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Sidewalk grant error costs town $23,750

BRATTLEBORO—The town recently found itself in a bit of hot water when it was notified by the state Department of Economic, Housing, and Community Development that it did not follow the department’s grant guidelines regarding a downtown sidewalk renovation project.

While the amount of money in question — $23,750 — is a small piece of the municipal budget, Town Manager Barbara Sondag said the town is taking the matter seriously and is dealing with the problem as quickly as possible.

In a March 2 letter sent to Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray, Commissioner Noelle MacKay wrote that the grant agreement between the Vermont Downtown Board and the town authorized up to $47,500 in state funds for a sidewalk improvement project located on the east side of Main Street between the Kyle Gilbert Memorial Bridge and Elliot Street.

The town would get 50 percent of the money when the project was 50 percent complete, and then get the rest upon completion of the project.

During a Selectboard meeting last Wednesday, Sondag said that there was miscommunication between the state and the town. Sondag said the sidewalk project on lower Main Street was delayed because the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) asked the town to hold off on the work until the Route 5 paving project was complete.

However, sidewalk repairs were taking elsewhere on Main Street. Work was done near the High Street intersection as part of the new traffic signals that were installed in 2010. That project was part of a separate $375,000 sidewalk grant from AOT, Sondag said.

MacKay wrote that her department provided $23,750 on July 20, 2011 after the town’s grant manager, Suzanne Bansley, told her that the sidewalk project was 50 percent complete.

Sondag said that Bansley sought reimbursement for the High Street area improvements, but mistakenly applied the request to the Downtown Transportation Fund grant.

MacKay wrote that her department later discovered that mistake after nearly four months of investigation, but Sondag said she notified the Downtown Board of the mistake before the state discovered it.

In January, the Vermont Downtown Board told the town it was going to consider rescinding the $47,500 grant, but Sondag convinced them to reconsider.Ultimately, the Downtown Board voted not to rescind the grant agreement, but it did require the town to return the $23,750 until the lower Main Street sidewalk project is completed, and the town provides sufficient documentation to the state to prove it is in full compliance.

MacKay called this “an unprecedented situation,” which is why she sent the March 2 letter to DeGray to let the Selectboard know “the extent to which Department staff time and other state resources were required to clarify this situation.”

“I think their [the Downtown Board] main frustration was the lack of communication between me and them as far being up to date with what was going on,” Sondag said.

As a result of this incident, Sondag told the Selectboard that changes have been made to the grants process. Now, all grants have to be sponsored by a town department, and the department then takes responsibility for making out the grant reports to the state.

The goal, she said, is to make the grant process much clearer and to try to put more internal controls to catch such mistakes.

“I feel as though we have addressed the issue, and I don’t foresee it occurring again, but we have a ton of grants,” she said, around $2 million of state and federal grants, to be precise.

Reorganization

Last Wednesday’s meeting also marked the annual reorganization of the board. DeGray was re-elected chair, while David Gartenstein was selected as vice-chair, and Chris Chapman was selected as board secretary. All three votes were unanimous.

DeGray, Gartenstein, and Chapman all won re-election to the board in last Tuesday’s town election.

“This board functioned quite well last year, and I’m looking forward to the same cooperation and collegial respect for each other in the coming year,” DeGray said.

The Selectboard hopes to formulate a list of goals for the coming year, something that board member Dora Bouboulis said is overdue.

“I do definitely feel very strongly about us as a board doing this, because we never got around to doing it last year,” she said.

The board hopes to schedule a meeting with department heads next month to assess their needs for the coming year, and then come up with its own goals for the year.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #143 (Wednesday, March 14, 2012).

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