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Brattleboro’s downtown, BaBB at a crossroads

Selectboard members clash over organization’s budget, effectiveness

BRATTLEBORO—In a grueling, nearly-two-hour train wreck, the Selectboard and members of Building a Better Brattleboro’s board of directors engaged in a budget discussion that morphed into a referendum on the designated downtown organization’s effectiveness and value.

In the end, by a 3–2 margin, the Selectboard rejected BaBB’s fiscal year 2014 work plan and budget, which presumes that the organization will no longer be supporting the Robert H. Gibson River Garden and which reduces the executive director’s hours from 32 hours a week to 18.

BaBB will resubmit a budget to the board.

At a previous meeting, Selectboard members criticized the BaBB board for not following a public process. The Selectboard had told the organization to conduct a re-do, tabling the BaBB budget and work plan vote to the Jan. 15 meeting.

The downtown organization receives tax monies from a special tax assessment levied on downtown property owners. The funds go toward the town’s participation in the state’s downtown program.

“We seriously looked at finances, and what we think we’re capable of achieving,” said Donna Simons, president of BaBB’s board of directors.

Simons, operator of A Candle in the Night at 181 Main St., added that BaBB wanted to be more accountable to its members, the town, and the Selectboard.

She said the revised work plan and budget reflected more input from members, who voted to approve the work plan and budget on Jan. 7.

“We were told in no uncertain terms that we had let you all down,” Simons told the Selectboard. “We have taken it to heart and we promise to keep you in the loop at all times.”

She hoped the communication would be two-way.

Changes

Simons said the reduction in hours for Executive Director Andrea Livermore reflected the need for a more active board of directors and engaged membership willing to volunteer.

The Selectboard, however, took issue with an over $36,000 surplus in BaBB’s budget.

Simons, who took credit for the idea, said the surplus was a reserve fund in case the membership couldn’t meet its needs through volunteering and BaBB needed to increase the executive director’s hours.

Selectboard members felt a budget using tax money could not contain its own surplus.

William Crowley, BaBB board treasurer, openly disagreed with BaBB board’s decision to cut the executive director’s hours and said that the change would not give members the best return on their investment.

“But it certainly makes the numbers look better at this stage,” he said.

Crowley also took issue with the Selectboard’s characterization that the community had given the organization a “failing grade,” according to a survey sent out by the town administration.

Crowley pointed out that downtown property owners had voted 2–1 to continue with the assessment district, the Downtown Improvement District (DID).

“When I look at the results of this [survey], it’s very disheartening,” said Selectboard chair Dick DeGray, who said the survey gave BaBB a 60-percent grade when the organization should receive over 90 percent.

“Whatever you do will be better than what you’ve been doing,” DeGray said.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag said BaBB’s board members should have prepared its budget sooner, which needs to go to Representative Town Meeting for final approval.

“There are 12 months in 2012. There are 12 months in 2013,” Sondag said. “You had the same amount of time.”

Sondag also chastised the board members for talking about personnel issues, like the executive director’s salary, in a public forum. She called it “shameful.”

The conversation continued to heat up.

Simons said that she “felt discouraged” and that the Selectboard had shot down the organization’s budget presented in December 2012 “with a huge gun.”

Simons said that based on comments from the Selectboard, the BaBB board felt it needed to reinvent itself, and the budget and work plan mirrored that feedback.

DeGray, who has hinted a dislike toward BaBB for years, said, “I’ve been biting my lip for a long, long time.”

“There’s a lot of B.S. going on here,” he said. “It’s really hocus-pocus B.S. What the hell’s been accomplished here with all this [tax] money that’s gone to the DID? Why do I pay all this money for something I can’t quantify?”

DeGray is married to Missy Galanes, whose corporation, the Galanes Building Ltd., owns the block of the same name at 116 Main St. and operates the Vermont Shop.

“This organization should be thrown out and the DID blown up,” DeGray railed.

Still, he concluded, he was willing to give BaBB one more year to prove itself and vote to approve the budget.

Selectboard Vice-Chair David Gartenstein called the budget “irresponsible” and said he would not vote to approve it. Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis agreed, as did Ken Schneck.

At a crossroad

In a separate interview, BaBB Executive Director Andrea Livermore said the downtown organization is at a crossroads.

The new model presented by the board of directors will count on engagement from the entire downtown business community. She hoped that the seasoned business owners would remain open to newer business owners’ ideas, and she hoped the newer entrepreneurs would, in turn, respect their wisdom.

“Change is always awkward and difficult,” she said. “It’s not the end, just something different.”

The budget changes dictate a major change for the organization, and no one knows if it will work, she said.

Livermore said she doesn’t know if 18 hours a week will leave time for advocacy work on behalf of businesses, like campaigning against the 1-percent option tax.

The downtown will receive a different product with the downsizing of the executive director’s position, said Livermore, who has openly said that the downsizing of her job should be an option for BaBB to consider.

She said the board of directors took the lead on the 2014 work plan and budget.

According to Livermore, the directors went into executive session at a board meeting to discuss the personnel issue of her executive director hours. It continued to finish the budget in executive session.

BaBB has reached a critical point, said Livermore. In trying to support the revenue-losing River Garden, BaBB has “hit bottom and started digging a hole.”

“The organization must stay afloat and act on the River Garden,” she said.

Livermore’s impression of the Jan. 15 Selectboard meeting was that BaBB was expected to apologize for itself.

“We have nothing to apologize for,” she said. “This downtown is up against huge odds.”

Livermore said that the Great Recession has changed retail. Then add the Brooks House fire and Tropical Storm Irene to the mix, and the pressure on Brattleboro’s business owners mounts.

When considering the comments from DeGray, who said during the meeting that he would probably be asked to resign for not keeping his feelings to himself, but he couldn’t help himself any longer, Livermore said, “I wish he had helped himself.”

BaBB has held its own over the years with persistent and creative action, said Livermore.

“People [visitors] come into town and say ‘wow,’” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #187 (Wednesday, January 23, 2013).

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