BRATTLEBORO—The three Selectboard candidates vying for two open one-year seats greeted the public last week.
On Feb. 11, WKVT and Brattleboro Community Television hosted one forum for the candidates, who followed that appearance with a second forum at the Brattleboro Citizens’ Breakfast the next morning.
Former board member Richard “Dick” DeGray, incumbent David Gartenstein, and newcomer Avery Schwenk answered questions about how, if elected to the board, they would approach economic development, homelessness, and the Police-Fire Project.
DeGray and Gartenstein hammered their extensive experience on local boards, including the Selectboard.
DeGray, who served seven years on the board before stepping down in 2013, stressed his downtown and Citizens Bridge beautification efforts. He has also volunteered with organizations like Youth Services, the Reformer Christmas Stocking, and HotLine for Help, a defunct nonprofit that offered support, information, and referrals to people in crisis.
“I truly love this community,” DeGray said.
A deputy state’s attorney by day, Gartenstein has served five years on the Selectboard. His past service includes nine years on the Development Review Board, three years on the Town School District Board, and nearly three years on the Brattleboro Union High School District #6 board.
He told listeners that he sought re-election because of a desire to continue making the municipality “as responsive, open, and transparent” as possible.
He defines the Selectboard’s role as ensuring that municipal services are funded and delivered in the most cost-effective way, he said.
Gartenstein, a married father of three sons, added he has volunteered on town committees or with local organizations since hitchhiking into town 34 years ago.
Schwenk, who emphasized his newness to town and fresh perspective, fits the under-30-local-business-owner-and-new-arrival-who-has-fallen-in-love-with-Brattleboro demographic.
With a background as a paramedic and in creative problem solving, Schwenk works by day as vice president of Hermit Thrush Brewery with business partner Christophe Gagné. Schwenk also volunteers with an international organization, Destination Imagination, which teaches children leadership and creative problem-solving skills using STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), fine arts, and service learning.
Schwenk assured people that — despite his greenness to town government — he listens well, learns fast, feels comfortable with making hard decisions, and thinks on his feet.
“I’m really invested in Brattleboro because Brattleboro invested in me,” Schwenk said.
Issues and answers
All three of the candidates wanted the Police-Fire Project to move forward.
The Selectboard provides town departments with direction and focus, Gartenstein said. The town’s role in helping ensure safety for its citizens stretches beyond repairs to the emergency services stations, he continued, noting that the board focuses on all public infrastructure, like roads and bridges. DeGray concurred.
Both DeGray and Gartenstein served on the board when Town Meeting members approved funding for the Police-Fire Project in 2012. A special referendum in 2014 rejected the budget, and the project was put on hold until recently.
“I was deeply disappointed the budget was rejected,” DeGray said, stressing the importance for the town to provide a safe environment for emergency personnel.
In response to a question about helping the town’s homeless community, DeGray and Gartenstein highlighted the board’s funding mechanisms — like the revolving loan fund and grant programs — that support local organizations working to end homelessness.
The board last year approved grant funding for Groundworks Collaborative to conduct a feasibility study on a Frost Street property for a new center.
Gartenstein said the board’s direct power to reverse homelessness is limited. While homelessness impacts the local community, he said, the crisis has its roots in issues, decisions, and actions that take place beyond the town line.
At this point, Gartenstein related the first of many economic-hub-town narratives, which portrayed Brattleboro as an economic hub for all the surrounding towns.
Therefore, he believes, the town is unduly burdened by providing services that commuters don’t pay for, unlike property owners, who pay for town infrastructure and services in the form of property taxes.
Gartenstein believes that commuters should pay a 0.25-percent payroll tax, though the state won’t let Brattleboro impose such a tax (yet).
The Commons has asked municipal staff for data showing how the town’s role as an economic hub impacts department budgets and therefore increases the municipal tax rate. No data has been available.
DeGray also lamented the town’s proximity to New Hampshire and its no-sales-tax shopping as a psychological impediment to passing a 1-percent local option sales tax.
The state provides four option taxes — rooms, meals, alcohol, and the 1-percent sales — as a way for towns to raise additional revenue. Brattleboro has enacted the rooms, meals, and alcohol taxes.
According to DeGray, he helped enact the town’s 1- percent local option meals and rooms tax in 2006. That tax has raised $2.6 million in revenue, he said.
DeGray has argued that given Brattleboro’s position as the town at the first exit off Interstate 91, the full 1-percent local option sales tax represents a good way to capture extra money for the town.
Schwenk said that the community possesses a multitude of creative people working to end homelessness. The board, he said, can put its support behind these groups.
Economic development is key for the town on many levels, Schwenk said, noting that a stronger local economy provides residents with more financial resources. The Selectboard can take the lead on economic development and partner with local development organizations like the Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., he pointed out.
The town might be limited in its taxing structure, Schwenk said, but it has other economic development tools at its disposal.
Brattleboro might be a hub, but it’s not in the economic development game all on its own, Schwenk pointed out; by collaborating regionally with other communities in Vermont or in neighboring states, multiple communities could thrive.
Schwenk sees opportunity in Brattleboro’s position as an economic hub and as the gateway to Vermont.
“There’s a lot of potential in town,” he said.
Matters of priority
The candidates responded to a question on what priorities they would have if they win their one-year term.
Gartenstein listed starting work on the Police-Fire Project renovations. Town Meeting members will have the final say on whether the police station moves to Black Mountain Road. Transitioning residents to a new every-other-week trash collection schedule this summer also made his list.
Life-safety issues and repairs at the Municipal Center require attention regardless of whether the police station moves, he added.
Gartenstein listed advocating for the state to give Brattleboro more ways to reduce municipal property taxes — like enacting a commuter payroll tax.
DeGray also listed completing the Police-Fire Project renovations. His thoughts on the Municipal Center include moving the municipal offices from the building and selling it.
DeGray floated the idea of offsetting the tax impact of the Police-Fire Project bond by using the utility fund, where rates for water and sewer fees can be readily adjusted. The fund has sufficient money in it, he said.
This measure would allow the town to freeze the water and sewer fees at the current year’s level, offering taxpayers relief until the Police-Fire Project bond is paid off.
• Most of what the Selectboard deals with, however, the members can never plan for, like the Brooks House fire or Tropical Storm Irene, DeGray said.
“There’s always something in the on-deck section,” he added. “Always a host of issues you’re not planning for.”
• Schwenk said his first priority as the junior board member would be to “get up to speed.”
Following that, he said, the Police-Fire Project and finding ways to attract more businesses to town would top his priorities.
• DeGray and Schwenk said they thought Brattleboro could grow more, especially its economic base. But, both men said, cultivating and encouraging small businesses with a handful of employees represents a better plan than trying to attract one big corporation that employs hundreds of people.
Schwenk believes the town could quickly grow the food product and agriculture, green building, and technology or manufacturing sectors.
Gartenstein said Brattleboro’s “livable scale” has kept him here.
“I like it the way it is,” he said.
• When asked whether they thought the town should move to a mayoral form of governance, DeGray said, “Yes.”
Too few community members are willing to participate in Representative Town Meeting and local government, DeGray said.
Gartenstein and Schwenk disagreed.
“It’s not clear what evil that [a mayoral system] would respond to and address,” said Gartenstein.
Schwenk said, “I’m a big fan of the Selectboard and Representative Town Meeting.”
It’s a system that allows for direct participation — even for a new Brattleboro resident like him, he said.
Brattleboro’s local elections and presidential primary take place Tuesday, March 1 the Municipal Center, 230 Main St., Room 212, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Early/absentee ballots for the Presidential Primary and Annual Town and Town School District election are now available in the town clerk’s office until 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 29.
Voters may vote in person in the clerk’s office. To vote at home, they may receive their early/absentee ballot by U.S. mail, retrieve it in person from the Municipal Center, or have it delivered by two justices of the peace.
All voted ballots must be received by the clerk before the polls close on election day in order to be counted.