There’s a story that director and musician Melvin Van Peebles tells about when he first took up running. He didn’t want to invest in appropriate exercise apparel, so he’d dash out the door in an old jacket, two pairs of sweatpants, some old Converse sneakers, and a cap pulled down over his head. He recalls one fateful run when he crossed 7th Ave in NYC and saw a “tough guy” heading towards him; he thought he might be a “junkie.” He explains, “[T]his guy looks horrible—snot’s coming out of his nose—and I’m coming right towards him, and when I move, he moves, and I’m thinking ‘Okay—come right for me!’” At the last second Van Peebles realizes that he is running towards a giant mirror that had just been installed on a hotel. After months of denial about his weight gain—and his raggedy jogging clothes, Van Peebles literally had to look himself squarely in the eye to size up his situation. He finally conceded, “It ain’t the tailor.”
This is not unlike the situation we find ourselves in as we wrestle—once again—with the cost of the Brattleboro police/fire renovations. A petition demanding a town-wide budget vote has garnered enough signatures and a date has been set for this Thursday, April 17. Those opposed to the police/fire project would like to reject the entire budget to, in the words of some of the supporters, “send a message” to the Selectboard and town meeting reps whom they say are out of touch with voters. As we examine our predicament, the truth is painful. Our tax burden is growing to unsustainable proportions, and we simultaneously need to deal with the awful working conditions for our first responders. Our elected town meeting representatives and Selectboard are not out of touch: There is no simple or satisfying answer to this problem.
The working conditions at the police station and the fire department are unhealthy and unsafe. We ask our first responders to risk their lives in the line of duty; we ought to provide a decent, safe work environment for them when they are not out on call. The conditions are a lawsuit-in-the-making, whether from an employee developing respiratory distress due to continual exposure to mold or diesel fumes, or from a suspect or police officer sustaining a neck or head injury on those aging, treacherous stairs at the police station. According to an engineering study, the floor in the Central Fire Station was not built to withstand the load of modern trucks. Will we wait until the weight becomes too much and there is a catastrophic accident?
We have been kicking this can down the road for decades. It is time to do the necessary work to shore up our critical infrastructure.
There is legitimate concern about our tax burden in Brattleboro and what increased taxes will mean for the poor, the elderly on fixed incomes, and for homeowners who are currently just barely able to stay in their homes. Some residents express deep fear about what the future holds; their personal disquiet reflects a larger sense of unease in our town. We would like to be a safe, simple New England town, but the interstate brings big city problems to our doorsteps. The drug trade is all too real. It is fair to assume that the police and fire departments will continue to bear the brunt of this struggle. Our diverse and vibrant community must cobble together a bulwark of decency and civility against the onslaught. This is not the time to turn away from the tough decisions. We must be “all in.”
Some residents claim, “We have champagne tastes on a beer budget. We can’t afford this project.” I think, “No, we must sober up. We can’t afford not to complete this project.” We must look to our future and believe there are better days ahead for our town and region. We cannot let our infrastructure crumble around us. Do we view ourselves as a town in decline? Or do we see the prosperity and promise the future holds? Will we leave the problems for our children, or will we leave this town in better shape than we found it? A strong infrastructure is critical for the long term health of the community and our economy.
Many different groups considered various sites and permutations of this project. Many favored renovations over building one main police/fire facility due to budget concerns and “call time” factors. If we relocate our first responders to one centralized location, those residents on the edges of town will have much longer wait times for vital assistance.
Some townspeople want to stretch the project out over more time to save money. But this piecemeal approach will assuredly cost more. Indeed, it will cost us more to renovate now than if we had we done the work when it was first seriously considered years ago.
There is an oversight committee of town residents keeping an eagle eye on the bottom line and scope of the project. One member of the team, Stephen Phillips, is a representative who initially, vocally opposed the project. Worried about the project’s cost and wanting to educate himself about the details, Phillips volunteered his time on this important town committee. He and the rest of the team have been able to shave off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the cost. I greatly respect Phillips—and the rest of the group—for due diligence, commitment, and the willingness to fully engage with a very thorny problem.
If the budget is defeated, it will not scuttle this necessary infrastructure project. We can expect the library, the rec department, and other town services to take the hits instead.
Like every other member of town meeting, and those fulfilling their utterly thankless duties on the selectboard, I do not want increased taxes. But my strong distaste for a greater tax burden does not exceed my unflinching belief that this is a question of proper stewardship.