Town Manager’s Column: All About Town (October 2015)

IMG_3585ALL ABOUT TOWN

Stuart A. Hurd, Town Manager 

As you all probably know by now, FEMA denied the Town’s final appeal for reimbursement of monies expended following Tropical Storm Irene. The appeal was for $1.3 million. The total outstanding debt is $1.5 million due to the local share requirement. We are now investigating options to set up a plan to pay off the debt. We are looking at 10, 15, and 20 year possibilities. Interest rates and other variables will, of course, influence our recommendation and the ultimate decision by the Select Board. It is worth noting that the Town spent a total of $6.4 million recovering from T.S. Irene. All, but the final $1.5 million, was covered by FEMA grants and town insurance.

As a follow up to the denial, our Congressional delegation arranged for a conference call with FEMA representatives to help us better understand the factual reasoning and analysis that went into the negative decision by FEMA. During the call, it became clear to me that the analysis we hoped for was not performed. After the myriad detailed questions the Town continued to answer throughout the year long appeal, one would have thought this analysis was necessary. Apparently not. The written decision was, in a sense, a reiteration of the denial of the first appeal. One must conclude that the process is flawed. There is no option to explore a third party, objective review. I have encouraged our delegation to take a hard look at this process in order to introduce objectivity into the process at some level. It won’t help Bennington in this instance, but it may help others in the future.

The recent Select Board review of the potentials for the Benn Hi property is concluded. The study indicated that rental housing will not succeed in covering the cost to renovate and maintain this structure. Rental housing was the main focus because it can command a greater cost per square foot return on investment than either office or commercial uses. The Select Board committed up to $18,000 from its Economic Development Fund, a fund established over the years from State and Federal economic development grants and loans wherein the Town is allowed to retain funds for continuing economic development through business loans or grants to create jobs or retain historic structures. No local tax dollars were used to create or maintain this Fund. The study was suspended at $11,000 once the outcome was clear. Although, this effort by the Board and Hale Resources to work in a public/private partnership to bring this building back into productive use did not yield the conclusion we all hoped for, it did provide a better understanding of the complexities one faces when renovating a large space such as a school. Hale Resources continues to explore alternatives. We wish them every success. This historic structure is worth retaining.

On a more festive note, both Garlic Fest and Oktoberfest were successful. The weather for both events was fantastic. Even though a bit warm for Labor Day weekend, Garlic Fest thrived. The colors in the foliage that could be viewed from Colgate Park during Oktoberfest drew many raves. Congratulations to all who put forth the effort to make these events a reality.

The Town’s annual audit is underway. The independent auditors, Love, Cody and Company hope to conclude their efforts and report to the Select Board and the public in November, just as our budget process for the next fiscal year begins in earnest. The audit looks at all revenue and expenditures by the Town over the last fiscal year, in this instance, July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015. The auditors undertake a critical look at purchasing processes, expenditures, billings, and accounting practices.

Remember, if anyone has any questions or suggestions arising from this column or on any town matters, please contact me at 442-1037 or stop in at the Town Offices on South Street.

Stuart Hurd is Bennington’s Town Manager. He writes a monthly column on town issues.