Before the event began, Town Manager Scott Murphy took a moment to recognize that Town Meeting would be selectboard chair Tom Consolino’s last day as a member of the board. Murphy thanked Consolino for his years of service, and asked the audience to join him in a round of applause, which was easily obliged.
Two candidates are vying for the seat being vacated by Consolino: Rebecca Paige Morris and Jake White.
Morris is a graduate of Wilmington High School and has worked in the local realty and restaurant industries for many years, helping to turn Palmiter Realty into a $2 million business. She says she has an ability to grasp the big picture and the experience to make important decisions.
White describes himself as “born and raised Wilmington.” He has volunteered for the fire department since 1972, and has been a member of the town budget committee for over 20 years. He believes he will have a good voice and ear for residents, and can communicate with those who attend meetings and those who do not.
James Burke is running for re-election to his third two-year term. Burke served as cemetery commissioner in 2008, and has coached the TVHS baseball team for four years. Burke says that he has always made himself accessible to residents, and it has been his pleasure to have a job where he can stop and talk to whomever needs him.
Burke’s challenger is Miller Longbotham who has been a full-time resident of Wilmington since 2003, and a member of Deerfield Valley Rescue since retirement. He takes pride in the close to 1,000 hours a year he has volunteered there. He said that when he moved to Wilmington, there were 2,200 residents, and now there are only 1,876. The cost of living in town reflects this, and he would like to do whatever he can to reverse the trend.
Joe Arnold and Allen Greenspan from the Deerfield Valley Rotary moderated questions from the audience, beginning with whether the candidates supported the use of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) and Article 8 of the town warning, which calls for raising and appropriating $5,628 to support their services.
Burke began by saying that SeVEDS was important to the town’s economic development because town officials have to learn from research. “Will SeVEDS come up with the answer?” asked Burke. “Maybe not, but they will come up with information that this town and the whole Deerfield Valley can use.” Burke also said the board cannot perform every economic development study themselves and SeVEDS provides that service.
Morris believes that the use of SeVEDS is a step in the right direction “It’s an effort to move forward, any research they can do will move the town forward and it will be beneficial in the long run.” Morris also noted that her sister Laura Sibilia is on the SeVEDS board and she has seen firsthand the work they put into the area.
Longbotham agreed, saying that without a county government the Deerfield Valley needs to use the resources available. “What they’re doing is finding funds for the region,” said Longbotham. “It seems to me to be a small investment on our part at $3 per person per capita, to help them along.” He also said that if there is no reward further down the road, the town could then decide on whether their services were needed, but right now, it would be foolish to miss out on the possibility of their services helping.
White says any avenue the town can take for economic development and community development is positive movement. “It takes the right person at the right place to bring someone’s attention to something positive, and this is another good financial investment to work on that.”
1% Option Tax
The candidates were next asked their opinion on whether there was a difference between community and economic development when using 1% option tax funds, and were asked to give examples of how to use the money.
Morris said that economic and community development are joined, and if the town has a successful economy, the community will benefit. “Separating the two is splitting hairs,” said Morris.
Longbotham said that the town’s decision to use immediate funds on lights for the West Main Street parking lot was a good example of how economic and community development are one and the same. “People will be more inclined to use those parking lots after dark, and that helps stores because they will have business at night.” Longbotham also believes the revolving loan program included in the 1% plan is definitely for economic development and if no one applies for the available funds, the town must find a way to use the money rather then let it sit.
White also believes that they are one and the same “What you don’t want to do is take that money and use it to reduce taxes. It’s there for projects to benefit the town and priority needs to be downtown because that will create jobs and businesses.” White says the proposed immediate funding projects are a good first step. “This is a blessing to the town. It will pick this town up and put it on its feet,” said White.
Burke, who supported the 1% option tax as a member of the selectboard, says he would like to see the money used to help every empty shop window be filled, and expand business across the entire town not just downtown, because jobs are the key to building a prosperous town. “That’s our job as a community,” said Burke. “If we have better paying jobs, more people will live here, and it is a lower tax rate.” Burke also mentioned that the third quarterly payment for 2013 had been received from the state, and the town has collected $110,000 so far, with one more payment to be received during the fiscal year.
Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Adam Grinold asked if any candidates would approve using the funds for off-setting expenses usually paid for with property taxes or for strictly development purposes. All four candidates voiced disapproval for any such use citing that the money is there for a specific purpose: Wilmington’s economic growth, not expenses.
The candidates were asked what role a selectboard member can play in attracting jobs to the area.
Longbotham said that there is little the selectboard can really do, and Vermont is a tough place to attract jobs, but the town needs to work with any prospective businesses and not discourage those people. “We have to be proactive,” said Longbotham. “We have three empty buildings that we can encourage the renovation of.”
White says it’s a matter of finding the right people who want to bring a small idea to make it large here. White also says supporting those with ideas is key, and being able to financially help them out with things like the option tax revenue is an option.
Morris believes the information is here now, and the town must work to hire a full-time economic strategist, create a brand name, and make the town more appealing, while working with current business owners as well. “The answer is here and it needs to be put into action and put into fruition,” said Morris. “We can have success instead of the decline we’ve been in.”
Burke said it’s not government’s job to bring in jobs but to research who to entice to come to the town, to make the town user-friendly for businesses, and help new businesses with state processes that are often complicated.
The candidates were asked by Nicki Steel what experience they have taking an unpopular stand, or being put in that position as a member of the selectboard.
All four said they have been part of tough decision-making. White referred to his years on the fire department, where quick but thorough delegation needs to be taken in a life-and-death situation. He said there are many differing avenues individuals come up with to achieve the same result. Morris said information gathering is important so that you understand the position you take and having good communication with residents is key. While a decision may be unpopular it needs to be well-informed. Morris cited growing up with 11 siblings as a prime example of her experience dealing with multiple needs and opinions that need to be resolved.
Longbotham said that he knows that late night and early morning calls are part of the job, but if you’re not willing to listen you can’t sit on the board. He said he has no interest in popularity contests and this is a job that doesn’t always come with congratulations or a thank you card. Burke referred to his time on the board and decisions such as voting on the 1% option tax as a touchy issue where listening was key. “Your job is to stop, listen, and explain, even if you don’t have five minutes to do it. You need to know why you voted on everything. You don’t vote because it’s popular, and you have to work with everyone in mind.”
Burke was asked what he was most proud of in his four years on the board, and after taking a moment to remove his glasses, he passionately explained that from August 28, 2011 forward was. Burke described his work after Tropical Storm Irene from sweeping up glass to prying open windows in the Town Hall meeting room and police station, as well as working with the town's emergency management leaders wherever he was needed at the moment.
Alice Greenspan asked the candidates what they would do to help get Memorial Hall back into working order, and what they would do to support the Memorial Hall Board in bringing events to town.
Morris said that she could not comment on specifics pertaining to the building’s needs or the committee’s actions, but said that the key to bringing the building into regular use will be attracting more events.
Longbotham said the building is an important part of the town and needs support. “The town owns the building and has a say on what happens, but an important part is talk between the committee and town.”
White called Memorial Hall the “jewel of Wilmington” and would love to see some of the 1% tax revenue used to support events there. He says the great support given in recent years must continue.
Burke said the town’s job is to maintain the building, but he would like to see the committee and selectboard use an event coordinator to elevate the committee’s work.