The parking garage, a.k.a. the Brattleboro Transportation Center, had center stage at Tuesday’s meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard. Is it safe? Is it energy efficient? Is it bright enough? Should we add a permanent art project? How big is that ceiling? Is there something we can do instead of paying half a million for reflective paint? These are the issues of the day.
There was quite a bit of public discussion throughout, the Chair defended Brattleboro’s honor, new energy projects were approved, and the vehicle for hire ordinance is on hold. But really, it was mostly about the parking garage.
The board usually begins by approving meetings of previous meetings, and we generally skip this in our report. But, this time they approved minutes from the special meeting regarding the Youth Vote petition.
The result of that meeting is that deadlines and warnings dictate that the Youth Vote issue will not be on the November ballots, but will be voted on in March. This disappointed and frustrated petitioners, who generally felt they got conflicting and poor information from the Town. They had been hoping for a November vote so that the issue could then go to the state legislature early in their new session.
Chair Kate O’Connor used her opening comments to defend Brattleboro from the ACLU, which is challenging Brattleboro’s panhandling ordinance. “It irritated me,” she began. “It was very clear to me that whomever wrote the letter had never visited Brattleboro, spoken to anyone in Brattleboro, or even Googled us.” She said the letter claimed that “Brattleboro had no compassion for people in need, that we put our heads in the sand and ignore issues of poverty.”
It couldn’t be further from the truth, she continued. She said they characterized our Police Department as without heart, despite our innovative outreach to people on the streets asking how they got there and what help they need, or Project CARE, or officers gathering books for detainees.
“We’re not done with this topic. Are we perfect? No, but have we ignored them? No,” she said. “I refused to be shamed or schooled by the ACLU. It really bothers me.”
O’Connor said, on a separate matter, the chocolate chip pancakes at the recent fire department pancake breakfast were well received, especially by her nephews.
Town Manager Peter Elwell had no opening remarks.
Brandie Starr thanked O’Connor for her comments as well as the strength of them.
Diana Bander began saying she had been assaulted at the Transportation Center. “It’s been an extraordinarily hard day,” she told the board. She had seen a person “defecating and urinating” at the parking garage. She said she just wanted to park, but homeless people are living there. “I want to live here and be safe.”
Dick DeGray said he called them “street aggressors” and said “they attack you when you get out of your car. They don’t let you go where you want to go. Vulgar and abusive to all.” He said he’s on the street at 3:30 am, and wanted the selectboard to come up with solutions, such as a panhandling zone where it was allowed.
DeGray also said that Tom Franks had recently found a plaque showing the donors to Pliny Park that was made but forgotten about for many years. “Three and a half years later, I got it up,” he told the board. There may be a ribbon cutting to celebrate, he said.
Terry Hendricks said she was there for another issues, but that she had to speak up. “I see drug deals on Main Street every day,” she told the board, adding that she sees police officers seeing it go on, too. “It’s ruining your town.”
Nick Nickerson said he thought Bernie Sanders was pandering to millennials by offering free college tuition, and also that he’s seen no problems downtown in the last five years. “I was at The Works for four hours. One street person came in, talked to someone, and left. No problem.”
Daniel Quipp invited the board and members of the public to a rally for climate action on Saturday. It starts in a few locations and converges at the Brattleboro Common from 4-6 pm.
“Thanks for having it after the Farmers’ Market,” said David Schoales.
Ordinance Amendments Second Readings
Uber and Lyft drivers will need to be licensed and permitted to operate in Brattleboro. Just not yet. The Brattleboro Selectboard delayed their decision until September 18.
The board was to approve new fees, fines and regulations for all vehicles for hire (the service formerly known as taxi,) but Terry Hendricks of Vernon’s VTS Ride Safe and Courteous Transportation raised issues the board had not previously considered.
Hendricks wanted to know if her company, and others in the region, would need to register under the new ordinance. She said her service picked up passengers, but also delivered prescriptions and groceries. “Your local people still need rides,” she said, noting Brattleboro’s existing taxis being undependable. “We come to pick them up.”
Town Manager Elwell said that it applies to any vehicle for hire that picks up a passenger in Brattleboro. Drop-offs and people driving through to other locations were exempt.
Hendricks asked how they planned to enforce it. Kate O’Connor said it was like getting a business license. “Just because everyone doesn’t do it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
Brandie Starr asked some questions that changed the focus. “Does Vernon have a business rule about this? What kind of insurance do you have? Are you already complying?”
“We are required to have commercial carrier insurance,” said Hendricks. “It’s expensive.” She said they also have additional certifications, including proper wheelchair handling.
This got board members wondering if requiring extra licensing in Brattleboro was such a good idea. Shanta Lee Gander raised her previous question one more time, too. “Reading this as if I had a side-hustle, I want to make sure it doesn’t make it more difficult for them.” She suggested the Town offer business training and tax advice to help drivers become more professional.
O’Connor said the Assessors had a nice booklet about doing business in Brattleboro, and Elwell said they could train people on the new ordinance.
The board approved new rules for loading and unloading in front of the Boys & Girls Club, generally aiming to make it easier for parents and others to pick up or drop off children and supplies.
“Another of the 5,000 conversations we’ve had on parking,” joked Kate O’Connor, by way of introduction.
Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland provided the board with a memo regarding a range of outstanding parking issues. To come up with the suggestions, Moreland quoted from both a Downtown Parking Plan created by consultants and the Downtown Parking survey filled out by visitors and residents.
“This is the fourth time we’ve taken up parking,” he said.
Moreland explained that survey data was gathered regarding Transportation Center cleanliness, maintenance, lighting and painting, with most people rating things good or better than good. Some, though noted a perception that the parking garage was dim and possibly not safe.
The possibility of reflective paint on the 160,000 square foot Transportation Center ceiling, at a cost close to $500,000, was not really an option (and the board tossed it out.)
Lighting upgrades for the building, though, had a better reception. The LED fixtures in the building can be upgraded from 55 watts to 78 watts at a cost of about $31,000. Or, an additional center row of upgraded lights could be installed at an additional $31,625.
(This was confusing to some, who thought the project would simply replace LED bulbs. It replaces the entire lamp unit, not just the bulb.)
Diana Bander thought they should put in as much light as possible there. “It’s dark and shadowy. People hide in shadows. This is safety. What’s the cost if we don’t do anything?” She reminded the board that she had been hurt today and before, “thank God not physically.”
O’Connor said she agreed and that’s why they were discussing additional lights.
An unidentified member of the audience said that when she heard the word safety, she wondered who’s safety and who was being protected? “I say things that make people feel unsafe. Maybe this will make you feel unsafe.” She said we should not fear the homeless. “All these humans are part of the community. Are they safe in the Transportation Center? Being on the street is not safe. People in poverty shouldn’t be hidden away. Children need to learn that life is a struggle and not everyone has choices.”
Bander asked if the plan called for better lighting of stairwells and the elevator. Moreland said no.
Erin Scaggs said the problem is that the parking garage feels like an abandoned space. “People don’t want to use it.” She thought new energy there was needed.
Stephanie Bonin wanted more police, cameras, and possibly music added to the list, but wasn’t sure how the board would proceed.
Elwell explained that the board has discussed parking six times in the last few months, and lighting at the Transportation Center was raised as an issue, but, he wanted to ask how safety was being defined. He said police data over the last few years showed no increase in any activity causing harm to other people. What has increased, he said, was a perception that things were unsafe. He added that perceptions were valid concerns. “Feeling safe is important, but being unsafe is different. We have no data showing people are less safe than before.” Elwell said any board action would be addressing a concern of perception, not an unsafe condition that has emerged.
Someone knocked at the fire escape door. No one did anything, but quite a few looked surprised.
Bonin jumped in with her list, gathered from downtown organization meetings. She suggested adding “welcome to Brattleboro” signs in lots to set a tone, increasing lighting, adding cameras, having a cleaning schedule, adding a community board with information, hiring a greeter, adding a police annex to the garage, adding an old time shoe shiner or popcorn seller, public restrooms, and containers to put used cigarettes.
DeGray said that perception was reality, and that he liked the idea of cameras.
A woman said cameras criminalize persons, especially those in poverty. “Perception isn’t reality.”
Another woman (Note: many didn’t give their names tonight, or speak them clearly…) wondered why when we talk of new people in town we don’t talk of new business owners, and why it was always about new people on the street. She said she’s never felt unsafe from anyone asking for money on the street. She also said there was a big difference between a physical assault on a woman and an emotional reaction to how someone looks.
“I banged on the fire escape door,” said a different unidentified person, who said the outside front door was locked and it was hard to find the meeting. “You should be more open to the public and community.”
Shanta Lee Gander said she wanted to think about people being seen and unseen, observing that some people in the community might have reasons for not wanting to be on camera. “I don’t want to criminalize the displaced.”
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” began Brandie Starr. She questioned making regulations to help “the hysterical feel safer,” and said she preferred positive ideas such as reclaiming spaces. She agreed more public restrooms were needed. “You can’t pee without paying?” She wanted to come up with positive changes, “not doing this because we don’t like people.”
Starr said she wanted the conversation to shift a bit and said that the Drop In Center has 30 people sleeping out. “This is real. They aren’t going anywhere. I don’t want to rush to solve a perception about safety. We want to be safer, but not criminalize or ostracize people who are already down.”
DeGray objected, saying this agenda item was about parking. “I’m offended when we go off on tangents. unrelated to the topic.” He added that he actually feels safe downtown, but knows others that don’t. “We should talk about safety, not these other issues you brought up. I’m as concerned as you about homeless people. Stop commandeering these discussions into areas that aren’t germane.”
Starr said she was responding to earlier comments about people living in the garage. “It came up. I was responding.”
Schoales said they might be able to improve the lighting, but not solve poverty.
To help pay for the transition to credit card parking meters, rates are expected to go up. Moreland’s original recommendation was to raise Main Street parking rates to $1 per hour and raise all other rates by a nickel. Two other ideas were added at the suggestion of Dick DeGray, who felt they should be more aggressive in pricing.
One new suggestion was to raise Main Street and Harmony Lot to $1 per hour and all other lots increase by a nickel. The second suggestion is the same, but raise all other lots by a dime. The board wants the second option, with the highest rates. This will be about $100 more for employees parking downtown during the work week if they park in the cheaper spaces.
Daniel Quipp said it seemed as if they were increasing rates for older people, taking advantage of those who need to park close to where they are going. Elwell countered that it could increase the turnover of available spaces on Main Street.
Quipp suggested perhaps the problem with a rate increase is the perception it would pay for credit card meters, when it could pay for improvements. Elwell said it pays for both.
O’Connor said she didn’t know what the rates for lots were. “I just put money in.”
No one wanted Sunday paid parking. DeGray suggested marking new meters and ticket machines so people know Sundays are free.
The board skipped reviewing procedures for booting cars. It will come up later.
As for shared parking arrangements, Elwell said deals could be made between local businesses and organizations that have parking lots that could be shared, but the Town had no need to increase capacity in this fashion.
The board skipped discussion of improving the information about parking on the Town’s web site. DeGray asked they consider increasing fines for overnight parking from $10 to $25. Elwell said they take it up during the budget process.
They then wrapped up their varied discussion of parking issues before moving on to discuss… the parking garage.
A member of the public commented that there was a need for more local history to show what was here before colonization. David Schoales pointed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, efforts to document this history, and the ability of the Town to make signs. “It’s underway,” he assured.
Public Art Proposal For Parking Garage
River Wall, by Elizabeth Billings, Evie Lovett, & Andrea Wasserman, a temporary exhibit at the parking garage, will be remade with more durable materials to become a permanent installation at no cost to the Town. The selectboard agreed in principle, pending a review of an installation agreement and successful fundraising.
The artists told the board that the community is disappointed when they heard the display was temporary, so they embarked on a path toward making it permanent.
They haven’t yet decided how they’ll do it, but showed some possibilities to those in the room. One option tied stainless steel disks to something similar to a chain link fence. The other had stainless steel squares hung in a grid.
The Town Arts Committee has approved of the proposal.
Gander asked about planned public outreach. “How about an explanation of what’s there. Some people don’t know what it is.” She also suggested they paint the stone benches near the train station. “I’ve seen it, but don’t feel invited to sit by the river.”
The artists said they did plan to work with the public, but also that “there needs to be a degree of quality control” for the installation itself.
O’Connor noted that the benches were given to Brattleboro. “We’d have to paint them. The Town Arts Committee could do it.”
Elwell said that the new installation shouldn’t require maintenance. Schoales agreed. “This will last longer than the parking garage. The temporary one lasted longer than the stairwell.”
Energy Saving at Parking Garage and Library
The parking garage will get a wood pellet heating system and other energy upgrades. GPI Construction will do the work for a guaranteed maximum price of about $127,000 after a rebate from the Windham Regional Commission.
The other upgrades were to include air sealing, control replacement, window quilts, and masonry insulation, but the last two on the list were cost prohibitive. Instead, the new plan calls for the wood pellet boiler, air sealing, control replacement, as well as replacing the water heater with an air-sourced heat pump and replacing the circulator pumps with newer variable speed models. The WRC approves, and upped its rebate from 25% to 35% of the project costs.
Patrick Moreland explained that all in all, $24,000 was saved.
GPI will also replace the air handling system at Brooks Memorial Library for $348,917. This is $170,000 more than expected, and the difference will be paid by the funds authorized by the Library Board of Trustees.
“Thank you trustees of the library, and Starr for how you treat the community,” said Brandie Starr.
Starr Latronica said that it was both benefactors and trustees that had restored hours and renovated the building. “We have the best public restrooms in Brattleboro,” she said.
Additional library work will include replacing a buried oil tank with an above ground propane tank.
Moreland said the work would begin very soon, with some contractors wanting to hear from him after the meeting to set schedules.
“This is what getting off fossil fuels looks like,” said Daniel Quipp. “One good decision at a time.” He thanked the board.
Police-Fire Facilities Project Completion Certificate
The Brattleboro Selectboard certified to the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank that the Town is indeed done with the Police and Fire facilities projects. Almost.
$415,000 remains in the bond fund for possible further work to be determined by Representative Town Meeting time next March. The Bond Bank knows this and is, as they say, cool with it.
Peter Elwell has been appointed as Brattleboro’s delegate to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns annual business meeting. He’ll be able to vote at the meeting on Oct 3-4, 2018.
Public participation in Brattleboro boards and committees is still needed. Vacancies are there for you to fill. It’s your time to shine, and to volunteer. A press release listing open positions will follow.
Help fill the nearly 30 available slots.
Schoales noted that there was a survey on connectivity that was due September 13 and asked who would be responding. Elwell and O’Connor volunteered.
“It’s a lot less creepy to vote on things when people are in the room. Thanks to those who came tonight,” said Starr.
Kate’s right that the ACLU is mischaracterizing Brattleboro (the Town) in their letter. In addition to the task force and Project CARE, Brattleboro is working on compassion, the police have answered questions via Ask A Cop, we have an extraordinary network of support services that continually try to improve and work together, and so on.
It is clear, though, from what followed in the meeting that some people in town aren’t so keen on efforts to help solve the problem without criminalizing folks.
Assaulted? For seeing something at a distance? “Street aggressors”? The language used is hyperbolic.
The ACLU should instead be upset that Brattleboro disenfranchises voters wishing to write-in local candidates. : ) There’s a real problem to tackle.
I did find it interesting that after discussing how dark the parking garage is, the board didn’t ask how much the permanent art installation would darken the space. I suppose it is a trade off… the need to reclaim the space with some art trumped the light blocking.
Finally – I failed to mention it was a four person board on Tuesday. Wessel was absent.