BRATTLEBORO—On Oct. 17, the Selectboard met for another marathon meeting — clocking in at just over four hours — including a long discussion on panhandling.
The Board had its first public reading on the proposed plastic bag ban; the second reading and public hearing will come at a later meeting.
Selectboard member John Allen was absent, which meant all motions had to pass with at least three votes in favor. Otherwise, the motion would fail.
Town Manager Peter B. Elwell gave the update on the town’s three police and fire station projects.
At the Central Fire Station on Elliot Street, the administrative offices were recently moved to their permanent location on the first floor.
“We get nothing but positive reports from the chief and the assistant chief and the administrative staff,” Elwell said.
Otherwise, the project is going well, Elwell said, and he expects work to be complete in about six weeks.
The old West Brattleboro fire station — replaced earlier this year with a new, larger station to accommodate modern apparatus — will soon be demolished, Elwell said. “Finish work” on the new station continues.
All projects have seen “minor expenses” in the past few weeks, mostly for electrical work, moving services, and a backup battery, Elwell said.
“Overall,” he said, it’s “positive financial news.”
Because some portions of the projects are finished, town officials found unspent funds left in the budget. The uncommitted balance went from just over $382,000 as of the Oct. 3 report, to just over $416,000 in the Oct. 17 report, Elwell said.
“It’s a good space to be in,” he said, because it gives town officials flexibility on upcoming projects, such as a carport and a new roof at the new police station at 62 Black Mountain Road.
Elwell said those items will go before the Police-Fire Committee for discussion, “so you can have the advice of the citizens’ advisory committee on that before you make those decisions.”
Panhandling signs defeated
At the Oct. 3 meeting, the Selectboard was originally scheduled to vote on a sign detailing the rights of panhandlers and those they ask for money. The sign’s text was written in part by members of the Downtown Business Alliance, but some Board members thought it needed improvement.
The Board tabled that item, and asked Elwell to come up with better language for the sign.
In his report, Elwell provided the new wording, but wrote, “Staff does not recommend either the prior sign [...] or the revised sign. We provide the alternative language only in the hope that it helps the Selectboard make a final decision regarding whether or not to install such a sign.”
The new language Elwell and his staff provided is: “Brattleboro is a compassionate community and recognizes that it is legal for people to carry signs or to ask for money in public places. We also are committed to the safety of every resident and visitor in our town and recognize that aggressive or threatening behavior can cause legal activities to become illegal. If you feel threatened, you can call the Police at 802-257-7950 or dial 9-1-1 in an emergency. If you need food, shelter, or other assistance, you can call 2-1-1 for referral to local service agencies.”
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor voted “no” on the motion to approve the sign, and explained her decision.
“I do believe the sign is polarizing. And, the language is not hostile, but it’s the idea [of what it says] is polarizing, and I think we have other ways to deal with the panhandling issue.”
The Board voted 2-2 on the motion, which, because there were four members in attendance, meant the motion failed.
Good news in FY17 finance report
In reviewing the Fiscal Year 2017 unaudited financial report, Elwell announced, “we beat the budget” by just under $750,000.
Because of fiscal procedures, this gives the town a surplus of about $300,000, Elwell said.
“That is larger than what we shoot for, but [...] we intend to end each year with a surplus,” he said, and noted, “this is twice as much as we would expect to end the year with.”
Why such a surplus?
Elwell credited some of it to better-than-expected revenues, which were $160,000 greater than what the Selectboard budgeted. Also, some savings were achieved from policy changes on employee benefits and employee vacancies — including in the police department, and some fire department equipment coming in under-budget.
These fund balances, Elwell said, can go into FY19 budgets for capital investments.
Fire Dept. buys used ladder truck
The Selectboard voted 4-0 to spend $35,000 to purchase a used ladder truck from the Sharon, Mass., Fire Department.
Although Sharon’s truck is 24 years old — four years older than a ladder truck’s typical life expectancy — Elwell said it’s in better shape than the ladder truck the Brattleboro Fire Department currently owns.
That vehicle is out of commission, and the Putney Fire Department has loaned the Brattleboro Fire Department its ladder truck.
It’s no surprise the current ladder truck needs replacing, Elwell told Selectboard members. It has been slowly failing, he noted.
The department’s current truck — which is 26 years old — is “a very valuable and essential piece of equipment,” Elwell said. And, he added, it is failing because “we have had a practice of running [infrastructure and equipment] until they fail.”
Although Elwell acknowledged it may seem counter-intuitive to spend $35,000 on a 24-year-old truck, it’s a better option than repairing the 26-year-old truck the department currently owns.
The known repairs on the current ladder truck will cost $67,000. Elwell said mechanics will likely find “more trouble” when they conduct the known repairs, and that could cost “tens of thousands of dollars.”
Purchasing Sharon’s truck — which has far fewer miles and hours used — is a “stop-gap to tide us over,” Elwell said, adding that $35,000 “is a known cost, instead of the $67,000 plus an unknown amount for a vehicle that’s two years older and a lot more tired.”
Elwell encouraged the Selectboard to approve the motion — which they did — but to have “the challenging conversation” during the upcoming FY19 budget season.
“It’s a million-dollar vehicle” if purchased new, Elwell said. In the current budget, Board members allocated $50,000 in the hopes that the town would receive a $950,000 grant to cover the remainder. But, Elwell said, the town didn't receive that grant.
“We need to face the reality that we can’t kick this $1 million obligation too far down the road,” Elwell said.
He noted it takes at least a year to deliver a new fire truck, so it could take two years from now to get a new ladder truck. Elwell said he will include fire department staff in the process and will research grant options.
November meeting location change
Because the Nov. 7 regular Selectboard meeting happens on Election Day, the Board voted to keep the date, but move the meeting.
The meeting will take place in the Brooks Memorial Library’s third-floor meeting room.