Candidates have their say in Brattleboro

At forum, contenders for Selectboard air thoughts on public safety, housing, safe injection sites, the EMS decision, and the budget. And pickleball.

The five candidates for the three Selectboard seats on the March 5 ballot met on Feb. 22 to discuss the issues in a forum sponsored by The Commons, the Brattleboro Reformer, and Brattleboro Community Television.

Melanie Winters, managing editor of the Reformer, and Randolph T. Holhut, deputy editor of The Commons, asked questions of all five, breaking them apart into those vying for a three-year seat and those competing for two one-year seats on the board.

Running for the three-year seat being vacated by Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow are Peter "Fish" Case, who is completing his first one-year term on the board, and challenger Oscar Heller, who ran for a seat unsuccessfully in 2020. Heller had to participate in the forum remotely due to a bout of Covid that he said he didn't want to spread to others.

Incumbent Vice Chair Franz Reichsman, who is also completing his first year on the board, is vying with Richard Davis and Jaki Reis for two one-year seats on the board.

Case said he looks forward to working on questions around panhandling and drugs in town, which he believes is "a Selectboard responsibility" to help resolve, as well as tangential issues regarding housing and public safety. He's also interested in helping with plans for a new community swimming pool.

The incumbent said his focus is on how the town "has poor narrative hung on it."

As a business owner - Case recently acquired Burrows Specialized Sports on Main Street - he said he walked the town in summer, listened to other business owners, and "see[s] the issues, and some of them are easy to fix."

Case said many business folks in town want others to know "it's not as bad as people say it is."

"We can make this town a really nice community again with a really nice, small, old-town feel," he said.

Heller, also a business owner who builds websites and offers marketing services, summered here as a child and moved here in 2014. He has served on the town Energy and Finance committees and also owns a property in town.

He said he's not sure about the narrative around Brattleboro.

"In many ways, this is an incredibly desirable place to live," Heller said, adding that housing is, to him, the "number one" problem to grapple with, "because of the way it hooks into so many other issues, including homelessness."

Reichsman said his "heartfelt issue" is providing better public bathrooms for visitors and homeless people alike. He feels the town must make a needs assessment, evaluate resources, and enter both public and private partnerships to address the issue.

Davis would look at a long-term vision for the town and ways to market Brattleboro within that vision to take better advantage of the town's proximity to the river as well and relatively easy access to larger towns and cities.

Reis agreed with Reichsman and Davis, saying that she would like to hear more ideas about how the downtown "could be more expressive" of what people love about it.

Housing and homelessness

Asked what tools town government can deploy to help the housing crisis, Heller said that "some of what we do is trying to be the squeakiest wheel as we go up the chain of state and local government."

Saying he'd like to be "particularly active" in finding solutions, Heller said town government does have "influence and authority to start conversations and start things moving on a personal level."

He added that he is "a little disappointed in what seems a reticence to take on the problems and thinking they are too big."

"I think that is the wrong mentality, and I'd like us to be more aggressive on this," Heller said.

"It's a really big question and it has some far-reaching implications, as far as getting it done and in a timely manner," Case said of the housing crisis.

He noted the current board has invited legislators to meet and that he has proposed helping people "get into homes possibly using the revolving loan fund for first and last months' rent."

Noting a 2021 study showing there was a 500-unit housing deficit in Brattleboro, Case said he doesn't think that number has budged.

"This issue does the one thing I don't like to do around it, and that is move slowly," he said.

Asked what role, given a report stating that 90 school-aged children here are reported as homeless, that the town should play in finding a solution, Case advocated working with agencies such as Groundworks Collaborative "and those on the front lines."

"Drug addiction, poverty, are social tragedies happening everywhere - not just here - and nothing the board does will change their existence, but we have to keep exploring and remaining open to ideas," Heller said, adding the importance of realizing that "the attitude that this is a separate class of people" needs to change.

"In fact, it's people that we know - family members and friends," he said.

"We can't minimize the problem and have to keep working toward it," Heller said, noting his pride in the "commitment by the town to fund human service agencies to make these commitments at an institutional level."

Reichsman, noting housing is "expensive and hard to come by," added that many people don't know what the town has already done to remedy the situation.

"We're not going to build housing, we don't have the financial resources to do that," he said, adding the town can, however, "make it easier for development to take place."

Noting the town's "awesome Planning Department," the incumbent said Brattleboro "leads the state in terms of regulations and zoning."

Reichsman said the homelessness issue involves "several sub-populations, some with resources and some without, some with social disabilities who need services attached to home situations, so we have to separate things out, depending on which population you're dealing with, to craft a solution."

Reichsman said some of that help "probably has to come at the state [and] federal levels" and that locally, town leaders have to "be ready to go after those resources in a framework of looking at the differing populations that need to be taken care of."

Davis said he believes the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust to be a "great resource" and that town support for the activities of it and similar organizations is "critical" in helping create new housing.

"Homelessness has been around for a long time, and we won't tackle roots locally," Davis said, because the "real reason is the gap between the haves and have-nots in the country, which feed all the issues that create homelessness."

He believes Groundworks does a "tremendous job" and the town needs to "support the organizations that support the homeless."

Reis, a residential house owner/manager, said she also looks at the housing crisis from the "providers' viewpoint" and would like to come up with "a better solution" to the problem.

"Without mom-and-pop providers, all the housing will go to large corporations," she said, adding hers is "a viewpoint that's not always appreciated and sometimes even looked down upon."

She noted that tenant support and communication are key and that the "scope of the problem is bigger than that we need more housing." She said that income needs also to be addressed.

Reis believes that while the town has many programs in place to help, there's room for more "by looking at the results of efforts [and] a little backward glancing" to help "create an atmosphere where people are more wiling to find solutions."

EMS decision

The board's decision to move to a town-run emergency service model through the fire department and to leave Rescue Inc., which moderators noted was controversial and one that "many felt went against public opinion," was also addressed.

What would the candidates have done differently and what will they do if elected?

Heller said he's now "looking forward, not backward" about it. Lessons learned, he said, include "ways to be more transparent and engaged with the public" and finding a better process.

Terming this the "largest addition to the town's portfolio of services in a very long time," Heller said, "We're going to be very careful with it" and "committed to making it succeed. I think it has to succeed. We've invested too much time already."

Within "a few years," Heller said, the town should be able to "untangle EMS funding from the budget, although it's now a sort of clerical problem."

Case noted the question dates back to the board before he sat on it but that by the time he and other members engaged in the determination process - which took up half his term on the board - and took the final vote in 2023, the Selectboard was "honestly, over-the-top transparent."

Noting it was a five-board-member unanimous decision in the end, Case said already the expected 60% collection rate has been increased to 80%.

"It's not personal, it's business," Case said. "That Rescue would provide superior medical care capability was not part of the decision. We were an open book this time around."

When asked how the town will accurately assess the success of the new EMS program, Case noted new software and the town's easier-to-navigate new website will allow leaders to see "exactly where we are" and "report to everyone sitting in this room and out in the community."

For Heller, public presentation is "mostly a technical issue to communicate effectively."

Saying the software and website are "good tools," he said he's concerned about how to look at and understand the fire department budget and understand which costs are EMS-related and which are fire-related.

"We must be maintaining the data in such a way so as to look back over time and say, 'Here's what we said it would cost, and here's what it did cost," Heller said.

Reis admitted that while she saw "this was the issue that everybody had a strong opinion on," she doesn't know enough about it.

She said she thought the change seemed to have been thoroughly reviewed by the board, adding that she would "personally, rather give money to the town than an outside agency" and that she "does trust the Selectboard and Fire Department."

Saying that he believes "significant" problems between the town and Rescue go back farther than when former Town Manager Octavian "Yoshi" Manale stirred public controversy, Reichsman blamed the town for "60%" of the problem, but said both sides managed things "really bad."

Initially entering his tenure with the Selectboard thinking the town should make amends with Rescue, Reichsman said he became convinced otherwise, coming to the opinion that a rapprochement would "not be the financially smart decision."

"This was a business relationship that has to be a very close, collegial, working relationship, and the willingness to make that happen simply was not there," he said. "And we had a very good alternative in our fire department."

Davis said while he tried to follow the issue closely, he realized, "I didn't know what I didn't know," and he was frustrated.

"It's a very personal issue for everybody, but […] at some point, you have to say, 'Let's move on, but not forget about what happened,'" he said.

All agreed it will be important to review income and expenses, and to get feedback to accurately assess current projections for the town model.

Reis said she thinks a comparison between the new model and the old will be difficult to make, "because it's static, and this program is moving forward."

"I think it's going to be totally scrutinized," she said. "I don't think anybody is willing to let this one go."

Climate change

Candidates also discussed how to advocate for resiliency and plan for Brattleboro's economic future in the face of climate change.

Thinking "creatively and, possibly, painfully" about the future of some of the town's important industries - such as tourism, maple production, and skiing - Heller said those aren't "just economic; these are part of Vermont's identity." He advocated for strengthening and diversifying the business mix in town.

Heller also noted the cost of physical damage from environmental events - some of which is being mitigated by flood plains and stormwater gardens - and investing in more of those measures.

Case said that taking a look at options such as bike path infrastructure and more electric charging stations near highways could help. He noted the town has already removed and replaced freon compressors.

"All we can do is control our town, and I think we are doing and taking positive steps to do that," he said.

Property taxes

Given that the proposed budget includes a 4.3% property tax increase, candidates were asked how to balance the needs of the town with taxpayers' ability to pay - and whether they could say "no" to a project in the interest of preserving that delicate balance.

"Yes, we are perfectly capable of saying 'yes' and 'no' to things, sure, when it makes sense," Case said.

"It becomes a weighing game because sometimes it means eliminating services, such as town trash removal," he added.

"These are all decisions made to help keep the tax base where it is," Case said. "Infrastructure is what it is; we have to repair sidewalks and roads."

Heller, too, said he's willing to say "no."

"Nothing we do as a town comes for free […] .and our tax rate is high," he said, calling it a balancing act and saying board members have to listen to the constituency.

"You have to be practical and frugal," Heller said.

He added there are "ways to be smarter, including putting money aside on a schedule for capital needs," which he'd like to see expanded to other areas.

Davis said he takes it "personally" when the town spends money - "because it is."

He wants leaders, when the town wants to make a significant expenditure, to "find a way to offset it," and said that he fears Brattleboro will become like Cape Cod, "where those who work there can't afford to live there anymore."

Safe injection sites

The Vermont House recently passed a bill that could create safe injection sites for drug users. The bill is now being considered by the Senate.

Part of the proposal includes giving cities and towns the right to prohibit such sites within their boundaries. Candidates were asked if they would support a site in Brattleboro and why.

Case was clear that he is not in favor.

"Everybody has the right to get the help they need," he said. "I want to help, but I don't want to help them in this way."

Heller is still "reading and researching," he said, and hasn't yet made up his mind on the issue. He said his first reaction is "a little bit of discomfort […] but I'm unwilling to rule it out," saying such a move would be "radical, but so is the crisis."

"So many in the community are dying, and it might help," he said. "I think it's something we owe to the community to at least consider."

Public safety and crime

The Community Safety Review Committee's report, presented three years ago and still not acted upon, also emerged as a forum topic.

Heller said he believes a broader discussion and more community outreach are needed.

He called the report "important" but not a "full accounting about what everyone in town thinks about community safety." He added that the board needs to "stop kicking the can down the road."

Case felt his board has tried "to advance the conversation a little bit," adding there is "good, substantive stuff in that report to do with de-escalation and people who are self-policing."

He said the issue doesn't "come to the agenda as much as it should" and that he is looking forward to advancing that agenda, "so we can get traction in the conversation."

Reis said she doesn't have enough information about the report but is "willing to learn." Davis also said he's not completely up to date on the issue but suggested that public safety also be looked at from the perspective "of fear" - in that some are afraid to be downtown at night.

Reichsman, saying the safety report addressed only a subset of the population, said the issue will be "a big deal for the Selectboard starting very soon."

He added that it would have come to the front burner sooner, but that the board learned of a program that might also provide financial help and is investigating that.


On a somewhat lighter note, moderators asked about the rationale for spending $30,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to study the feasibility of pickleball courts when the town has many other needs.

"I don't see the justification for spending ARPA funds on pickleball," Heller said. "I'm not sure there is one."

Case agreed. "There is no justification for it," he said, adding no other sporting need or want came before the board.

"I didn't understand it," he said. "Nothing against pickleballers; I love you all. But I think if you want to play, you do the work and make a presentation to the Selectboard."

"I don't know enough about it," said Reis, as far as nixing the project, but that "it's an important part of being a governing body to make practical choices."

Reichsman was adamant in his support of the expenditure.

"Of course we should," he said animatedly. "We're spending $4.1 million on generational improvements at Living Memorial Park. Pickleball's an awesome sport, and we don't have enough facilities to meet demand."

He added that the sport has been nationally drawing an older group to participate, which helps them get exercise and socialize, both important aspects for healthy life as we age.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

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