Another in our series of 2019 selectboard candidate interviews, this time with Oscar Heller who is running for a one-year seat.
Give us a brief biography – who are you? What do you do?
Hi! I’m Oscar.
I was born in New York, but when I was 14 my parents picked a summer camp at random off the internet. That camp was Camp Waubanong in Brattleboro. I spent most of the next dozen summers in Vermont. In 2014 I moved here for good. I live on Elliot Street, just before the park, with my girlfriend Jessie and our two cats.
I graduated from McGill University in 2009 with a major in political science. I’ve always been interested in politics, particularly at the local level. I’m currently the chair of the Brattleboro Energy Committee. I’m also a small business owner. My business, 10F Design, is a three-person partnership that designs and builds websites. We work with a lot of businesses in town, including Back Roads Granola, Tavernier Chocolates, Stevens & Associates, WRCC, and more.
What impresses you about Brattleboro?
It’s such a wonderful place to live, especially after ten years living in big cities. Where cities are loud, abrasive, and alienating, Brattleboro is tranquil, beautiful, and inclusive. Brattleboro also has a lot to offer. I love playing softball in the rec league, and playing guitar at local venues like Metropolis (R.I.P.) and the Whetstone. We also have a great library, which is really important to me.
Why are you running for Selectboard?
I want to live in Brattleboro for a long time, and that means I want to be involved in shaping its future. I also think it’s important for younger people to be involved in governance. My perspective as a renter and as a young business owner can be valuable to the town. I also think the work of the Selectboard is very interesting, and that I’d do a good job at it.
Do you have a long-term vision for Brattleboro?
We have the opportunity to choose Brattleboro’s future. We can lead the way on energy, on wraparound opioid treatment, on smart economic development, and in thirty years be reaping the benefits. Brattleboro’s competing with small towns across the country that are all trying to safeguard their futures in changing economic and social times, so it won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
My vision is of a town that’s a regional magnet for good jobs and young families. How do we make Brattleboro attractive to good jobs and young families? By overflowing with renewable energy, education, affordable housing, child care, workforce development. None of that comes for free, and it will have to happen incrementally in ways our local economy can support. But those investments will pay off in the future – not just for newcomers, but for local businesses and local blue-collar workers. If Brattleboro’s economy booms, that means more foot traffic on Main Street. That means more tourism for experiential businesses like restaurants, hotels, theaters. That means small business growth, which means hiring and training. That’s my vision.
What current issues need our attention?
One of the first things I’ll jump into is the Day Jobs program, which has gone through a couple different forms and is moving towards a pilot in the fall. It has some complicated liability and administrative issues, but I love the concept. People want to work. But sometimes your circumstances make that really difficult. A Day Jobs program would give people a chance to get work, get some money, forge relationships with employers, and hopefully break the cycle of unemployment and poverty.
The opioid crisis is also high on my list. There are a lot of great organizations in our area. One of my early goals will be to do some town-level resource mapping: going through all the existing resources, seeing where the gaps are, and making all the information easily accessible to people who need it. We also need to make sure that handoffs between organizations are as easy as possible so that people get the help they need.
Almost every selectboard member for the last 20 years has said high taxes or affodability is an issue to deal with, but taxes seem to increase every year. Is it impossible to reduce costs/taxes in Brattleboro? Why/why not?
I think economic development is the best way forward. Bringing more business means that we can increase revenue while keeping taxes flat, or even lowering them. I want to be extremely sensitive to making sure that such development doesn’t price out people already here, and that it doesn’t change the things we all love about Brattleboro. I don’t want factory smokestacks lining the river. But I think we can make a smart play for some small, green, tech-focused businesses that could work out of offices on Main Street, bring in some new money that will help the town as a whole, and spend that money at restaurants and shops in town.
It’s also important that we keep what we have. Brattleboro has a lot of great small business already, and it’s easy to get lost in the glamour of new stuff and forget that we have to make Brattleboro an exciting place to STAY, not just to move. I particularly want to find a way to bring in jobs that are attractive to the people who already live here. Jobs that young people can do right out of high school, or that don’t require fancy certifications or post-graduate degrees.
Do you believe Brattleboro deserves special compensation for being the “hub” to surrounding communities? (Are surrounding towns freeloading in some way?)
There are costs to being the regional economic hub town. People who work here but don’t live here drive on our streets and use our utilities but don’t pay for their upkeep. I support local self-government initiatives, and have posted before about ways we could be more creative with our revenue streams if given the chance.
But being a hub has benefits, too. One of the reasons Brattleboro can support a higher property tax than its neighbors is because, for a lot of people, living two blocks from downtown Brattleboro is worth the higher price. We also benefit from mutual aid agreements. Yes, sometimes we pay for our fire trucks go to Keene, but their trucks come here too. The Brooks House fire in 2011 could not have been contained without help from Westminster, Greenfield, Spofford, Keene, Chesterfield, Guilford, and Northfield, many of whom are part of unpaid volunteer fire departments.
What should we do about panhandling/poverty?
Panhandling and poverty are linked, but they’re not the same. We can make inroads on poverty with smart human services programs like a Day Jobs program, with wraparound care for addiction and homelessness (which are deeply intertwined with poverty) that provides a realistic path forward for people.
Economic development can help too, although it has to be carefully tuned to make sure that it serves the people living and struggling in Brattleboro now and doesn’t sell out our current neighbors and friends in favor of shiny new business.
If we take the long-term view, tackling poverty means education and child care. For everyone out there who’s ever thought “these kids today…” (I’ve already thought this and I’m only 31), let’s INVEST in “these kids today” so that they have the tools and support they need. Child care in particular is overwhelmingly worth it as an investment. We just need the patience to take the long view.
What should we do about funding the arts?
We’re a very artistic community, and I’d love to see that reflected in more public art projects. The current Town Plan includes an action to support public art, and doing so would also make us a more interesting and picturesque tourist destination. I personally would support a pilot program with some seed funding for public art. That said, funding art is definitely on the fringes of what I think is appropriate for the government of a town our size to be involved in, so it would be a low priority when it came time to make the hard choices that budgeting requires. I would love to see a groundswell of public support for such a budget at town meeting, but absent that, I think it would be a difficult (but not impossible) road.
Does Brattleboro do enough about climate change?
I think we do well with our limited resources. Could we do more? Yes, and as chair of the Energy Committee I’m always on the lookout for creative programs and ideas. But I think a lot of the bigger issues are better suited for the state or national level. Please don’t mistake this for buck-passing, but with Brattleboro’s very limited methods of raising revenue, it’s hard to fund the kind of programs that can make a real dent in the problem. Town government can’t pass a carbon tax or subsidize electric vehicles, for example.
That said, climate change is a crisis, and we should take whatever opportunities we can to move towards renewability and grid stability.
How would you like to see Putney Road developed?
Putney Road is a great opportunity for economic development that doesn’t impact downtown’s aesthetic and tourist appeal. I’d like to see more mid-sized businesses on Putney Road. And I’d love to see something go in where Home Depot was.
As for the road itself, I’d like to see more public transit, and I’m open to the recommendations of the Traffic Safety and Control Committee, VTrans, and others, as to the best way to make the road safer and easy to use.
You aren’t running for school board, but can you share feelings on the current state of our schools?
As someone who doesn’t have kids yet, I’ll happily defer questions of school policy to the teachers, board members, administrators, and parents who know way more about it than I do. I will reiterate that education and child care are the ultimate tool for solving a community’s problems, whether we’re talking economic growth, drug addiction, retaining young people, or even increasing political participation. We just have to be wise enough to make the commitment and patient enough to wait for it to bear out.
Does the Long Term Financial Plan and Comprehensive Review of Town Operations, both long-term plans, confine the selectboard in any way? Are you just implementing a pre-made plan? What’s your actual role on the board?
Those two documents represent a ton of expert work by town staff that’s incredibly valuable to the Selectboard in making their decisions and recommendations to Representative Town Meeting. They only “confine” the Selectboard in that they make a lot of well-researched, well-considered arguments about how the town government should act. The Selectboard and (particularly) Town Meeting have the freedom to take or leave these recommendations, and it’s common for them to reshape what town staff puts forward, or to take their own initiative. That said, town staff works incredibly hard and does a great job, and I think Selectboards ignore their recommendations at their peril.
What’s been filling your free time lately? Have any books or movies to recommend?
I read a lot, play guitar, and pace around my apartment waiting for softball season to start. I recently re-read Dune by Frank Herbert, which is possibly my favorite novel of all time. I also recommend The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which is sort of a dramatization (but not quite historical fiction) of the battle of Gettysburg. It’s really great.
What have we missed? Is there anything you’d like to answer that we didn’t ask about?
Make sure you vote! (It doesn’t have to be for me.) Election day is this Tuesday, March 5, at the American Legion, 7am until 7pm. I’ll be there all day, so come say hi!
Brattleboro also has same-day registration. Even if you’ve never voted before, you can show up in person on Tuesday, register, and vote. You just need your Vermont driver’s license number or the last four digits of your SSN.
Have any questions for voters? This is a two-way street…
Lots! I always want to hear what voters have to say. Even at this eleventh hour, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. I’m always game to meet and talk about our town.