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Designated Downtown Organization seeks $78,000 from downtown district

BRATTLEBORO—Members of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance unanimously approved the organization’s 2017 budget and work plan last November, including raising funds through a special tax levied on properties in the downtown.

Getting the budget past the Selectboard? That might take longer than expected.

The alliance promotes economic activity in the downtown.

Or, as DBA President Michelle Simpson-Siegel said, the organization looks for ways to “entice people to downtown and delight them once they arrive.”

Each year, the organization, once known as Building a Better Brattleboro, submits its work plan and budget to the Selectboard for approval. Town Meeting members have the final vote at Representative Town Meeting in March.

The DBA proposes to raise $78,000 through a special property tax inside an area designated as the Downtown Improvement District, which encompasses Main Street properties from the Brattleboro Food Co-op north to the Town Common, as well as those on Flat, Elliot, and High streets.

At its Dec. 15 meeting, the Selectboard raised questions about the origin of a surplus carried over from previous years of approximately $25,000 in the proposed budget.

DBA board members Dick DeGray, Ted Kramer, and Greg Worden told the board that most of the funds came from savings realized when the organization transitioned from having a full-time executive director to having a part-time coordinator two years ago.

The organization hopes to use this surplus for its façade program, new lighting for the Whetstone pathway, and other downtown enhancements.

DBA’s proposed 2017 budget will fund activities outlined in its work plan.

The 2017 work plan designates $20,500 for design and beautification programs such as the flower, facade improvement, and holiday lighting.

Promotions and marketing activities — brattleboro.com, social media, marketing campaigns — will receive $16,425 of the proposed budget.

Operating costs, including payroll, total $38,075.

Economic development activities — including matching fund grants to organizations that attract people to downtown — will receive $3,000 from the proposed budget.

DeGray added that the membership had the option to amend the proposed budget, but he said he wanted to use the surplus for improvements in the downtown.

This explanation didn’t satisfy the Selectboard, which asked staff to meet with DBA leadership and review the budget.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein noted that the board received an additional budget memo from the DBA only hours before the Dec. 15 meeting. The short notice left the board feeling confused about the proposed budget and surplus.

Gartenstein added, “I’m not expressing any sort of displeasure with the organization.”

But he pointed out that with the surplus, he believed the DBA could raise less than $78,000 through the DID tax.

A public/private hybrid

The DBA is a separate organization from the municipality.

So why does the Selectboard and Town Meeting Members have a say over its budget?

A portion of the DBA’s funding comes through the special tax on downtown properties. The Selectboard must approve raising and appropriating tax monies.

The town has also designated the DBA as the downtown organization to head up Brattleboro’s participation in the state’s Downtown Program, which is part of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

This statewide program supports the revitalization of downtowns. Participation in the program qualifies the town for special funding like grants, tax credits, and special considerations for permitting under Act 250.

In his Dec. 31 administrative report, Town Manager Peter Elwell recommended the Selectboard defer voting on the DBA’s proposed budget until its Jan. 12 meeting.

In his memo, Elwell noted that staff has met with DBA leadership but said that more work is needed.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #338 (Wednesday, January 6, 2016). This story appeared on page A3.

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