Participating by speaker phone, town manager Scott Murphy presented five options for preparing an application seeking downtown designation, and added a sixth during the discussion.
The option with the highest estimated cost would be to hire the Windham Regional Commission to do all the work. The preliminary cost estimate is “an amount not to exceed $16,000,” but Murphy said Susan McMahon of the WRC would be willing to work with the town to reduce costs.
Another option would be to put out an RFP for another consultant for part of the work, which Murphy estimated at $4,500 to $7,000.
A third option would be to create a volunteer committee to work with the state’s Designated Downtown Program to prepare the application. The cost would be much lower, about $1,500, and the group could eventually become the board of directors for the downtown organization. The fourth option was similar, but the volunteer group would work with a consultant hired for a limited amount of time, at a cost of $2,500 to $5,000.
Murphy’s fifth option would be to hire an economic development specialist to replace consultant Bill Colvin, who will be leaving at the end of the month, and add the application for the designated downtown program to his duties.
The sixth option, which Murphy offered as an alternative, was to task Colvin with the preparation of the application during the time until he leaves. “Let’s put Bill Colvin on this for the rest of July and see how far he can get in the process,” Murphy said. “Tom (Consolino, selectboard chair), you’ve said you’re available to work on a volunteer basis, and I’ll help. We can see where we stand in the process at the end of the month.”
The board voted to move forward with the application, following Murphy’s recommendation. Consolino also suggested forming a volunteer group to work on the application. “That’s up to the town manager,” said board member Susan Haughwout, meaning that Murphy could create the volunteer group without a selectboard motion.
Board members also talked about how to move forward with economic development efforts after Colvin leaves. Colvin was originally hired as the bitown planner, a shared position funded by both Dover and Wilmington. After several months on the job, Colvin resigned to take a position as an economic development consultant working for a private firm. But he agreed to stay on as a consultant for Wilmington.
Murphy suggested four options to consider, including hiring a full-time economic development specialist, hiring a part-time economic development specialist, hiring a part-time grant manager or, Murphy’s recommendation, hiring “project specific” consultants on an as-needed basis. “Key projects would be accomplished with a clear cost and timeline associated with them,” he said.
“So, the town would identify a project, and the consultant would help with writing the grant and follow through to completion?” asked Haugwout.
“Yes, although the consultant wouldn’t necessarily be there the whole way through,” Murphy said. “They may just complete the grant. We know how to do grant management. It could be a very minimal investment.”
Board member Meg Streeter said she was concerned that there are ongoing projects. “We have an ongoing process with Dover that is based on our common interest and the Mullin Report, and there’s the FEMA Long Term Recovery process that Bill (Colvin) has kept going. Maybe it can change, but I don’t want to lose whatever connection we have there. Your option sounds good for specific projects, but it’s not just projects that Bill has been working on.”
Haughwout suggested meeting with Dover regarding bitown efforts. “We should talk with them about their plans going forward; it seems they’re more Dover-specific these days.”
“I think people who have been participating in bitown are interested in keeping it going,” said Streeter.
Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Adam Grinold urged the board to hire someone to replace Colvin. “If we’re going to do this piecemeal, we’re going to lose traction,” he said. “Even if we have to take part of the 1% (local option tax) to increase the allocation for an economic development coordinator.” The current budget includes enough money to cover half the salary and benefits of a full-time economic development person.
Bartleby’s owner Lisa Sullivan said hiring consultants on a project-by-project basis would only accomplish a portion of the work done by someone in a permanent full- or part-time position. “When you have someone in that job and they do it day-to-day, they’re not just working on one project, they’re defining projects. I don’t want us to be in a position where there aren’t any projects because there isn’t anyone there to define them.”
Board member Jim Burke suggested “taking a step back” from a full-time economic development position. “I think Bill is one of the best things that ever happened to this town, but where the economy is, do you want to take a step back from a full-time position with benefits. Think of the taxpayers. The government isn’t always right to create a job and keep it just because it’s there.”
“How many positions pay for themselves five-, six-, tenfold?” replied Grinold. “This is one position where that is possible. If you’re looking to cut $40,000 from the budget, I’d say look elsewhere. That’s my personal opinion.”
The board agreed to continue the discussion before deciding how to proceed.
Board members also discussed possible uses for the 1% local option tax, which went into effect on July 1. Consolino noted that the town wouldn’t see any of the revenue until sometime in October.
At an earlier meeting, the board asked the FEMA Long Term Recovery committees to present their projects to the board for possible funding consideration. “The health and human resources and historic village committees came in, I think it’s time to light a fire under the other groups and have them come in,” said Consolino.
Streeter said she thought revenue from the tax should go into the general fund, and any projects should be voted on at Town Meeting. “I don’t think we’ll have to spend as much time on the list of requests as some of our neighbors do,” she said.
“That wouldn’t encumber any tax funds until July 2013,” protested Consolino.
“Well, if we collect some revenue and we have a project, we can hold a special Town Meeting,” said board member Jim Burke. “It’s not like we have to wait until March every year.”
Haughwout said she had been giving the matter a lot of thought, and agreed with Streeter’s strategy of taking the expenditures to the voters. “That gives us voter buy-in,” she said. “The direction other towns have taken hasn’t been successful, and they’ve fought for many years. I like the idea of having something to vote on, and getting all the information out there for voters.”
Haugwout said she has heard from voters who say the revenue from the 1% tax would be best used for economic development, and others who have said it should be used to offset the property tax rate. Haughwout also suggested creating a “rainy day” fund. “We had a rainy day, and we could have used some funds,” she said.
Grinold objected to Streeter’s proposal. “There was a lengthy floor discussion at Town Meeting, and the consensus was to use the efforts for recovery,” he said. “The village is the most important engine for the economy here and in the region. Every day that village is not revitalized is another day 6,000 people drive through town and say ‘Hmmm.’”
Sullivan asked how people would get their project ideas included on the Town Meeting warning. “Is there going to be a framework if someone has an idea, or do we go to Town Meeting with a list of projects? How does it happen?”
“We have no idea,” admitted Haughwout. “And with so many buildings empty, we have no idea if we’ll make the mark of previous revenue estimates. We may be spending ahead of ourselves.”
In other matters, the board set the municipal tax rate at 45.22 cents. The rate had been estimated at 44 cents, but Town Meeting voters added $90,000 to the budget for grant matching funds. The rate is about 2 cents below last year’s rate of 47.37 cents. The residential school tax rate, figured by the state, is $1.5227, up by about 8 cents. The nonresidential education tax rate is $1.3531, up about a penny from last year’s rate. Combined, Wilmington’s total residential tax rate is $1.97, an increase of almost 6 cents, and the total nonresidential rate is $1.80, a decrease of 1 cent.