The Brattleboro Selectboard held a meeting full of exciting twists and turns. From a sudden interest in municipal broadband to a re-examination of requiring write-in candidates to pre-register, the meeting was full of surprises.
There were the scheduled issues as well with liquor licenses renewed, an animal control officer appointed, grants accepted, and so on, but even these provided curious side paths. Consider, for example, that the board decided to willingly challenge what they felt was an unfair ordinance, all in the name of compassion. Or the matter of the fly in need of rescue… In short, it was an eventful meeting.
Chair Kate O’Connor started the meeting with praise for volunteers helping with the Harris Hill Ski Jump. “The organizers are all volunteers and do a wonderful job.” She added that they bring many people to town for the event.
O’Connor reminded everyone that it was Winter Carnival Week.
“Bring your bathing suits,” joked John Allen. The forecast calls for 70 degrees on Wednesday in Brattleboro.
“There are still fun things to do with your family,” said O’Connor. She said she hoped people would enjoy all the fun stuff.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said that Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald would be recognized with an award as prevention champion for the State of Vermont, with a ceremony planned for the statehouse in Montpelier. Elwell said he was grateful that the Chief approaches his leadership of the Police Department in a way that recognizes the differences between people in our community who are suffering or facing challenges and those who are really doing harm.
“What he does is a little out of the box,” said David Schoales, “but exactly where we want him to be.” He said that kind of recognition makes it easier for him to continue doing this work.
Cassandra Holloway, who nominated him, said she hoped his inspirational and progressive approach would spread throughout the state.
For selectboard comments and committee reports, Tim Wessel congratulated iBrattleboro on its 15th anniversary. He said it was a useful source of historical information, and that Lise LePage and Chris Grotke provide an institutional memory that is valuable to the community.
“I read it every day,” said Brandie Starr.
“We love you,” said John Allen.
“Put that in your notes,” said Starr.
Duly noted. 😉
First up was Howard Fairman, who was returning with praise for the quick action of Town staff after his previous visit to the selectboard to tell them of shivering seniors at the Gibson-Aiken Center. He said the next morning there were two electric heaters, which he called “heart warming, and elsewhere.” He suggested they continue to investigate more permanent solutions, such as grants for zoned heating, and a way to prevent cold air from coming in when doors are opened.
Brandie Starr thought he made good points. John Allen suggested they consider moving the senior center up a floor.
Paige Martin told the selectboard it was time to consider municipal broadband. She explained that more towns were starting to do this, it was cheaper, faster, provided good revenue for the town, and attracts businesses.
She said the urgency of the request is due to the recent repeal of net neutrality. “Now they can slow down or speed up traffic based on what you pay. It will create a bigger digital divide.” She pointed out that one of the few choices for internet is Comcast, “who already violates. They hide prices, add overage fees and other costs.
Martin said Brattleboro should consider treating internet access more like roads, water, and sewer. “Every person relies on the Internet.”
She pointed out that when people pay their bills now, the money leaves the community. Having a local internet utility would keep money in the community.
“Having a transparent, open internet is attractive to business,” she told the board.
Martin said Brattleboro needs to decide if we believe everyone deserves access to the internet. She gave them data sheets on essential infrastructure, communities that have created savings, job creation, and a “cheat sheet” of broadband terms.
“Seems like a no brainer,” said Allen.
“Don’t we have fiber?” asked Starr. Yes, said Schoales.
“Thanks for bringing this to our attention,” said Allen.
“We’d want to research it and bring you back a plan,” said the Town manager. Elwell said that to do municipal broadband would require creating a new utility, so it couldn’t happen overnight, but that he would take a look with staff and report back to the board at a future meeting.
Martin suggested muninetworks.org as a possible resource.
“Will Comcast allow us on that site?” asked Allen.
Cassandra Holloway said that as someone running a non-profit, a cheaper, faster internet would be great.
Mr. Fairman had a word of caution. “As a veteran communications systems engineer, some organization will have to connect the Brattleboro network to the main network. There will be an intermediary.”
Acting as Health Commissioners, the Brattleboro Selectboard re-appointed Cathy Barrows as Animal Control Officer. It’s a three-year term ending in 2021, and is one of two Deputy Health Officer positions under the direction of the Health Officer, the Assistant Fire Chief.
Barrows has been serving in the position for 18 years.
Town Manager Elwell said there had been some investigation of whether to free the Assistant Fire Chief from the role, to allow more time for fire-related matters, but no good solution has presented itself other than hiring someone new. “We’re looking for a better way.”
The re-appointed Animal Control Officer wasn’t in the room, but a concerned glance from Chair Kate O’Connor very temporarily deputized Tim Wessel as a Quasi Deputy Animal Control Officer for a specific task.
“There is a fly on the table,” said Wessel.” It flies around then goes on its back. The Chair wants me to help it.”
“I move we help the fly,” said John Allen, and Wessel moved the fly to a safer, perhaps final place to rest.
“We just did,” said Starr.
Liquor Commissioners – Annual Renewals
Acting as Liquor Commissioners, the board approved the annual renewals of liquor, outside consumption, and entertainment permits. O’Connor reminded new members that the approvals were done in bulk, pending proper paperwork, but if they had any concerns they could demand an appearance by a licensee.
14 local establishments had state violations in the previous year. Most were for “education violations” but a few made sales to minors.
“Quite a few with issues,” noted O’Connor. “Why so many?”
Cassandra Holloway said that they had increased the number of checks being done. The education violations, she said, were mostly due to people not realizing their two year certification expired. She said she wanted to work with them to warn them a few months in advance, so they won’t get caught off guard. She said she’s also giving out a handout to help those serving know some key information.
O’Connor said that two, Avenue Grocery and Price Chopper had violations for selling to minors. “We usually ask them to come in…”
Holloway’s list differed, though, and she added others to the list. This led to some confusion, but Elwell suggested that before approving any licenses, the board could have Town staff review the violations one more time, and any with violations for sale to minors could be called in to discuss their situation.
Starr wanted to add the Indo-American Grocery to the list, for the violation of not paying employees properly or taking education classes. “It rubs me the wrong way.”
Wessel asked if any on the list were new licenses. O’Connor said some were recent but they were all just renewing previous licenses tonight. “And just for liquor, not tobacco.”
“We’re not Liquor and Tobacco Commissioners” said Allen.
“Will we become Liquor and Marijuana Commissioners?” asked Wessel.
“I have the munchies,” said Allen.
Jan Anderson asked if the board was going to sign the approval of all licenses before knowing the final list, or if they would trust the Town Manager. The board will trust him.
All are approved, pending the presentation of proper paperwork, a review of violations one more time, and complying with any police of fire department requests.
Water & Sewer Commissioners
Acting as Water & Sewer Commissioners, the Brattleboro Selectboard then took up matters of abatement and grants.
First was a consideration to abate the 8% late fees for Linda Sturgeon of Putney, owner of the property at 98 Green Street, for a total of $108.69.
She was assessed a late fee due to a high ($2745.15) utility bill caused by a broken toilet, and she had an agreement to pay the large bill in two installments. The second installment was paid after the due date, hence penalties. Sturgeon said she didn’t know penalties would apply.
John Allen was first to suggest they abate the penalty, especially since she paid the entire bill.
Starr agreed, noting she came in and made a plan for payment.
Elwell said that while all of this was true, the law was the law, and any late payment must be penalized. “We can discuss changing those rules as a separate action, but many others in similar positions over the years paid the interest and penalty.”
O’Connor agreed with Elwell, and was uncomfortable violating an ordinance. “So far we’ve never abated.”
Sturgeon said a penalty was a punishment for not paying. “Punishment is not okay in this situation.”
“We’re commissioners,” said Allen. “We have discretion. Can’t we abate this without changing the whole policy?”
“The policy could be a formal payment arrangement, or payment,” said Starr, adding that Sturgeon said she would have borrowed to pay to avoid the penalty if she had known. “We should have made the penalty more clear.”
Allen asked why, if the board could only refuse abatements, tell people to come to them to ask for abatements.
“Why are we even here ?” questioned Schoales. “This case is exceptional. It won’t create precedent.”
Elwell said it was the law, not a guideline. “It’s very clear. There are others with similar situations, more than they could pay at one time, and they paid the penalty.”
“Then why did we make her come if we weren’t going to do something?” asked Allen. “Others should have come to us and we might have said – ‘yea, that’s a hardship…” As a commissioner, our job is to evaluate each one of these. That’s why we’re here. Or someone should have told her she had no other recourse. To come and take time out, then come before us, then us to say no – that’s not right. The others should have come to us and said something. Maybe we change it? In this case, I’m happy to abate.”
Starr asked Sturgeon if anyone told her about the penalty when she arranged the payment plan, and Sturgeon said no.
The board voted 4-1 to abate the penalty. O’Connor voted against. They will also look at revising the ordinance.
O’Connor said wording about penalties must be made more clear. Wessel said the current policy is counterintuitive, penalizing someone who was responsible.
“You’ve been abated,” said O’Connor. “And opened our eyes.”
Second, the official accepting and appropriating of over $2 million in grant funds for pollution control.
The Vermont Department of Conservation has given Brattleboro a grant of $2,368,442.12. It will be used to retire a portion of the Town’s debt for sludge and septic processing improvements at the waterwater treatment facility.
Brattleboro applied for the grant nearly seven years ago to pay for about half of the cost of those improvements, and the Town was found to be eligible for up to $5,051,189.
Unfortunately, the program was underfunded and grants could not be given at that time. Instead, we borrowed. We currently owe $10,765,477.16.
With this payment, Elwell explained, the amount drops by nearly 22% to $8,397,035.04. “We’ll still be paying it off until 2033, but our payments will be reduced and cash flow in the Utility Fund will improve.”
There will be more information about how this impacts rates or new projects later in the year when the Utility Budget is discussed.
Monthly Finance Report with John O’Connor
Acting again as themselves, the Brattleboro Selectboard heard the monthly finance report for January 2018. Before he began, there was a spontaneous and unexplained round of applause.
58.3% of the fiscal year is completed.
The Utility Fund stands at 60.9% of its annual budget. Utilities Fund expenses are at 61.6% and Parking Fund expenditures at 55.3%.
The Solid Waste Disposal Fund revenues are at 55.2% and expenses at 55.3%.
Brattleboro has loaned out $4,473,009, and had just over $416,000 available for additional grants and loans.
We have 45 active grants and 10 in development.
Kate O’Connor asked if the Town was maxed out on the winter road brudget, and was told that Brattleboro was approaching the limit at about 96% spent. Much will depend on March weather.
The tough season, Elwell explained, has created potholes all over town. Allen felt that filling them temporarily was like throwing away money.
Starr suggested planting flowers in them. Allen felt a sign that said “we have potholes” would be enough. Schoales said potholes were fun to talk about, and thought more barrels and signs could be used. Wessel suggested an adopt-a-pothole program.
Elwell said that not fixing potholes, while a money-saver, would not be safe. He will invite the Department of Public Works to come discuss potholes in March. He added that the state plans to re-pave from Edward Heights to Wilmington, so Brattleboro is asking to extend that a bit to Exit 2.
Friends of Brattleboro Town Cemeteries
A new volunteer organization to support maintenance of Town cemeteries has been permission to begin by the Brattleboro Selectboard – Friends of Brattleboro Town Cemeteries.
The idea came from the Town Clerk’s Office and Town Cemetery Committee, and would be implemented under the Recreation & Parks Department. It will operate in a similar manner to the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library.
Cemetery Committee Chair Jackie Stromberg explained the need, and some facts about cemeteries. (The board found the idea that cemeteries were some of our first public parks quite interesting, and suggested finding ways to re-engage people in a similar way with historical events or gravestone rubbings.)
The purpose, explained Stromberg, would be to maintain the beauty and accessibility of town-owned cemeteries by clearing brush, cleaning up trash, planting and maintaining flowers, and by being a presence in the cemeteries.
It’s not an official Town committee, and not limited to Brattleboro residents. They’ll establish their own bylaws, collect membership dues, organize volunteer work days, and offer incentives such as discounted grave sites.
Dues will be $10. Pay them for 10 years and volunteer 100 hours to qualify for a free cremation lot or a $250 credit toward a single grave lot in Morningside.
Brattleboro’s Finance Department would maintain the funds.
Funds are needed, too. Town funds cover mowing and tree branch removal, but not much else. The new group hopes to fix grave markers, repair the mausoleum roof, add fences, and more.
Windham Solid Waste Management District PILOT Agreement
The board approved a two year Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with the Windham Solid Waste Management District.
Patrick Moreland explained that our previous agreement expired in 2015, but has continued unofficially since the expiration.
Previously the WSWMD had paid 8% on the un-taxable property, and with reduced activities at the site they would now like a reduced rate of 5.5%.
Before adjourning, Tiim Wessel raised the issue of the fairness of requiring write-in candidates to register in advance, and the inability of early voters to know who was a legitimate choice. “It’s not a democratic process.” He said he wanted to get the ball rolling to change it.
Elwell said it would require a Town Charter change.
Business license fees are up now to $75 per year. Brattleboro collects the fee from 1100 businesses
Police responded to 4 overdoses and 1 overdose death, and remind people that these are just the numbers for the calls they responded to – actual numbers are likely higher.
(The Police Report is a good read. Other crimes reported include a woman punching her mother three times, and someone spitting and throwing coffee.)
The Fire Department says they responded to 6 overdoses in January.
13,954 items were checked out of the library in January.
The Skatepark has a $15,000 challenge grant from the Tarrant Foundation that will kick off in May. The dog park to accompany the skatepark has been open for about 7 weeks.
The DPW, among other things, has been working on an odor problem on Guilford Street.
The new Town Plan and DID renewal projects are progressing.