effectiveness of the sign would be measured.
Siegel said she wanted to drive home the point about about ending stigma. “We don’t do a service by having so much stigma attached to what’s happening in our town. It’s hard for families going through addiction or homelessness issues.” She encouraged the board to educate rather than hang onto the fear.
Wessel said that regardless of the outcome of the vote, the discussion is all positive.
Starr said she’d love to organize discussions between panhandlers and merchants. “I’d like humans to be humans to one another.” Unril each recognizes the other and treats others as human, she said, you can’t ask anything of anyone.
Schoales thought the sign was informational and showed where the margins were. He felt is a reasonable part of a bigger approach.
The vote was 2-2, with Starr and O’Connor voting against. The panhandling sign will not be installed by the town.
Related, Chief Fitzgerald gave a brief update on the Task Force, saying they had gone out 5 times in the last month. “We move at the speed of trust” he said. They are meeting everyone downtown, building a rapport, finding out needs, and addressing them. He said other agencies, including at the state level, have been very interested in the program and are stepping forward with additional resources. “Very encouraging and moving forward.”
He also wanted to address another stigma, that calling the police was not negative. “Our mission is to serve those in need, those who make a mistake, and those who victimize others.” He said if someone feels threatened they should all the police. “If a person is in need, we get them what they need. It’s not a negative to call the police.” He said they have lots of connections in town. “It’s not all doom and gloom.”
Municipal Center Rental and Improvements
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved of a Letter of Intent with the State of Vermont to go forward with plans for leasing 10,000 square feet of the Municipal Center. Specific terms will be agreed upon at a leter date, but plans call for sharing costs to upgrade the building, and some re-organization of current staff and tenants.
Town Manager Elwell called it “an important threshold moment.” He said they hoped to have a final lease ready by the end of the year, ideas on the upgrades and financing in the spring for Representative Town Meeting, and work underway by the end of summer. It will be ready to occupy by July 2019.
The state is planning on a 10 yr lease with options to renew, most likely long into the future.
Vermont will pay 50% for fixes to leased area, 40% for shared use areas, and 50% of the parking lot. Rent will be 16 sq. foot, with regular increases.
Elwell said part of the idea is for the State to have a campus-like effect here, between the state building, the municipal center, the library, and courthouse. Schoales hoped they could plan to cluster social services to make it easier for low income people to find assistance.
Degray suggested they save some money from the Police Fire expected surplus to help pay for the upgrades to the Municipal Center.
Monthly Finance Report with John O’Connor
Finance Director John O’Connor gave the board a financial update for the month of September, 2017. 25% of the fiscal year is complete.
General Fund stands at 24.2% of the annual budget. Utilities Fund is at 25.4% and Parking Fund is at 21.1% of their annual budgets.
Solid Waste expenses are 23.2% and revenues are 22.4%, with the regular note that some revenues and costs get posted a month later.
Brattleboro has $4,450,021 in outstanding loans, and about $466,000 available for grants and loans.
Brattleboro has 37 current, active grants and 15 in development.
Brandie Starr saw a 533% increase in a line item and asked for clarification. John O’Connor said it must be a mistake, but Elwell corrected him, saying it was money paid for an independent investigation of a personnel matter.
FY17 Year End Financial Report – Final But Unaudited
Finance Director John O’Connor supplied the board with details of the FY 2017 Unaudited Financial Report, and Town Manager Elwell helped interpret the main issue, a larger than expected surplus.
He said it was a result of policy changes that result in savings in employee benefits, and savings in the Police and Fire Departments. Normally, a surplus is in the 2-3% range, or $3-500,000, but this year the number is closer to $750,000.
This led to a short discussion of unassigned funds, non-spendable funds, and committed funds. It also led to a message from Dick Degray, who had left but asked someone make a comment on his behalf, that “the board should do a better job at aligning budgets with reality. $759,000 is too big of a discrepancy.”
Elwell said that he didn’t disagree, but the difference here is that there is a very good explanation.
The unaudited numbers at the end of FY17:
General Fund expenditures were at 96.4% of the annual budget; revenues were at 101%.
The Utilities Fund revenues were 105.1% and expenditures at 97.3%
The Parking Fund revenues were 102.8% and expenditures at 104.5%.
Solid Waste Disposal Fund revenues were at 94.3% and expenditures at 94.2%
$4,046,711 had been loaned out and $467,445 remained available for grants and loans.
Long Term Financial Plan Update FY19-23
Brattleboro’s five year financial forecast has been updated, and the selectboard was able to review the first update of the Long Term Financial Plan (LTFP) Tuesday night.
Town Manager Elwell said that ideally, in the future, the Comprehensive Review of Town Operations would come up in the spring, the Long Term Financial Plan would be adjusted in the summer, and budget work could take place in the fall. This year staff got busy, the board cancelled some summer meetings, and things were delayed. Therefore, he told them, there isn’t much time between this report and budget season, which begins with the next meeting.
Elwell made note of the more important changes and assumptions in the new LTFP. For example, he said that Town Staff’s assumptions were not “aggressively optimistic” and conservatism increased whenever solid numbers could not be provided. The Grand List is predicted to remain flat, even though it has increased slightly in recent years.
Municipal Center rental income is expected, but not certain, so it has not yet been included.
Property tax rate increase guesses, including paying off Police-Fire bonds, are as follows:
FY19 – 3.4 cents, or 2.75%
FY20 – 3.3 cents, or 2.57%
FY21 – 3.3 cents, or 2.55%
FY22 – 3.2 cents, or 2.41%
FY23 – 3.2 cents, or 2.33%
Due to recent cost savings, a General Fund reserve balance has grown beyond the 10% recommended level. Elwell suggested that future “excess fund balance” will be available to invest in capital improvements, equipment, and other one time expenses.
Employee salaries are expected to increase about 2.5%. Retirement benefits are expected to rise $75,000.
Health insurance costs are expected to rise. Departmental expenses are expected to rise, mostly due to expected DPW upgrades.
Worker’s Compensation is expected to go up by 10% a year, and while the Town is trying to tame these costs, it will be a while.
Ambulance expenses are expected to go up by 25% ($56,500).
Debt service payments will decline by about $500,000.
To catch up on long-term infrastructure and equipment needs, more than $1 million per year will be transferred from the General Fund to the Capital Fund. As this is a bare minimum, Town Staff expect to ask for additional funds from operating budget surpluses.
Wessel said it would be helpful to know median home prices when tax figures were given out. Schoales hoped the board would talk of new staff positions, and perhaps the budget meetings might be organized along themes rather than departments.
Elwell said a focus on both themes and departments would be required, and that the first draft of what would surely be a changing budget would be presented at their next meeting.
“I love budgets,” said Starr.
Winter Sand for 2017-2018
Zaluzny Excavating of Vernon, Vermont will be providing winter sand for Brattleboro roads. The board voted to approve their bid of $8.70 per cubic yard, delivered. Brattleboro anticipated buying about 3,300 cubic yards.
Interim Replacement of Ladder Truck
Brattleboro’s Fire Department has a 1991 aerial ladder truck that requires close to $70,000 worth of repairs. Rather than pay for the repairs, the department would rather buy a slightly newer (1993) aerial ladder truck that is in better condition and about half the price of the repairs.
$35,000 was transfered to the Capital Fund from the Fire Department’s operating budget, and then the Capital Fund was tapped for that $35,000 to be paid to Minuteman Fire and Rescue Apparatus of Walpole, MA for the used fire truck.
Our old truck is a mess. Fly section cables are worn, hydraulic lift cylinders need replacing, the steel and rubber hydraulic lines need replacing, ladder rungs are rusting and bulging, the torque box is rusting, and stabilizing jacks need repair.
We’re currently borrowing Putney’s ladder truck.
The “new” 1993 truck would be a 105-foot ladder truck currently being used by Sharon, MA. It has relatively low mileage and ladder hours (12,000 miles and 700 hours compared to our truck’s 38,500 miles and 3,820 hours), and is mechanically in good shape.
The board voted to buy the interim vehicle to hold us until we buy a new one, which the Fire Chief estimates will cost closer to $1 million.
Even with the purchase of the used vehicle, the board will have to take up the purchase of the new vehicle quite soon. It can take quite a while for a new truck to be custom built.
Gibson-Aiken Window Replacement
The final phase of window replacement at the Gibson-Aiken building will get underway, with Vermont Vinyl installing the final 14 new, dual pane, Energy Star .27 U value, argon gas windows at a cost of $11,200. Over $4,000 was left over from the last round of window replacements that can be applied to this purchase.
A $30,000 reduction in the 2018-2019 Capital Plan for the window replacement will be possible due to this repair.
State Farm Good Neighbor Grant
“These are big grants, so keep your fingers crossed,” said Peter Elwell.
Recreation & Parks, on behalf of BASIC, was approved to apply for a $20,000 grant to State Farm. The grant is part of their Good Neighbor Citizenship Company program.
Tarrant Foundation Grant
A second grant application for the skatepark was approved by the selectboard. This one is a $50,000 application to the Tarrant Foundation.
The Foundation invited the BASIC application, saying it was one of 10-15 out of hundreds to be allowed to apply.
Ordinance to Ban Single -Use Plastic Bags
The ordinance to ban single-use plastic bags reached a semi-final form Tuesday, with a first reading of the new ordinance held by the Brattleboro Selectboard.
Since that time, Town staff used a digital micrometer to sample the bag thickness of local bags and found that most were between .5 and .75 mils.
This latest draft incorporates the Selectboard’s suggestion to define “single-use plastic bags” as those whose thickness is less than 1.0 mil. This seemed to disappoint just about everyone attending, and one board member.
Tim Wessel thought it pretty good, though, and said since it would be the first in Vermont, “let’s see how it goes.”
Brandie Starr had doubts, though she said she had voted for the 1 mil definition at a previous meeting. She said she thought more and did some research and now felt 2.5 mil was a minimum.
David Schoales agreed with Wessel. “I’d like to try it and see if it works.” O’Connor wanted to stick with 1 mil, too.
Tim Maciel, sponsor of the plastic bag ban petition, thought it meaningless to set a 1 mil thickness. “It’s nothing. Brattleboro will be the first, so let’s set an example.” He pointed out that thicker nags do not get thrown out as much and are more likely to be reused. “We need to reduce all plastic bags.”
Roseanne Grimes said 1 mil was not a statement. “It’s greenwashing, a bare minimum.” She said it may be a burden, but the bags are a burden on the environment and future generations. “It’s not sustainable unless we do it.” She told the board to “do it bold the first time.”
Jim Freeman said 1 mil was a meek statement. He said thickness was secondary to keeping as much plastic out of the system as possible.
George Harvey added that 70% of sea birds have been lost worldwide, and plastic is a reason. He said 96% of people in the US have ingested plastic and have it in their brains. “It would be nice to be bold, and ban plastic bags altogether.”
Mr. Nickerson agreed that we treat wild animals horribly. He said, though, he continues his search around town for blowing plastic bags and has only found one.
Kathleen White said 3 mil would be good. “It should be a bigger impact, and not symbolic.”
Board members wondered about making changes, but decided to let the current wording stand until the next meeting.
A second reading and public hearing will be on the agenda for the next meeting.
Energy Conservation Matters
Energy Committee annual report to the board began with a prediction that by 2040, Vermont’s climate will resemble today’s western Pennsylvania climate, and by 2070, Vermont will be more like southern Ohio is today. If emissions rise, Vermont’s climate could even resemble today’s climate in northern Alabama.
Their presentation, led by Michael Bosworth, showed Honeywell project savings really starting to kick in around 2022, Brattleboro streetlight costs going down, and savings in electricity, heating fuel, and fleet fuel costs.
Recent solar projects are showing their benefits by saving electric costs and increasing property tax revenue.
The Committee recommends implementing the 2016 energy audit suggested energy saving measures, starting with the Municipal Center, Library, and parking garage. They’d also like to see implementation of the Wastewater Treatment Plant energy audit recommendations.
They ask as many Town buildings as possible be converted to modern wood heat. They would like to continue to advocate for public transportation, and electric and hybrid vehicles. Biking, walking, and other alternative transportation methods are to be encouraged.
The group would like to explore energy storage and micro-grids, and help with the rewrite of the Energy section of the Town Plan.
The second energy-related matter of the Committee was to ask the Selectboard to endorse the Downtown Brattleboro Building Energy Program. This is a program to help private property owners upgrade their energy systems, save energy, and reduce emissions.
The program appeared to lack quite a few key details, which gave the selectboard some concerns about endorsing the program. Instead, they opted to send a letter along with an upcoming grant expressing pleasure in supporting the goals of the proposed program.
Tim Wessel wondered by so little of the funding was shown to be spent on buildings. As best he could tell, only 1/3 of the funds would go to building owners. He was told it was needed for education efforts.
Kate O’Connor felt there were too many blanks left to be filled in. “The problem is too many unknowns.”
The discussion of an energy coordinator position was postponed due to the late hour.
Employee Health Insurance Program Renewal
The Town’s Employee Health Insurance Program was tweaked by the Brattleboro Selectboard for the coming year. The deductible for single coverage rises to $3,500 (from $3,000), and family coverage goes up to $7,000 (from $6,000).
Brattleboro will continue to pay for claims above $1,500 for single coverage and $3,000 for families up to the new deductible amounts.
This keeps benefits the same for employees, but provides some savings in health insurance payments made to Blue Cross. Elwell called these numbers the “sweet spot” where savings would happen.
Reschedule November Selectboard Meeting
The Brattleboro Selectboard rescheduled their first November meeting to the usual date for the meeting, November 7. Due to an election that day and voting on school consolidation, the meeting will take place in the Library.
6 overdoses reported by the Brattleboro Police in September.
Dog park will certainly be finished before the skatepark is was designed to accompany.
10 customers had their water shut off in early October.
12,128 items were checked out of the library in August.