Brattleboro parking garage: is safety an issue of perception?

Brattleboro parking garage: is safety an issue of perception?

Town officials say crime statistics don’t support claims from public that threats to safety at the Transportation Center are on the rise from panhandlers and unhoused people

BRATTLEBORO — The bulk of the Sept. 4 Selectboard meeting concerned parking, including a discussion that resulted in the board beginning the process to raise parking rates and soundly rejecting a suggestion to begin enforcement on Sundays.

Much of the debate centered on safety, with public officials countering the narrative that poor people asking strangers for money in public lots leads to unsafe conditions in the community, including the Transportation Center on Flat Street.

A few audience members spoke up about the presence of homeless people and people panhandling in the Transportation Center, and their feeling that the area is less safe because of that.

Town officials - and other audience members - rejected the premise of those complaints, citing police department records that they say demonstrate that despite public perception, the parking garage is not increasingly unsafe.

Perception versus reality

Brattleboro resident Diana Bander told the Board she reported seeing a person attend to their bathroom needs near a parking kiosk in the Transportation Center.

“I was assaulted in the [parking] garage today,” she said. “It has happened at two other times this week.”

Bander admitted these were “not physical assaults.” The legal and dictionary definitions of assault involve either a violent physical or verbal attack, or the threat or attempt of one person to inflict bodily harm on another.

A resident who identified herself only as “Anna” took exception to Bander's terminology, telling the Board that for almost seven years, she has worked with people who have experienced sexual and domestic violence in town.

“I have story after story of mostly women who are not safe in their homes,” she said, urging the Board and the public to consider language “when we think about safety and we say words like 'assault.'”

“[A]re people afraid of how other people look or smell [...] or is it actually physical assault?” she asked. “That is very different.”

Other audience members noted poverty exists and shouldn't be invisible, and that they never felt unsafe when someone asked them for money. Some reminded the public to think about the safety of people who are living out in the open in places not typically considered housing.

Elwell commented on the difference between safety and the perception of safety, especially at the Transportation Center.

“We have a police department that keeps really specific records of where they get called to and what they do when they get there,” said Ewell. “What we don't see in and around our parking facilities, even at the Transportation Center, is an increase in activity that is intended to harm other people.”

“We don't see people stealing from one another. We don't see people threatening to hurt each other - or hurting each other - in any greater numbers than ever happened before,” Elwell said.

According to a memo to the Selectboard from Elwell, police responded to the Transportation Center 214 times in the 12 months between August 2017 and July 2018.

Elwell said he doesn't want to dismiss people who tell town officials they feel unsafe, “but being safe in our public spaces is substantively different than feeling safe in our public spaces.”

“None of the data tell us people are any less safe in Brattleboro than they were one year ago, or three years ago, or five years ago,” he said.

Starr had strong words for those who ask for laws that criminalize poor people.

“I'm thinking of the old adage, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions,'” said Starr, who noted the Board could “certainly regulate our way to helping people who are feeling hysterically unsafe. But, know that that can come back and bite people,” she said.

She called for “a reality check,” and mentioned her work at the Groundworks Drop-In Center. “I have 30 [clients] sleeping in pricker bushes right now. That's real.”

Starr noted the dilemma of people living on the streets who need to use the bathroom but don't have money to patronize a shop that will let them.

“I want to move the discussion away from policy changes that communicate to a group of people, 'We don't like you, [and] we don't like how you make us feel inside,'” she said.

Instead, Starr wants to “take steps that don't ostracize, victimize, and criminalize people that are already down,” and added, “That's what I'm going to do while I'm sitting in this chair for the next two years.”

Board OKs higher parking rates

In a previous meeting, resident Dick DeGray had suggested the town charge for parking on Sundays. When asked for their decision at the Sept. 4 meeting, Selectboard members Shanta Lee Gander, David Schoales, and Brandie Starr responded, one by one, “No.” O'Connor's answer: “Just say no.” Tim Wessel was absent and said nothing.

The Board did vote to raise parking rates to $1 per hour on Main Street and in the Harmony Lot, and by 10 cents an hour at all other street-side spots and public lots.

The fees will not likely increase until next year.

Because altering parking rates requires an ordinance change, staff will assist Town Manager Peter B. Elwell in drafting a document with the new information for a first and second reading at a future Selectboard meeting.

Elwell said he will try to coordinate the readings with the Board's discussions on financing the new parking machines.

There's a new loading zone for passengers in front of the Boys & Girls Club on Flat Street. The Board passed the ordinance to facilitate caregivers dropping off and picking up young people. The request for the change, Moreland said, came from officials with the Boys & Girls Club. This was the ordinance's second reading, and there was no public comment.

Previously, Elwell and the Board contemplated arrangements with private-property owners to facilitate public parking after hours in their lots, but at the Sept. 4 meeting, Elwell encouraged the Board to skip the subject.

“We don't need it to satisfy the needs for public parking in town,” he said, because people should park in public facilities. He noted the town's ordinances already enable private owners to share parking with each other, and violations are a private matter, not for the town to manage.

New lights for Transportation Center

Lighting and illumination in the Transportation Center resulted in the Board's decision to decline a paint job that could “easily exceed $500,000,” according to a memo from Elwell, and approve a cheaper set of lights.

Moreland explained that according to the parking study from earlier this year, there's a perception that the garage is dimly lit, “and that condition may lead to a sense that the facility is not safe,” he said.

The consultant's idea, Moreland said, was to paint the ceiling with reflective paint to give the Transportation Center a more illuminated feel.

Moreland researched the price of the paint and the preparation required to make it adhere to the ceiling. And, because the project isn't a result of engineering, “it's difficult to say [...] how much brightness that would provide,” Moreland said.

Instead, the board voted to add a third row of 78-watt fixtures to each level of the garage after considering other options, including switching all 60 of the 55-watt LED lamps with 78-watt upgrades or doing nothing.

Town manager staff will bring specific information about the new fixtures and their cost to a future meeting.

'Booting' is tabled

The Board also tabled a discussion, requested by Gander, on the practice of affixing wheel clamps to vehicles belonging to people with overdue parking tickets.

When a driver has three or more outstanding parking tickets and after the town has sent a notice, parking enforcement officers or a member of the Brattleboro Police Department are empowered to immobilize, or “boot,” the vehicle with the device.

Gander agreed to table the item until a future meeting, when it can be addressed in more depth.

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