Brattleboro ARTM digs deep on economics

Members navigate town’s first virtual Annual Representative Town Meeting, organized on Zoom after months of planning

BRATTLEBORO — “Can you hear me?”

That phrase dominated on Saturday as more than 100 meeting members and officials navigated the town's first virtual Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM), which approved all 19 warned articles over 13 hours as well as a few non-binding articles designated as “other business.”

While the members completed their business - which included renewing funding for a marketing campaign, funding human-services organizations, and buying a new firetruck - the group's conversations also highlighted some of the town's divisions.

In the days following the Sept. 12 meeting, some members expressed concerns about how well the ARTM functioned, even considering the unusual logistics.

The meeting was months in the making. Traditionally held in March, ARTM's in-person meeting was postponed this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the state's ban on large gatherings. The Selectboard approved the use of the Zoom video conferencing platform to hold the meeting after town staff investigated multiple online and in-person models.

Though the meeting was broadcast and streamed live by BCTV and via Facebook Live, only meeting members and town officials, such as the Selectboard or Town Manager Peter Elwell, were signed in to participate in the Zoom meeting to ensure that only those allowed to vote in the meeting could do so.

Votes were taken using the platform's polling feature. Nonvoting members of the public, speaking to specific articles, joined the meeting using their telephones.

The articles

After Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe opened the meeting shortly after 8:30 a.m., Town Meeting Member Kate O'Connor (District 3), gave a brief welcoming statement.

O'Connor reminded the members that the last time they all gathered in person was at Academy School for the ARTM informational meeting in March.

“And that seems like a lifetime ago,” she said.

Despite the pandemic, social distancing, and the online meeting, O'Connor said the members' mission has remained the same.

“Carrying out the responsibility of doing the town's business,” she said. “We'll have to be patient with each other and above all, have a good sense of humor all day long.”

Meeting members, along with Crispe, worked through a few technical issues during the early articles but developed a rhythm as the day progressed.

Meeting Members voted on the first 10 warned articles before the lunch break. These included ratifying the Selectboard's appointment of the Town Clerk and Town Treasurer for the next year. The members also elected from among their ranks people to serve on various committees.

Selectboard stipends and economic privilege

Debate around Selectboard stipends dug into deeper issues of economics and the cost for citizens to engage in town government.

Meeting Members Kurt Daims and Rikki Risatti, both from District 2, stressed the need to deepen the pool of community members able to serve on the board. One way to do so, they argued, would be to raise the stipend, thus making it easier or even possible for people earning lower incomes to give their time.

Currently, the town pays a stipend of $5,000 for the board chair and $3,000 for the other four members of the Selectboard.

Daims proposed an amendment to pay the chair $10,000 a year and all other members $8,000; Risatti proposed an hourly wage of $25.

Later in the discussion, Member Arlene Distler (District 2) made the amendment to pay respective stipends of $7,000 and $5,000.

Meeting members eventually defeated all three amendments, leaving stipends as they are.

Town continues funding toward marketing campaign

After some discussion, by a vote of 76–42 members approved raising $43,748 to continue the Community Marketing Initiative, a joint marketing program launched last year by Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA).

The funding amount represents 10 percent of the rooms and meals taxes collected by the town.

O'Connor, who also serves as the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, spoke in that capacity, explaining that the “Love Brattleboro” campaign was first designed to attract people who live within driving distance of the town in regions like western Massachusetts and Québec.

Within the larger marketing initiative, the project's marketing firm, Penniless Projects of South Newfane, also oversaw a few “mini campaigns,” said O'Connor. One such endeavor marketed the town to LGBTQ+ visitors.

After the pandemic reached Vermont in March, the marketing effort stalled, noted O'Connor. When the state reopened this summer for in-state travel, the effort pivoted to encourage visitors living in other Vermont communities.

“As you know, COVID has hit all of us, but it's been particularly hard on the business community,” O'Connor said. “We have to have a vibrant community and obviously the business community is a part of that.”

Some Town Meeting members questioned using money to fund tourism or the business community during a public health crisis that left neighbors in the pandemic's economic pinch.

Meeting Member Alex Fischer (District 2) expressed their concern that the initial marketing effort showed “a serious lack of engagement” with Brattleboro's LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.

Instead of “making money off of those communities,” Fischer challenged those involved in the Love Brattleboro Campaign to invest in building a safe community for members of the Queer and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities.

O'Connor said that while the initial effort did include outreach to local community members, she heard the concerns and pledged more of an effort going forward.

Members fund DBA work

Next, the body overwhelmingly approved $80,000 for the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance using funds from the special tax assessment levied on properties within the Downtown Improvement District. The money funds the designated downtown organization's annual budget, operating expenses, and work plan.

In a report submitted to the Selectboard, Executive Director Stephanie Bonin stated that over the past year, the organization supported 65 local businesses, invested more than $100,000 locally, and collaborated with more than 30 local organizations.

During the pandemic, the organization has supported local businesses by setting up parklets - parking spaces retooled as outdoor dining areas - throughout the downtown, Bonin said.

Bonin also helped launch food programs, first for local artists and, later, the Everyone Eats initiative.

This program pays local restaurants to prepare heat-and-eat meals that are then provided free to the community. The state is currently rolling out a program statewide, Vermont Everyone Eats, based on the Brattleboro model.

Members again eye process of funding nonprofits

History repeated itself when the Town Meeting members reached the article pertaining to human services funding.

Last year, members debated for several hours about the amount of funding the town provides to local human service organizations. The discussion also veered into the process by which the ARTM Human Services Funding Review Committee doled out funds.

This year the conversation was shorter, but many of the sentiments were the same.

Meeting Member Andy Davis (District 3) said in last year's meeting that the body agreed that in order to refrain from rethinking the committee's work, the committee should consider 1 percent of the previous year's municipal budget as a target when responding to organizations' funding requests.

“It seems [the committee's] work is always laid out on the table and dissected by this body,” Davis said.

This year, members approved an increase in the human services committee's allotment, 87–25.

Using the 1 percent guideline, the ARTM Human Services Funding Review Committee had recommended $190,105 apportioned among 28 service organizations.

The body approved an amendment to increase funding for each organization by 10 percent, for a total increase of $20,235.50.

The body also approved a non-binding suggestion that the Root Social Justice Center, to which the committee recommended $5,250 of funding, receive its full request of $7,000.

Meeting Member Robin Morgan (District 2) made the amendment, saying that the pandemic had increased the community's need for services.

Morgan added that the Root should receive its full funding ask because it was the only BIPOC-led organization on the committee's list.

Later in the evening, under other business, members passed a non-binding resolution to allocate 2 percent of the town's budget to human services spending.

Resolution to weigh in on dam regulation

Members unanimously approved a resolution submitted by the Connecticut River Conservancy, one that focuses on the river's erosion issues.

The Conservancy charges that water elevation fluctuations of 2 to 3 feet daily by the operation of the Wilder, Bellows Falls, and Vernon dams have affected the land and water quality since the 1940s.

The resolutions asks the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) - the regulatory body that oversees hydroelectric dam licenses - to require the current and future dam operators' licenses to minimize peaking, to provide for ongoing stream-bank monitoring, to develop a shoreline management plan, and to create a fund to reimburse municipalities and private landowners for damages related to the loss of the riverbank.

Pandemic precluded budget vote

Members did not vote on the fiscal year 2021 municipal budget. Due to Gov. Phil Scott's emergency order banning large gatherings during the pandemic, ARTM couldn't meet until after the 2021 fiscal year started July 1.

Instead, the town - and other state municipalities in the same pickle - received a one-time special legislative dispensation to permit executive approval of the fiscal year 2021 municipal budget.

In the case of Brattleboro, the Selectboard approved the budget at its June 16 meeting.

Other decisions

• The body voted 109–7 to use $223,000 from the town's Unassigned General Fund Balance toward the purchase of a new fire engine. This engine would replace the current 1994 fire engine.

• Members also voted down an amendment to eliminate all interest and penalties on late property tax payments.

• The Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) request for $36,147 - the equivalent of $3 per resident - passed without discussion.

• Representatives also approved the municipality's appropriation of $223,276.47 through a special assessment on Mountain Home Park in West Brattleboro. ARTM approved the creation of the special assessment district in 2007.

Town Manager Peter Elwell explained that the town helped Mountain Home Park and Deepwood Mobile Home Park acquire funding to improve water and sewer lines. As a result, the town still manages financial transactions between Mountain Home and the project's lender.

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