The Brattleboro Selectboard decided to revise their proposed plastic bag ban ordinance bag thickness, increasing it from 1 mil to 2.25 mil. This came after some special demonstrations and displays were presented and comments taken.
They also got a peek at the FY19 budget, with a review by the Town Manager that sets a course for in-depth analysis at a series of upcoming meetings. The board learned of continued steps in the realm of diversity, inclusion and equity. Groundworks received grant funds for operation of their new shelter, and results of the panhandling survey were reviewed.
Chair Kate O’Connor said she had no remarks for this meeting but promised double remarks for the next one.
Town Manager Peter Elwell reminded people that the Act 46 election (“good turnout and steady flow of voters”) was going on in the Selectboard meeting room, hence the re-location of tonight’s meeting to the library.
For selectboard comments and committee reports, David Schoales noted another pedestrian accident in Brattleboro and suggested that a “wear white at night” campaign might be a good issue for the Traffic Safety Committee. Tim Wessel, on the committee, said more traffic calming measures were needed, and both drivers and pedestrians need to work to be safer.
Elwell added that the darkness at this time of year adds to the risk. “Extra caution is needed as the season changes.”
From the public, Starr Latronica invited the community to an event about Abenaki art to be held Wednesday.
Two residents were there to talk about sidewalks, and the need for increased sidewalk plowing. Elwell told them to bring concerns to the Traffic Safety Committee, or come back for the budget discussion regarding capital projects and equipment.
A resident of West Brattleboro said that he lived near the location of the traffic accident. He suggested they re-install the radar speed detector that displays miles per hour for drivers. “Those are effective.” He also suggested lowering the speed limit in West Brattleboro to 25 mph.
Police-Fire Facilities Update
Central Fire Station is on schedule to be substantially complete by the end of the year, with a ribbon cutting ceremony anticipated for January 2018. Nearby residents have complained about new noises emanating from the station, and work is being done to muffle the ventilation equipment.
The old West Brattleboro station has been taken down, and the property is being converted into a parking lot.
The Police Station is complete, but a few other possible police facility projects are possible. Signage, roof repairs, and a carport are still under consideration. If all of these possibilities are pursued, about $41,000 will remain from the bond at the end of all the work. Decisions on these possible projects will come at a future meeting.
Ordinance to Ban Single Use Plastic Bags
The Brattleboro Selectboard held a second reading of a proposed ordinance to ban single use plastic bags.
The main issue for the board continued to be bag thickness.
Pal Borofsky, of Sam’s, kicked things off with a demonstration of his store’s plastic bag’s ability to carry bricks. The bag was just between 1 and 2 mil in thickness. “Paper is far more expensive, and heavier to transport,” he said. “This bag is super for our purposes.”
Alice Charkes said she appreciated the enthusiasm he had for his bags, but “people throw them away.” She said that it would be a higher moral ground if Brattleboro really tries to eliminate plastic bags, not craft them to last longer. “I want Brattleboro to be a place looking ahead and not doing the same old thing.” That same old thing, she said, were “plastics, since The Graduate in the 60’s.”
There were similar views from almost everyone else that spoke.
Drew Adam said he recently saw how much plastic was ending up in composted materials at the dump. He was in favor of minimizing use of plastic in town.
Stewart McDermott said that everyone knew of the detrimental effect of plastic. He suggested the board “take a real leadership step” and call for a ban on everything under 3 mil.
Abby Mnookin said she respected Pal’s talk of Sam’s bags, but wanted to note that only one merchant had complained while 1,300 people signed a petition. She asked them to take a leadership role and ban all plastics. “We need to give up convenience to move toward a just and sustainable world for our kids.”
Others suggested merchants be allowed to charge for plastic bags.
Tim Maciel said Brattleboro goes through 6.4 million plastic bags a year, and local retailers spend $265,000 annually to buy them, though they are used for an average of 12 minutes before being put into the environment for 1,000 years. He felt 3 mil was the right cutoff, and that Sam’s would adjust. He also felt it should be implemented as soon as possible.
The Downtown Alliance said they did a poll and most merchants were in favor of banning plastic bags. A woman presented the board with a display of bags, arranged by thickness for easy reference. “There’s no good reason TO use plastic bags,” said another.
Others still, including Daniel Quipp, suggested gathering some donations or grant funds to buy some good, cloth promotional bags advertising downtown merchants to be given out to people of limited income.
With the public hearing pretty much complete, the board deliberated.
Tim Wessel focused fellow board members on the issue of bag thickness, rather than an outright ban of all plastic bags, or charging for bags.
John Allen said while “philosophically we’d all like to see plastic go away, but it is in our society and our world.” He said as much as he hated plastic, it was “an evil necessity. It’s everywhere.”
David Schoales said plastic was in our water. “We need to move away from using petroleum.”
Wessel tried to give Borofsky a chance to weigh in. “Maybe there’s a middle ground. Pal, what could you handle?”
Rather than offer an answer, Borofsky listed reasons retail was facing challenges, costs associated with credit cards, the time it took to order plastic bags from China, store features such as popcorn and bathrooms.
Wessel tried again. “If you were us…”
Abby Mnookin intervened. “You are negotiating with one business and it is upsetting.” The board backed off and went back to discussing thickness of plastic bags.
“I start the bidding at 2.5 mil,” said David Schoales. Schoales and Starr were in favor, the others against, and it failed.
John Allen proposed 1 mil, as written in the draft ordinance before them with no changes. O’Connor and Allen were in favor, the others against, and that failed.
Brandie Starr offered up 3 mil. Schoales and Starr in favor, the others against, and that, too, failed.
“How about 2 mil?” queried Schoales. Schoales and Starr in favor, the others against, and it failed.
Wessel suggested aligning with California and adopting a 2.25 mil thickness threshold. O’Connor and Allen were against, but the others were in favor and this thickness was approved.
The ordinance will be rewritten with the new thickness and another second reading and possible adoption will occur at the next meeting. If passed, it will be enacted by January and in effect starting July of next year.
Bill said he watches the Selectboard at home with his hearing aid turned up. “I can’t hear you. Speak up at meetings.”
John Allen said he’d remind people to speak louder and more clearly.
Seasonal Assistance for Groundworks
The board voted to give Groundworks Collaborative $10,000 to support the seasonal overflow shelter. The shelter is being relocated this year from the former First Baptist Church on Main Street to the former Austine School now managed by the Winston Prouty Center.
The shelter served 154 individuals last season.
Josh Davis, executive director, said the new space was a former dormitory, has two floors to allow for better separation of shelter guests, increases the number of beds to 33, has better restroom and shower facilities, and space for staff. It will cost just over $200,000 to run the program for the season, and over $167,000 has already been raised from grants and donations.
The funds are a one time grant to help the program transition to their new location and new staffing model.
Davis said he’d like to return to the board throughout the season with updates.
FY19 Proposed Budget
The board got their first look at the proposed FY2019 budget Tuesday night, and heard the schedule for reviewing it in detail.
Town Manager Peter Elwell gave the board the overview.
The first draft is prepared by Town staff, under the direction of the Town Manager, using the Comprehensive Review of Town Operations and Long Term Financial Plan as guides. And while it looks complete, the draft will be revised over the next couple of months and “won’t look just like this.”
Elwell noted that there are two significant concerns that remain from previous years: a sustainable capital improvement plan, and non-tax revenues. He said we need about $3 million a year to do the equipment purchases and capital investments necessary, but are struggling by with about $1 million of recurring annual funding. Non-tax revenue issues will, he hopes, be addressed by collaborating with other towns to learn how they deal with the issue, and possibly change state law.
In the FY19 budget presented, no reductions in town services are currently proposed. It comes in at $17,547,230, which is $53,389 (0.3%) more than FY18.
Elwell walked them through projected revenue and expenses. Revenues include property taxes, rooms & meals taxes, transfers of funds, and other income.
There isn’t much more in the way of new revenues. Rooms & Meals tax revenue is expected to increase slightly (4.3%). Transfers from other funds are projected to decrease by 3.9%.
The fund balance – the money that accumulates from repaid loans – is used for big, non-recurring expenses. In FY19, $800,000 from the fund balance is expected to be used for purchasing a new fire tuck, new excavator, new police vehicle, and some energy improvements at the skating rink.
Our biggest expenditure is for people, Elwell noted. Staffing and benefits are expected to increase $251,290 (2.5%), which includes a new HR position and annual raises for employees. Brattleboro has 117 full time and 15 part-time employees paid from the General Fund.
A transfer of capital from the General Fund to the Capital Fund will decrease by $219,192 (11.9%).
Electricity costs are expected to drop more than $21,291 due to solar net metering credits, and the “savings” there will be used to keep other budget costs relatively flat.
Capital projects and purchases are expected to reach $825,000.
As proposed, the budget would cause property taxes to go up 2.8%, which would result in a municipal tax rate increase of $0.0342 (3.42 cents), or about $35 more per $100,000 of property value. This does not include any proposed debt costs for potential Municipal Center repairs.
New this year, the FY19 budget calls for hiring a new Human Resources professional at a management-level salary of $60,000. No other new staff is proposed for FY19. Elwell said the amount would cover salary, but didn’t include benefits because they could vary significantly depending on who is hired.
The proposed budget also has details on smaller expenses, such as departmental expenses (down 0.3%), legal costs (up 1.9%), human services (the same as before), a transfer to subsidize bag costs in solid waste (up 8.8%), a transfer to the Capital Fund (up 5.5%), a transfer to Capital Projects, debt service payments (down $7.9%), and other expenses (up 4.9%).
The Fund Balance as of June 2017 was $2,454,139. Guidelines call for keeping 10% for “rainy day” events ($1,754,723). The FY19 budget calls for dipping below the 10%, and leaving 9.4% instead. This is to accomodate the large purchase of an expensive fire truck, said Elwell.
He ended his summary with questions for the selectboard to ponder during budget season. Is the fire truck recommendation a good one? Are the proposed capital equipment purchases and projects affordable? Should Brattleboro hire an HR professional? Are there other positions the board would like to add? Is enough being spent on social equity and energy efficiency? Should any services be reduced to afford new positions or initiatives?
The final issue was the schedule to go over the budget in detail. Expect meetings almost every week in December and January for the board to work it out.
David Schoales hoped the town would investigate collecting Rooms & Meals taxes directly, to capture the full amount rather than give the state a cut for processing payments.
Franz Reichsman asked why the reserve was 10%. No one remembered the specifics, but Elwell noted that 10% is barely a month of operating costs for Brattleboro. “10% is a pretty low standard.”
Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Update
Back in September, the board approved of the Town Manager’s recommendations for Town support of diversity, inclusion, and equity.
Tuesday, the board was given a list of events and action taken since September, including attending events, participating in meetings, signing letters of support, meetings with individuals and organizations about possible collaborations, and inclusion of $60,000 in the FY19 budget for an HR professional and another $10,000 for staff training.
Schoales hoped training could begin as soon as possible, but Elwell cautioned that it was better to do the right training with the right people than to be trained quickly. “I think we’re building momentum to be active in many ways.”
Tim Robinson suggested they do surveys to gather feedback on how they are doing. “What’s happening here is a model for other parts of the country.”
Community Survey Update
One of the four primary actions to be taken by the selectboard regarding panhandlers in downtown Brattleboro was to gather more information, via a survey, to inform the board and help them make better decisions.
Rather than create and manage an official “Town” survey, the Brattleboro Selectboard approved using a survey created by Kate O’Connor at the Chamber of Commerce along with the Downtown Alliance.
O’Connor gave a preliminary report on the outcome of the survey.
There were 1,117 responses, with the majority being Brattleboro residents. A quarter of respondents were male, and nearly 70% female. Most were between 35-54. 85% said they agree there is panhandling, but only 35% says this had made them feel unsafe.
O’Connor noted there were ample comments for people to read, and that when they do it becomes clear that the problem area is basically a small area on Flat Street. She cautioned people to be responsible and not take single comments out of context or turn them into headlines.
John Allen said he didn’t have a lot faith in surveys. “It can be skewed so many different ways.”
Brenda Siegel said she was concerned there was no paper version for people without computers to fill out. She said she also didn’t like the way it seemed to lead people to feel uncomfortable about panhandling. “Panhandlers aren’t all dangerous.” She suggested we deal with the perception, not just the population. “We need to help people who feel scared.” She suggested dropping the word panhandling and begin talk of people struggling, and make economic equality an issue.
One woman said it was hard for community volunteers to continue to facilitate discussions, and wondered if there was a more sustainable way to proceed. This led to the Chief of Police giving a short review of police work downtown and in the community. “Brattleboro is a safe place. We have crime and issues and problems, but it is a relatively safe community.”
Alice Charkes’s appointment to the Traffic Safety Committee as the School Representative was ratified.
Ian Kiehle appointed to the Development Review Board.
We have the first new candidate for Selectboard for next year – Shanta Lee.