BRATTLEBORO — In small boxes on screens scattered around town, Select Board members had their last Zoom-only meeting.
“We’re back into showtime,” Gary Stroud, a member of several town boards and committees, said at the Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday.
Town Manager Peter Elwell said the state of emergency declared by the governor last year expired at midnight Tuesday, meaning physical locations would be needed for municipal meetings from then on.
The Select Board’s next meeting on July 6 is back in the Municipal Center for the first time since the March 2020 shutdown and open to the public. Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland and Brattleboro Community Television are figuring out how to make sure remote participation also can occur.
Elwell said the main challenge will involve managing how people are called on in the room and in Zoom, which Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin said she is up for it. Elwell noted how other boards and committees in town will now be meeting in a physical location again but remote options would “cumbersome and possibly costly” for smaller committees.
Board member Ian Goodnow said it is critical to have hybrid Select Board meetings, where remote and in-person participation is available.
“We’ve just seen the opportunity for people to participate in their local government in a way that we have not seen before thanks to the remote option,” he said.
Water shut-offsA plan unanimously approved by the board involves letting water customers know disconnections will resume after the November deadline, which is two billing cycles from now, and that financial assistance programs are available. Payment plans are offered by the town.
Impacts of COVID-19 on households have been “differential,” Elwell said.
“Unfortunately, while there’s an element of this that feels insufficiently compassionate to the households that have suffered and have fallen further behind than usual, it is nonetheless true: there needs to be a time when the moratorium ends and we believe the time for you to declare that is now,” he said.
Board member Daniel Quipp, who works for Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) where help with utility arrears can be found, said disconnection notices for electricity were put on pause in March 2020 due the pandemic. At the end of the month, the disconnection notices will continue.
“So the town’s decision to wait until November to issue shutoffs will happen months after electricity and other shutoff notices are able to be issued so I think we are being very considerate of the ratepayers’ challenges to pay,” Quipp said. “I can tell you having a moratorium in place has left many families with bills that are way larger than they can handle because they weren’t getting a shutoff notice to prompt them into action.”
Quipp encouraged those having trouble with the water payments to reach out to Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, which has access to funds to manage such arrears. If that doesn’t work out, he said SEVCA should be contacted.
As of July 2020, 85 residential accounts were delinquent for a total of $69,066, according to a memo from Elwell. Currently, 251 residential accounts are delinquent for a total of $150,822.
Financing and refinancing
In March, Representative Town Meeting authorized the town to seek up to $12.5 million for upgrades at the Pleasant Valley Water Treatment Plant at an interest rate not to exceed 5 percent. At the last meeting, the board awarded a contract to Kingsbury Construction for about $14.2 million.
On Tuesday, the board approved moving forward with a loan agreement with the Vermont State Revolving Loan Fund administered by the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank for $5.93 million, with 0 percent interest, to cover final design and the first year of construction. The assistant town manager anticipates the project will take two to three years to complete.
“At each year, we’re going to draw down additional funds, each of those subsequent drawdowns are going to be at 0 percent,” Moreland said. “At the conclusion of the project, two or three of these loans, however many it turns out to be, will be rolled up into one final loan and that loan will also be at 0 percent.”
Moreland said the state is providing a $4,144,232 subsidy, meaning the town will only need to repay $1,785,000 of the loan.
“That’s tremendous,” he said. “It’s really better than what we had anticipated. It’s really nothing but a win for the ratepayers in Brattleboro.”
Town staff can “absolutely assure” that the full $12.5 million will not be needed for the project, Moreland said. He expects more subsidies in future years.
Goodnow called the news “great” and asked if he thought the big subsidy had to do with COVID-19.
“I think that’s reasonable,” Moreland said, adding that he thinks the state does “an especially good job” of making sure large federal funds get put to good use when they become available. “But I couldn’t say for sure.”
The board had increased rates to help cover the project and Quipp wondered if those rates could be lowered as a result of the favorable financing package. Moreland said rates are generally set for a five-year period but they could be reviewed again in light of the new information.
Tri-Park Cooperative Housing Corporation is engaged in a master planning process aimed at charting a course toward sustainability and ensuring efficiency, Moreland said.
“One of the things that the master planning effort has identified,” he said, “is that Tri-Park has more debt than they really need and what they need to be able to do is to free up some cash.”
Moreland said the town is involved in the planning because in 2007, it secured a bond from the state to cover water and sewer improvements at Mountain Home Park.
A new package involves debt forgiveness for the loan, reducing the principal amount of about $3.86 million by $246,882. A separate loan with a principal of about $578,425, which the town is not part of, will be reduced by $66,000.
Moreland said three loans for Tri-Park will be extended by 10 years, lowering the overall monthly payments that Tri-Park residents have to come up with. Altogether, refinancing is estimated to free up about $100,000 each year, which is money Moreland said can be applied to capital needs or retire other debt.
Before the board unanimously approved adopting a funding resolution with the Vermont State Revolving Loan Fund administered by the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank, board member Jessica Gelter spoke about how it supports affordable housing that a lot of Brattleboro residents call home. McLoughlin estimated about 8 percent of the town’s population resides in Tri-Park properties.
Re-imagining the website
In March, Representative Town Meeting approved spending $75,000 for town website upgrades and improving community engagement. The body also approved a motion directing town staff to come up with a request for proposals (RFP) after getting input from community members — especially those who experienced difficulty accessing town information and those with lived experience with social services, racism, sexism, classism and homelessness.
The board unanimously approved a plan set forth by Planning Director Sue Fillion to review the current website, interview each town department, form a focus group with people actively involved in managing pages on the site and conduct a survey of the public. The process is anticipated to take about three months to complete.
Goodnow, a big proponent of the project, said he thinks the plan captures what Town Meeting members want and the Select Board has been discussing.
“I think three months maybe seems like a little bit of a long time for getting the RFP together but I think in reading through the plan, it makes perfect sense,” he said. “We’re investing in something here. The idea is that we’re going to hopefully have the public face of the town of Brattleboro online, something that hopefully will last a long time and be really accessible for all sorts of different people.”