BRATTLEBORO—John Allen, general contractor and a former Selectboard member, stands in the kitchen of a newly constructed house on Maple Street, wiping dust from a green granite countertop with a repurposed T-shirt.
He laughs when asked why he’s running for a seat on the board.
“I should have my head examined,” he said.
He smiles again thinking of his first tour of service in 2008 and 2009.
“I enjoyed it,” he admits.
Allen is one of six candidates running for two one-year seats.
He takes the role of Selectboard member seriously, but not himself, as he laughs at his answers and makes off-the-cuff quips before settling down to business.
Serving Brattleboro on the Selectboard is “not rocket science,” he said. Rather, he said, it’s about listening, working hard, and making the best call one can make at the time.
“It’s not always going to be the right decision, especially in Brattleboro,” Allen said.
The Selectboard shouldn’t be political, he said; instead, it should operate in service to the town’s best interests.
Allen wants to represent “the poor working stiffs” who, after spending hours at the grindstone, putting a roof over their family’s head, and getting food on the table might not have the energy or time to attend a Selectboard or School Board meeting.
The working poor is the largest group in town with the smallest voice, said Allen.
“I love this town and think we’re losing our base,” he said.
Allen said, if elected, his first goal will be getting his hands around the town’s reputation of having some of the highest property taxes in the state.
He said he wants to dig to the root of the problem and understand what factors drives them.
The Grand List — the total value of commercial and residential property in town — is not growing, he said — a reality that trickles down to impact many aspects of life in Brattleboro.
Allen said he looks at many issues like the high number of students on free and reduced-cost lunch at the town schools, and asks: Why are so many families qualifying?
Or, he said he wonders why local organizations are building more affordable housing when there aren’t enough jobs to support new residents? He also wonders if people come to Brattleboro because of Vermont’s social welfare system.
Allen said he understands that these questions are sensitive and probably offensive to some people. But he also feels they need to be asked to understand the town’s economy.
Meanwhile, he asserts that Brattleboro has also sent out a call that the town is not business friendly.
“We have to be a little more open minded about letting some business in here,” he said.
Without a strong business base, Allen feels a lot is shifted to the shoulders of taxpayers.
“[Like] the poor working stiffs — and I don’t want them to leave,” he said.
Allen points to Commonwealth Dairy locating a production facility in Brattleboro during his original term on the board as a success story.
According to Allen, some community members worried that the German-based company was from overseas. Now that the yogurt company is going strong, people are asking if they’re growing “too much,” he observed.
Allen said he has no problems with big-box stores. Any business that’s going to provide jobs is welcome in his mind. Although Brattleboro has sent out the signal that “chains are persona non grata,” he said, he sees green license plate after green license plate when he drives to Keene, N.H.
Are we doing the town justice by forcing people to shop out of town, he asked.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Allen, adding: no funding source, no programs.
In Allen’s view, the town’s economy is unbalanced. In the overall mix of arts, culture, social programs, and local businesses, not all the table legs are the same height.
“Brattleboro is a unique town, and that’s great, but we also have to pay the bills,” he said.
Beyond the economy and building a town people can afford to live in, “all the other stuff is just stuff,” said Allen.
“We’re not running NATO here,” he adds.
The fire, police, and public works departments will always want new vehicles, and the budget will always need balancing, he said.
Allen said he has no preconceived notions of what issues will come before the board and what kind of actions will bring solutions.
When asked about concerns facing the town like Vermont Yankee, Allen replied, “Don’t even go there. There’s no winning that argument either way.”
When asked about the skatepark, Allen shakes his head. According to him, the town held open meetings on siting the park.
“Let it go,” he said.
Allen adds he ran for the Selectboard the first time because “no one could decide about naked people [walking around downtown].”
It took a year and a half before Brattleboro had a nudity ordinance, Allen said, shaking his head.
Regardless of whether people vote for him, Allen hopes that people will “just vote.”
It’s sad that the town has such a small turnout, he said.
“I’m just one of five,” he said. “I’ll do the best I can.”