Businesses urge Chester to take over info booth/restroom as ‘commitment to economic growth’

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2015 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With the opening of the budgeting season, the age old question of what is necessary and what is not took center stage for much of the Wednesday, Nov. 4 Chester Select Board meeting that included weighing  items on the proposed new capital bond plan, town-wide master planning and a public restroom for downtown.

Business owners and members of the Chester Community Alliance – which is comprised of the Green Mountain Festival Series, Chester Economic Development Corp. and Chester Townscape – appeared before the board to propose that the town take ownership of the information booth located on Main Street across from the Green.

Stephen Davis urges the town to take over the information booth across from the Green. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Stephen Davis urges the town to take over the information booth across from the Green. Photos by Shawn Cunningham.

Stephen Davis of the Community Alliance told the board that the building was built in the 1970s and has belonged to the Okemo Chamber of Commerce since it took over the Chester Chamber of Commerce several years ago. The building had functioned as a public restroom (in addition to a tourist information booth) until last year when the cost of operating the toilet became too much for the chamber. The building is not connected to the sewer system and has only a 500 gallon holding tank. A leaky toilet made it necessary to empty the tank several times before the leak was fixed.

In the absence of a public toilet, businesses along the Green are inundated with requests to use facilities. Davis proposed a partnership with the town, local businesses and the community to secure the ownership of the building, hook it up to the sewer system and operate it during the 20 weeks of summer. He noted that the Okemo Chamber would give up the building on the condition that it can still stock it with its information display.

“It’s not a frill. It’s a necessity and taking over ownership gives us the opportunity to do something good for the town.”

Tory Spater Sommerville
Chester resident

Davis told the board that they envisioned businesses on the Green taking turns to open the building in the morning and close it at night and handling routine maintenance as well as a general sprucing up and the addition of a Chester map on the outside of the building. The group asked that the town take ownership and hook the building up to the sewer system, which led to a discussion of whether the building would need to be moved to avoid an old maple tree. That would also mean disconnecting from town water and hooking it back up in a new location.

“What would this cost?” asked board member Tom Bock. “If it’s small money I don’t mind. But if it’s big money, it benefits a small number of people, not the public at large.”

“It’s not a frill,” said Chester resident Tory Spater Sommerville. “It’s a necessity and taking over ownership gives us the opportunity to do something good for the town.”

Lynne Reed, center, calls taking the booth over 'a commitment to economic growth.' She is flanked by Stephen Davis, left, and Bill Dakin.

Lynne Reed, center, calls taking the booth over ‘a commitment to economic growth.’ She is flanked by Stephen Davis, left, and Bill Dakin.

“It’s a commitment to economic growth … it should be part of our bigger plan,” said Misty Valley Books owner Lynne Reed. “We should at least accept ownership as a Chester town building.”

Sage Jewelry owner Michele Bargfrede told the board that the town should take the building even if it doesn’t get moved or hooked up to the sewer system saying “we can work with what we have.”

The board asked Davis to come back to the next meeting with more detailed numbers.

Master planning

Executive Assistant Julie Hance told the board that the state Department of Commerce and Community Development has a new “Strong Communities” grant that would pay for 90 percent of a townwide master plan. Hance said that a town plan is a guide while a master plan is implemented.

Noting that there is a lot of energy – both positive and negative – in town and that pulling the community together to work on a set of goals would harness that energy, Hance said that the grant would pay for a master planning consultant chosen through a bidding process to conduct focus groups in several areas including economic, cultural, recreational and historic.

The product of the plan would include a marketing plan, sign engineering for wayfinding that would show visitors how to get around the downtown, a ZIP code survey of visitors and the next steps in making the town website more vibrant.

Hance told the board that the study would cost about $50,000 with 10 percent (or $5,000) coming from the town. The grant application is due in January and the work would be started in 2016 with a completed master plan in 2017.

“It’s not a ton of money,” said Bock. “I’m in favor of it, but there are going to be some issues.”

“Nobody steps up,” said board member Bill Lindsay. “I’ve seen it happen in the past. Everybody likes something, but if there’s no point person, nothing happens.”

Board member Heather Chase said she thought it would be beneficial to have a committee of stakeholders in the community rather than one person handling the process.

DaVallia Art and Accents owner Michael Alon expressed his impatience, pointing to the energy in the town at the moment. “People want to see something happen,” said Alon. “I want to see it done before the energy dissipates. The momentum has to continue. I’ve been waiting 13 years and I’m moving forward.”

The board voted 4-0 to apply for the grant.

Capital bond issue

Town Manager David Pisha passed out a new version of his capital bond plan, which he said is designed to flatten out the impact of making necessary capital purchases over several years. According to Pisha, a five-year bond for capital items will keep the transfer from the general fund to the capital fund flat and have a neutral effect on taxes.

Board member Arne Jonynas expressed doubt how borrowing would make the capital situation better in the long run.

“Arne, I’m right there with you,” said former select board member Derek Suursoo, who told the board that there will be more big requests in the next few years that are not envisioned in the plan and he advocated “tough love parenting “ to keep down the requests.

“How are these submitted to the board?” asked Chester resident Frank Bidwell, who wondered what scrutiny was given to the items on the list. He pointed to the air packs and washer-dryer for the Fire Department.  

“There aren’t things on this list that are wishful thinking,” said Pisha, adding that department heads had justified many of their requests to the Select Board. “What I see are things we need to invest in for the future of the town and I am trying to find a way to smooth out expenses. With an interest rate of 1.8 percent, it’s virtually free money.”

“Economic development and growth don’t just happen, you don’t just turn it on like a TV set. One thing that would truly help Chester is to have a growing population and a larger tax base.”

David Pisha
Town Manager

“I can’t believe you’re saying that,” said Suursoo. “There’s no such thing as free money.”

“I said virtually,” said Pisha.

“It’s 1.8,” said Bock. “That’s pretty low.”

Referring to the capital item for  repairing the second floor of Town Hall,  Chase said, “Sometimes, because we’re trying to flatten things out and not put a lot into the capital budget, we neglect things. We should have been taking care of our infrastructure over the last 20 years and we haven’t.”

“There’s always a concern – oh this is wishful thinking — but then you get the condition you see here with the ceiling falling down and paint coming off. Is this where you want it? I can scratch $70,000. It’s gone, boom,” said Pisha of the town hall work, “but next year the price will go up, not lower, but we’ll sit here watching the parade go by.”

“All these things have costs,” said board chair John DeBenedetti., “and you can only go back to the well so many times.”

“The entire town is facing needs,” said Pisha. “Economic development and growth don’t just happen, you don’t just turn it on like a TV set. One thing that would truly help Chester is to have a growing population and a larger tax base.”

Increase in water rates

Before its regular meeting, the board met as its alter ego – the Chester Water Commission – and raised the cost of an “equivalent unit” from $40 to $42. An equivalent unit is 18,000 gallons or the average household usage as calculated by the State of Vermont. Each user – regardless of actual use – is charged one equivalent unit each quarter.

If users take more than 18,000 gallons, they are charged for another unit. Users are also charged a per-gallon rate. The increase is part of ramping up to the 1 percent of median household income rate that is mandated by the State Drinking Water Fund loan for the $4 million water project recently approved by Chester voters.

Later during the Select Board meeting, Bidwell asked, “When does this end for people who pay for the water that benefits everybody?”

Bock told Bidwell that it was the failure of past boards in using “significant money” set aside decades ago for the water system to keep rates artificially low for years.

Referring to the idea – discussed recently at Select Board meetings – of forming a fire district to spread the cost of village water to all town residents, Bidwell said he felt there should be a petition raised for the board to vote on.

“I’m one of the biggest water users in this town,” said board member Bill Lindsay, who owns a laundromat. “Quite frankly the water rates are crushing me.” Lindsay noted that people want pristine forests and rivers but didn’t want to pay for the sewer plant when it was upgraded. “We’re still paying for that.”

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  1. Mary Jane Miles says:

    I ask Mr. Lindsay and Mr. Bidwell how they intend for me to spend money on their usage of sewer and water when it will NEVER be available to the majority of taxpayers and will never help in the costs I already incur maintaining my private sewer and water system.

    Why should I have to pay twice?

    There is no such thing as free money no matter how you justify it Mr. Pisha. We need a larger tax base this is true, but do not expect that when we tax residents right out of this town. You cannot have it both ways.

    Free health insurance for town employees when rates are skyrocketing, constant replacement of perfectly fine vehicles because we get better trade in values…. when does it end. Spending has few boundaries in this town.

    I would rather have a full-time local police department to keep the drug/crime infusion down and a full time fire department, than have the newest trucks in the district. There is no frugality. We the townspeople are equally to blame when we give every organization that asks money at town meeting increasing our taxes more than $40,000 to be paid by the average working class in Chester.

    You cannot continue to support a budget with spending that outpaces the ability of your local taxpayers to support it. We must start making hard choices or the population of this town will continue to decrease and the For Sale signs will increase. My own property values have dropped almost $100,000 since 2008 even though property values have stabilized elsewhere and have even started moving upward. Hard, responsible decisions must be made.