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Ben ‘Spoon’ Agave: Providing expertise to ‘make a good town better’

BRATTLEBORO—Ben “Spoon” Agave places a piece of paper on the café table. Typed, front and back, is his treatise on how he would serve Brattleboro as a member of its Selectboard.

“I am running because town government has difficult and complex problems, because I have very deep and broad experience in town government, and because I love the work,” Agave, 66, wrote. “I will provide the expertise to make a good town better.”

Agave is running for a three-year seat on the Selectboard against Kate O’Connor. He is a former Selectboard member who was elected to the board in 2005 and served for one year. The retired transportation specialist is a mainstay in Brattleboro politics.

Farther down the page, Agave wrote, “I am not running just to see if I like the job. I am not running just to make a contribution to the town. I am running because there is a dire need of experience and vision.”

“If you’re looking for dynamic, that’s what I promise,” Agave said with a big smile at he sat back in his chair.

Financial cliff ahead?

According to Agave, who has served on and chaired the Town Finance Committee for four years, the town and its Selectboard will face one of the most difficult challenges in their combined history: “looming tax increases.”

Agave estimates property taxes will rise 40 cents over the next two years. Fiscal year 2014 will see a “modest” 10 cent rise because the town will cover some of its revenue needs using a $2.3 million surplus. According to Agave, the surplus is keeping about 20 cents off the tax rate.

The following year, however, the town will start paying the principal of the 20-year bond for the $14.1 million police and fire stations upgrade project. The town might not have another surplus to cover expenses, he said.

What allows taxpayers to get by in the town with one of the highest property tax rates in the state, said Agave, is that about 15.3 percent of the town’s tax revenue is covered by the state’s income sensitivity program.

Traditionally, the Selectboard starts working on the town budget in October, after town employees have completed it. Agave feels it’s too late. The board doesn’t have the time to make necessary cuts or changes. The board, he feels, should start working on the next year’s budget the day after town meeting.

“I intend to make the budget a priority from the day I’m elected,” he said.

Agave, who has served six years on the Development Review Board and six years on the Planning Commission, hopes to focus on developing a regional cost-sharing system so that other towns pay for the services Brattleboro gives to outside residents.

According to him, part of Brattleboro’s heavy tax burden stems from Brattleboro’s status as a hub town for the county that provides services for surrounding towns like a hospital, business headquarters, and heavy-duty roads.

Other towns’ tax rates are half or a third of Brattleboro’s, he said, because they don’t have to support as much infrastructure.

“It all has to be worked out proportionally” with each town picking up a little piece of Brattleboro’s expenses, he said.

Agave said he had yet to come up with a structure for the cost-sharing, but thinks the answer might be a county-wide per capita tax. Or, perhaps, a structure like Vermont uses to fund eduction, a county-wide Act 60.

“I can do a lot to help the community see the advantages of regional cooperation,” Agave said.

No town can survive on its own, said Agave.

“Regional unity is essential,” he said.

Agave, who served on and chaired the Charter Review Committee for nearly four years, also wants the Selectboard fed a steady diet of vital statistics on unemployment, income levels, crime, and housing activity so it has all the information necessary to make decisions.

“I think,” or “I heard,” are not acceptable foundations for making accurate conclusions, he said.

Referring back to his typed statements, Agave, who served one year on the Board of Civil Authority, listed what he believed is the Selectboard’s role:

“We have a superb administration and staff that does a fine job running the town on a day-to-day basis,” he wrote. “We need an equally competent Selectboard to provide a coherent vision of the future.”

Agave’s 10-point list read: “A Selectboard that understands the difficult challenges presented by our heavy tax burden, has read the town plan, is up-to-date on what is going on in small towns across the country, that can provide direction to the Town Manager, that can suggest and support new ideas and strategies, that keeps its finger on the pulse of the town, that understands the financial and economic implications of its actions, that will work with neighboring towns and the Regional Commission, that will support with local development efforts [sic], that is willing to make itself a cohesive and effective body.”

Experience needed

The potential inexperience of three newly elected Selectboard members also concerns Agave, who served one year on the Traffic and Safety Committee and as an ex-officio member on the former Bus Advisory Committee.

In his view, it takes three years to learn a job like the Selectboard. His election would ensure someone on the board had experience.

Agave, who has been a Representative Town Meeting member for 12 years, said he would like to see the Selectboard develop a decision-making process that has an end goal of unity or consensus rather than the traditional majority rule. Decisions reached through consensus are more durable, he said.

The town will face dwindling resources in the years ahead, he said. But one resource it has in abundance is collective intelligence. To leverage that, Agave said that Brattleboro must increase town-wide participation in town government.

In his typed document, Agave said the board should examine its effectiveness and productiveness before anything else. He also suggested employing social media to make meetings and communication with the public more productive.

“I will raise the subject of creating an information stream that would go out to every citizen who wishes to receive information electronically on a frequent basis,” he wrote.

Agave also said he feels the town could better engage the growing number of older residents in Brattleboro, and the wealth of wisdom, knowledge, and skills at its fingertips. And, if the aging population is also retired, then its members also have time to serve on committees and boards.

Planning is also important for the town’s long-term health, said Agave. Planning needs to go beyond zoning, and more toward building a master plan for the town itself that looks at infrastructure, assets, and preparing the town for the future.

The town’s capital plan extends out six years, yet the town is making financial commitments, like the police and fire upgrade project, that will take 20 years to pay off, said Agave.

“I have a strong sense that good master planning could have cut several million dollars off the police/fire project and still accomplish all that was required,” Agave said.

When asked about the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, Agave paused.

“No one wants to say it’s really not important,” he said.

If the community wants the building, it will stay, said Agave. But how much does the community as a whole want to keep the River Garden public?

“The Selectboard should find a way to gauge the depth of citizen interest” on issues like the River Garden, Agave said.

Regarding the skateboard park slated for the Crowell Lot, Agave responded, “My preference would be to keep the Crowell Lot intact.”

Regarding the town’s economy, Agave, who professes a strong knowledge of economics, said the board should get a handle on basic microeconomic concepts that parallel municipal finances.

“We have to enable people to understand and reconcile growth and sustainability,” he said.

Agave said he believes that a strong economy, at its core, is sustainable and has the “absolute minimum” number of people living in poverty.

A woman passes the café table to order lunch. Agave hands her his flyer. She says she has seen his lawn signs. He said he hopes she votes for him.

“It’s me against the O’Connor name,” he jokes. “And all that name implies.”

“I can hit the ground running,” he said about serving on the Selectboard. “I’ve trained for the job. I’m ready. I have taken every course. I haven’t just been sitting in meetings picking my nose.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #192 (Wednesday, February 27, 2013).

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