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Brattleboro eyes funding for fire truck, marketing

Annual Representative Town Meeting will take place Sept. 12

BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard has approved the meeting warning for the rescheduled Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM), an act that represented one of the final steps to finalizing the annual meeting derailed for almost five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Annual Representative Town Meeting will begin at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 12.

The board also warned Sept. 13 as a second “if necessary” day in case the meeting should go too long. Last year’s in-person meeting lasted 13 hours.

Typically held in March, the meeting was postponed due to the governor’s state of emergency order that banned large gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In the ensuing months, town staff explored different meeting structures that would allow meeting members to practice social distancing while still permitting them to debate, to amend articles, and to vote.

Last month, the board approved the staff’s recommendation to hold the meeting entirely online using the platform Zoom.

On the agenda

• Members will vote on whether to use $223,000 from the Unassigned General Fund Balance to fund a portion of the cost of a new fire engine. If approved, the new engine would replace one from 1994.

The Unassigned General Fund Balance account — sometimes referred to as a “rainy day fund” or “surplus monies” — consists of surplus funds from previous years and serves as the town’s emergency fund.

• The community marketing initiative designed to promote Brattleboro is asking for $43,748. A joint program of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA), the initiative launched the Love Brattleboro VT community marketing campaign earlier this year.

This year, the DBA is asking for $80,000 to fund the Downtown Improvement District (DID).

This money, if approved, would come from a special assessment, or tax, on property owners in the DID, which extends from approximately the Town Common south to include commercial properties on lower Canal Street, South Main, and Vernon Street. To find a map of the DID, visit brattleboro.com/dba-membership.

• The Human Services Committee members are asking for a total of $109,105. If approved, the money would provide money to multiple organizations — local and regional — that serve Brattleboro residents, such the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, Big Brothers Big Sisters, The Gathering Place, KidsPLAYce, and Youth Services.

Every year, the committee evaluates applications from organizations. It then presents the organizations and their respective funding requests en masse for the ARTM to vote on as one article.

At last year’s meeting, members discussed the human services funding and the committee’s process for three hours. Eventually, members voted to increase the amount provided to the Human Services Committee by 15 percent.

• Meeting members will also vote on the quarterly due dates for municipal and school taxes. In previous years, this vote has felt perfunctory. This year, however, with COVID-19’s upending the sense of a “normal” calendar, residents should note that, if approved, the first round of taxes will be due a few days after ARTM, on Sept. 15.

• Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) makes an annual request of all the towns it serves. This year, the organization is asking for $36,147 from Brattleboro.

• Meeting members will also vote on adopting a resolution to send to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). If approved, the resolution would formalize the town’s request that FERC require owners of the Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams to modify their operations to minimize the river’s peaking, monitor stream banks, develop a shoreline management plan, and reimburse municipalities and landowners for damages.

This resolution deals with ongoing concerns about erosion on the Vermont and New Hampshire banks of the Connecticut River. According to the resolution, the river’s depth fluctuates on average 2 to 3 feet a day due to operations at the three dams.

Municipalities and private land owners say that over the past 70 years they have spent “millions of dollars in public and private money to attempt to stabilize and restore their stream banks to protect property and infrastructure,” states the resolution.

• One article missing from this year’s ARTM warning is one to authorize the municipal budget. The Selectboard authorized the fiscal year 2021 budget earlier this summer, under special legislative dispensation (H.947) that granted it the authority to do so.

The Legislature approved this one-time measure because ARTM was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19 and, at the time, no one knew if meeting members could convene legally or safely before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

• The first 11 articles focus on ratifying positions and naming people to committees such as the Town Finance Committee or authorizing the Selectboard to employ a public accountant.

A virtual meeting space

Community members can watch the Annual Representative Town Meeting online by logging in with Zoom. The town will publish the Zoom link on the meeting warning on the town’s website.

Town Manager Peter Elwell reminded viewers that to watch using Zoom, they will need to enter a passcode. This code will also appear on the warning.

“We initially had resisted the need for passcodes because these were public meetings and it didn’t feel appropriate,” Elwell said.

The town’s tune changed, however, after an online troll invaded a meeting earlier this month. He disrupted the meeting with racial slurs and profanity and streaming of obscene images and video.

Elwell said that based on additional research, staff learned that using passcodes is one of the most effective ways to stop abusive intrusions.

Most online hecklers use digital tools to comb the internet searching for “vulnerable” meetings, he said, but the digital trolls will usually steer away from meetings requiring passcodes.

According to Open Meeting Law experts who consulted with the town, as long as the passcode is published on the meeting warning — or agenda — and easy for community members to find, then the meetings still qualify as public, Elwell said.

Brattleboro Community Television (BCTV) is also carrying the meeting live on cable channel 1085. It will also stream the meeting on its website and Facebook page.

The Representative Town Meeting Informational Meeting was held March 11 and recorded by BCTV. In this gathering, meeting members asked questions and received additional information. To view this meeting, visit bit.ly/573_infomtg.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #575 (Wednesday, August 19, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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