Photo Gallery | Brattleboro's Selectboard candidates
BRATTLEBORO — Experience is a word that gets tossed around a lot during election time.
And Brattleboro is no different where three candidates, all with various types of experience, are looking to secure a one-year seat on the Selectboard.
Incumbent David Gartenstein, who serves as deputy state's attorney and Selectboard chairman, was previously on the Development Review Board and Brattleboro Union High School board. He has been part of the Selectboard for five years.
"I want to continue the work that we've been doing over these last years to improve our government and the services that are provided," he said. "My priorities as a Selectboard member are to make sure that our government is responsive, open and transparent, and to make sure services are being delivered in a cost-effective manner."
Former Selectboard member Dick DeGray is looking to return after taking some time off. He currently serves on the town's Beautification Committee but has experience on the Finance Committee and BUHS board.
"I love Brattleboro," he said. "It's a great community. I will work hard for you. Since I'm first on the ballot, I hope I'm the first name that you check."
Newcomer Avery Schwenk opened Hermit Thrush Brewery downtown about a year-and-a-half ago but his career is not limited to beer. He is part of Destination Imagination, a group that teaches kids how to solve problems creatively. He also was a paramedic for six years.
"I'm looking for your vote to have an opportunity to serve my community that's been extremely opening, welcoming and kind to me since I've moved here," he said. "I'm really invested in Brattleboro because Brattleboro's invested in me."
All three candidates spoke at the Brattleboro Citizens' Breakfast on Friday morning at the Gibson Aiken Center, which was hosted by Senior Meals. After quick introductions, they answered questions submitted by attendees.
Residing in Brattleboro for over 30 years with seven years of Selectboard experience, DeGray said he has in some way, shape or form volunteered his time to help in the community every year. He was on the board back in 2012 when a bond was approved for upgrading police and fire facilities. A year later, he said, the budget was defeated and the board put the project on hold.
Now, as Town Meeting Representatives prepare to vote on whether to authorize some of those funds for a new police station on Black Mountain Road, DeGray said he has met with different department heads to get "reacquainted." He sees an opportunity in an enterprise fund, which he says has "a sufficient amount of money" and could be used to freeze tax rates during the year when the hit related to police-fire projects will be the hardest.
"Regardless of if it's a different fund, the money is only coming out of one pocket," he said. "I have experience serving on the board to look for those areas that could possibly help us. We have limited income."
Gartenstein, bringing up nearby tax rates half the amount of Brattleboro's, suggested the possibility of a new revenue stream such as an income tax to assist with infrastructure costs.
"We're paying in our tax dollars to support jobs that are the engine for the entire region," he said. "And we don't have a way right now to recover that money because the state doesn't give us that taxing alternative."
DeGray said he supported either option around police facility upgrades, meaning fixing up the Municipal Center or moving to the Reformer building on Black Mountain Road where an agreement would see the newspaper continue operating there as a tenant for at least the first five years, while Gartenstein defended his vote to recommend the latter option, citing the expenses behind upgrading the Municipal Center as reason to make the move.
"It's a big open space that we can build into. That's a lower cost than doing the way, way substantial work that would be necessary at the Municipal Center," Gartenstein said. But he also recalled his concern about moving the station out of the downtown and his desire to maintain vitality downtown.
Gartenstein brought up the struggles of recent years: Tropical Storm Irene, the Brooks House fire and the search for town manager.
"We were able to get services back on track right away after those two catastrophes in 2011 and we've rebuilt our community very effectively since that time," he said. "There was real risk of downtown blight after that fire. But we supported the redevelopment of that facility. We had the services and the structure in place to rebuild after Irene. And downtown has come back even stronger than it was before."
Town Manager Peter Elwell is "a municipal government professional who's done an excellent job over the course of this last year helping to gather and present information to us to make sure the systems of government are working efficiently to allow us to analyze what's going on at the town level," said Gartenstein. With Elwell's assistance, different alternatives were explored for police and fire facility improvements. And a nearly level-service budget was developed.
Drawing on his days as a paramedic, Schwenk said the job has shaped him into a critical thinker, analyzer and someone who's able to make decisions on the fly. As a younger person who recently moved to the area, he said he brings a new perspective and voice to the table. And as a business owner, he can "speak very directly" to economic impacts behind board decisions.
"I have a different vision of what Brattleboro is and can be," he said. "I think we need to find ways to retain and bring people to the area."
Renting property in town, Schwenk compared rates to that of a city and said the Selectboard should be working with organizations whose focus is on housing. Making those costs more affordable could involve seeing people getting better paying jobs, he said as he called to mind initiatives that the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and its economic development arm Southeastern Economic Development Strategies have launched.
Kate O'Connor, currently vice chairwoman, is running unopposed for a three-year seat on the Selectboard after serving her first three-year term. She's also executive director at the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We've had five great people who are on the board now and they've made it bearable during the hard times," O'Connor said. "I really want to go back on the Selectboard to continue the work that we've done."
While she mostly allowed the three vying for one seat speak to the issues, she jumped at the opportunity to weigh in on how the board has worked hard to collaborate and listen to the public.
"It wasn't something that we sat around the table and said, 'Hey, we're all going to work well together,' or, 'Hey, we're going to ask everybody for their opinion.' It was something that really came naturally to all of us and I hope that we can continue that tradition going forward," said O'Connor, recognized Gartenstein as "sort of the driving force of all of us taking the time to make sure we hear from everyone humanely possible before we make a decision."