BRATTLEBORO—As part of his “Capital for a Day” tour through Windham County on Oct. 23, Gov. Phil Scott and his cabinet joined the Brattleboro Selectboard and town staff for a listening session.
“We are doing well here but we are facing the same challenges that other communities face,” Selectboard chair Kate O’Connor told Scott.
On the positive side, O’Connor spotlighted the town’s businesses, festivals, and social ethic.
O’Connor highlighted some of what’s going well in Brattleboro. For example, the Whetstone Brewery, Mocha Joe’s, Hermit Thrush Brewery, and Saxton’s River Distillery are all expanding.
Next, O’Connor listed the festivals that helped put Brattleboro on the map, such as Strolling of the Heifers, Literary Festival, and Tiny House Fest.
Finally, O’Connor mentioned the town’s being first in Vermont to ban single-use plastic bags. The town also tops the list for its high rates of recycling and composting.
Brattleboro has dug deeply into the issue of homelessness and poverty affecting its residents, she said, working to become a more compassionate and inclusive community.
Town manger Peter Elwell thanked representatives from the agencies of Transportation and Community Development.
“You helped us accomplish some of those projects that make our community so vital,” he said.
Not all rosy
From there, O’Connor moved on to where the town needed help from the state.
“It’s expensive to live in Brattleboro, or in any town,” she said.
O’Connor pointed to Brattleboro’s high property taxes, which are higher than the surrounding towns, she said.
According to O’Connor, Brattleboro’s status as an economic hub means its services are used by more than just its residents. The town also experiences more traffic than the surrounding towns.
The biggest issue, O’Connor continued, is the high number of exempt businesses. Approximately 33 percent of the property in Brattleboro is tax exempt, she said, including Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the state buildings, and The Brattleboro Retreat.
O’Connor and Elwell outlined Brattleboro’s efforts to join with similar regional hub towns to find out if there are additional avenues to raising revenue.
“Are there other ways communities can raise money to go toward operations services?” O’Connor asked.
The board and staff moved on to the state’s Route 9 repaving project.
Route 9 connects Bennington and Brattleboro through Wilmington. The state has plans to repave whole portions of the road. The project is slated to end in West Brattleboro. O’Connor and Elwell asked if the state would add repaving Route 9 all the way to Exit 2.
In a conversation about poverty and homelessness in town, Scott asked how much of a role opiates played in the situation.
Selectboard Vice-Chair Brandie Starr also serves as an outreach caseworker at Groundworks Collaborative.
Starr said most of the people she works with struggle with homelessness more than they do substance abuse. She shared the Brattleboro Police Department’s efforts to address the issue of drug use with social supports rather than arresting people.
“Whenever we try to move while doing things holistically, it’s always slower than if we moved with a slap,” Starr said.
Starr said she has some families on a 30-month waiting list for housing, and she advocated for more housing funds.
She said she works with 38 clients who are homeless, and others in the community have unstable housing and are “couch surfing.”
Scott took some time to reiterate Vermont’s outdoor recreation opportunities — such as Brattleboro’s Harris Hill Ski Jump — and how recreation can dovetail with attracting new workers to the state. Scott stressed how Vermont is experiencing a shrinking workforce.
Chittenden County is doing well, Scott said. “It’s the other 13 counties I’m most concerned about.”
Vermont needs to grow its economy and attract more young people, he said.
Scott referenced the ground breaking for the Snow Building on Flat Street that he attended earlier that morning, noting that it’s not just about building housing, but ensuring that people can afford to stay here.
O’Connor said, “We’re happy to be the guinea pigs, for any money you want to throw our way.”
The meeting had not scheduled time for public comment. Undaunted, a few audience members asked Scott some questions.
Daniel Quipp asked about Scott’s reaction to the Trump Administration’s recent memo on changing the definition of gender that could interfere with the rights of transgender citizens
Scott called the memo “very discouraging,” and said he would push against such measures. Scott also gave credit to Vermont’s “strong and effective” Congressional delegation.
Brenda Siegel said that attracting people to the state will be hard given that Scott had vetoed multiple bills she believed would have helped families — for example, raising the minimum wage and paid family leave.
Scott replied that Vermont had tied its minimum wage to the cost of living and that the state also had to grapple with bordering New Hampshire, a sales-tax free state.
The average age of a plumber in Vermont is 65 years old, he said. “That’s a problem and we have to face that.”
Abby Mnookin asked what Scott was committed to doing about climate change.
Scott said he’s not ignoring climate change, listing efforts like installing more charging stations for electric vehicles.