By Polly Lynn Mikula
KILLINGTON— On Monday, Feb. 26, about 30 people attended the Select Board candidates’ forum at the Killington Welcome Center hosted by the Killington Pico Area Association (KPAA). After brief opening remarks by the three candidates—Kelly Lange, Jay Hickory and Jim Haff—the format followed a question and answer-style session where each candidate had up to two minutes to answer each of the five questions, provided to them in advance by the KPAA. A few questions were permitted from audience members and residents who had emailed in questions in advance.
Here are the candidates’ replies, in summary:
Kelly Lange opened by saying, “I want to give back to this community, I want to lead.”
She said she thinks the Killington community is going in the right direction, but wants to better leverage the town’s assets and find solutions to problems that best move the town forward.
Jay Hickory said “I love this community, love town, love the people in it.”
He said he would love to serve the residents of Killington in a no-nonsense manner. “I would like to go through the budget again. I think we have some work to do on that,” he added.
Jim Haff gave a brief history of his connection to Killington starting in 1979 when he first came to the resort to ski. He then moved to Killington in 1997, when his first daughter was an infant.
He then explained cutting his teeth in politics when he fought the state for a fair reappraisal of his property in 2008. After winning the case, he then extended it for the entire town, saving taxpayers about $2 million, he said.
“I’m here because I believe in providing the correct numbers to the taxpayers so we can make proper decisions about where we want our town to go,” Haff stated.
Question 1: In your capacity as a Select Board member, what do you believe is your role in helping a) strengthen existing businesses, b) bringing new business to town?
Hickory cited the lack of affordable housing in Killington as an obstacle to attracting the workers that existing businesses need, and new businesses would need to succeed.
“You can’t grow business with no people,” Hickory said.
Lange agreed that housing and employee shortages were problems for businesses and said the town should continue to try and attract more people—more “heads in beds”—for business and community success. She said, “The more we have people coming the more new businesses we’ll also bring in.”
Lange also cited improving and expanding recreation programs to attract people to town, as well as seeking out grants to help with development, adding that she and Golf Pro/Manager Dave Sousy are both connected to Montpelier.
Lange concluded “I don’t own a business, so my bias is only in seeing this town succeed.”
Haff disagreed. He said that he felt the job of the Select Board is to take care of core departments and infrastructure, not bring new business to town or support existing businesses for the businesses sake.
“As far as the town getting involved in “heads in beds” I don’t think we should be involved in that,” he said. Instead tax dollars should be spend on roads, the school, library, public safety, and the recreation department, which he feels should include the golf course.
With regards to affordable housing and employees, Haff suggested improving the bus system from Rutland.
Question 2: What is your view of the Town’s infrastructure at the present time? How will you ensure its upkeep?
“Our infrastructure is the bedrock of this town,” Lange said. Adding that its upkeep supports residents and visitors alike.
“I think we need to look at the funding and plan for the future,” she said. Budget clarity and how its presented could help with that, she added. Putting money aside now for future capital projects must be part of the plan to maintain aging town assets so that our taxes don’t increase when projects such as the library roof or town pool need to be fixed, she said.
“Before we get anything new we have to make sure what we have is sustainable,” Lange concluded.
Haff said he’s always supported the “core infrastructure,” but doesn’t believe we’ve been taking care of it or budgeting properly for known future maintenance of the infrastructure.
“If we were actually planning for our infrastructure we’d have been planning for that pool 50 years ago,” he said of the Killington Pool, for which Article 7 on the ballot this year requests $75,000 for improvements. “We should be planning to replace everything in our town… It’s all aging and we need a plan to rebuild and replace it.”
Hickory said he thinks the town infrastructure is fairly decent for the most part, but some things needs help. He cited the River Road bridge, which “needs money,” and the town pool.
He suggested that we “dig down and take a closer look at the budget,” suggesting that reappropriations need to be make in order to put more money in capital funding.
“Someday we’ll have to raise taxes for these,” he said. “I really hate that. I would rather pay as we go.”
He agreed with Lange and Haff, saying, we need to “keep what we have before we get anything else. ”
Question 3: Regarding town services, as a Select Board member do you see any changes that are needed within these departments? How do you balance the need for town services and an increase in taxes?
Haff suggested that the golf course should be transferred to the recreation department. Under the recreation department the course could be running more efficiently, he believes.
He also suggested that the town take over Killington Road from Glazebrook to East Mountain Road. “The resort should build them back up to town spec, then the town should take them over… it’s a disgrace to drive on them.”
Other possibilities include providing a town busing system; “it’s called a municipal bus,” and possibly public water, as that could be a limitation to town growth in the future. “But we’re not there yet, folks, because we have other debt problems to take care of first.”
Hickory said he doesn’t believe the golf pro and manager should be the same person and would like to see the town get rid of food and liquor service at the golf course, by subbing the food and beverage portion out. “We could probably make more money with less issues if we subbed it out,” he said.
Hickory said it’s hard to comment at length about the town departments, given the illegibility of the town budget. “It’s a mess. It’s embarrassing,” he said. “Until we can vote the budget down, dismantle it and start over again to get an accurate budget, I don’t think we can know.”
Lange said she thinks there is a clear link between the Select Board and businesses, through the services the town provides. “Town services provide what’s needed for community residents as well as bringing more people to town. Hopefully more taxpayers,” she said.
Question 4: Green Mountain National Golf Course has been the center of discussion for several years. As a member of the Select Board, what changes, if any, you you like to see?
Adding to his prior comments, Hickory said, “We’re not putting enough money into it. It’s going to be in bad shape.”
“Lots of people look at the golf course as a ‘boat anchor’ but in years to come it’s going to be a huge asset,” he said. “It’s going to help reduce our taxes. Bring people in. We could do more to get more people to use it. It’s not being used as much as it could be.”
“I agree. It’s one of our biggest assets,” Lange said, but suggested that we look at examples of successful town-run golf courses to improve on how the town manages it. Those towns “advertise and market themselves and actually bring people in,” she said.
She amentioned that winter activities on the golf course, such as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, could be leveraged to bring in money.
Haff said that the golf course continues to borrow more and more money from the town taxpayers and that it has never paid for itself and will never be able to, let alone pay off the debt it has to the town. And “every year the costs go up,” he said.
He also noted that when he was on the board, they did put a golf committee together who outlined a proper capital plan, but “unfortunately that plan has not been followed.”
“We brought in consultants. They did tour. They gave us three or four different options. We opted to go one way but it’s not working, so we need to go back and reassess that choice,” he said.
Question 5: What is your view of the town/resort relationship at the present time? What is your hope for the future?
Lange said she thinks the partnerships between the town, resort, and KPAA are very strong and going well. She cited the World Cup and summer activities, including the mountain bike trails as examples of successful partnerships.
Haff said he’s “always thought we need to work with the resort... But ultimately I think focus on core… I don’t believe we should be funding the World Cup,” he said. “I don’t think we should be doing that for any individual business.”
Hickory agreed, saying that he thinks the relationship is “as strong as it’s ever been.” He also agreed with Haff. “I agree with Jim, we should not be dumping $100K into the ski thing.”
KPAA Q&A from audience (summarized):
Question by Vito Rasenas: In reference to the budget, do you see any cost savings, any increases in efficiency, or increase in revenue that would help ease tax increases? How do you propose to solve our capital funding problem?
Jim Haff started by explaining that the residential and non residential tax rate in the Town Report is wrong to begin with.
“The total residential tax rate is wrong,” he said. “If you’ve already calculated how much you will owe based on page 17, you need to add another 40 cents to the total tax rate at the bottom of page 17.” He explained that the total only included the Education Property Tax adjusted for the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) —1.6383 for residential and 1.5759 for non-residential— which did not add in the 0.4051 town tax rate.
The total tax rate would then be 2.0434 for residential and 1.981 for non-residential. This represents an increase of .0035 per $100 of property value for residential property tax, and nearly a 10-cent increase per $100 for non-residential properties (.0994)—including businesses.
This isn’t something that anyone has yet considered, Haff said, as he just pointed the mistake out to the town manager before the meeting on Monday, and no one else seems to have caught this mistake. “A 10-cent increase for businesses is a huge deal,” Haff said.
Haff said that mistakes like this, new numbers appearing and disappearing from the golf debt, in addition to FEMA debt (the “chapters missing” from the town budget) leads him to say “I don’t believe we have a real budget.” Therefore, he said he is voting “no” on the budget.
“But, I just want to provide the correct numbers that are out there and let the people decide,” he concluded.
Jay Hickory agreed with Haff. “It pains me to do so,” he said, which elicited a chuckle from the audience. Hickory added, “I think the budget was poorly planned by the town manager. I will vote ‘no’ on the budget.”
Kelly Lange said she thinks the budget needs to be “more transparent and understandable.” She said there were departments that could probably find more efficiencies and would look to the departments themselves to find them.
She also suggested that the town pursue additional revenue sources by way of grants, citing funding for recreational activities and sidewalks as examples of potential state funding. “This is something that we’d have to put time and energy into … Economic stimulation comes and goes and changes, so it has to be continually monitored.”
Question by Andrea Weymouth: If the budget were to be voted down, what would you cut and/or reallocate?
Hickory reiterated that he’d “look to all departments to see what could be cut,” suggesting that savings could be transferred into a capital fund. “I’m not saying that cuts will lower tax rate,” he said. He also reiterated that it’s hard to answer such questions specifically with the budget in its current state. “It’s an embarrassment. I’m not sure how long it’s been since a town report has been this poor.”
Lange said that she also couldn’t name specific cuts, but said she thinks “the departments have already been asked to look at costs, but more can always be done.”
Lange said that if voted down, she would focus on how the budget is presented.
“The first step is a cleaner presentation,” she said.
Haff also said it was hard to identify specifics since “we haven’t had an accurate budget with all the financials in it for the past six years.”
He then pointed to page 13 of the town report where it shows the grand list breakdown.
“Of the total $7,826,757.60, non-homesteads make up $6,552,539.97, whereas homesteads only amount to $738,274.40 of the total taxable property. We’re less than 10 percent of the total budget,” he said.
That means that 90 percent of the properties in Killington will see a nearly 10-cent increase in their total tax rate.
Question by Andrea Weymouth: The golf course is only used six months a year, but its costs (particularly wages) run the full year. Is there a way to reduce expenses? Should the town consider selling the golf course or leasing it to a management company?
Lange answered, “I think all options are on the table,” citing winter recreation as an area for obvious growth potential. With regards to cuts, she said it “all has to be evaluated. Salary included,” but cautioned that it was “premature to say where we should end up.”
Haff further explained what the town had been through previously. “Brown Consulting came in and gave the town four options. We chose one; it’s not working,” he said. “We should go back to that report, look at the options and choose another.”
He said we “need to hire the right people to do the right thing,” suggesting that the town might hire a CPA to take on the books for about $15,000 per year.
He also reiterated his opinion that “in order to get four-season use out of the golf course, it needs to be part of the recreation department.” He reminded folks that the golf course was voted in to be an enterprises fund, but that it can’t pay the bond, it can’t pay its bills, and it can’t even pay its own costs.
“We need to bring the golf course fully into the town and forget about it being an enterprise fund,” he said.
Hickory said, “Selling the golf course is probably one of the worst ideas. You can hardly give away golf courses these days.”
Hickory fully believes with the right investment the course will become a huge town asset. But he added that the golf course needs a good manager, “who will find a way to make as much money as possible.”
Question emailed from unidentified resident: What are your thoughts about the fire department plans for the new building proposal?
Haff said he was for the purchase of the property for the fire department. “We were told we needed one, so the question is how we’re going to fund it,” he said, adding again that the town needs to get its financials in order so as to set budget priorities.
Hickory, who volunteered for the fire department for several years, agreed that a new one is needed, that the current space is inadequate and that it is “good to close on land,” as it is a “decent location” for a new station. However, he also said that “at this time, I can’t actually say I would want to try to fund that fire station … the money is not there and it’s not going to be there for a couple of years.”
Lange said the town and fire department need to “discuss needs vs. wants” with regard to the design of the new station so as to keep costs reasonable.
Lange also brought up the issue of ensuring that there would be enough volunteers for the department.
Question by Vince Chiarella: How do you propose to get the books [town financials] back to a point where everyone is happy with them and they are understandable?
Hickory said, “I think we need a leader. We need a competent town manager that actually does what a town manager is supposed to do. I think that might get rid of some of our problems; a lot of our problems, actually.”
Lange pointed out that “this hasn’t been a one year issue … Some of it is how it’s been carried over.” She suggested we get “back to basics” and while bringing someone in to sort out the books is probably a good idea, “ultimately, the town manager does need to be the one to do the budget.”
“I believe it starts at the Select Board level,” Haff said. “They’ve left it to the town manager.”
He continued, “Everyone says the town manager is at fault for this book, but it’s not all her fault. She’s also finding things ... money issues, finding new debts.”
Haff suggested the town get a complete audit to get back on track.
Question emailed from unidentified resident: How would your personality and management style benefit the town?
Lange said she has had a lot of experience listening to all sides of issues, getting all of the information possible and more often than not, coming up with a compromise. When a compromise is not possible, at least the board should be able to explain the issues clearly and leave it to voters. “There are lots of strong personalities in my job,” she said. “Understanding differing positions creates respect and allows us to move forward.”
“My management style …” Haff said, laughing. “Look, I read the book, I know where the [town] finances are … I just have a problem with the numbers. Numbers don’t lie.”
He added that the town and Select Board “need to agree on them so that we can move this town forward.”
Haff also said that when he ran a profitable brokering company, “most of my employees loved me. I’m black and white,” he said. “Do a good job, I’ll say you did a good job. Do a bad job, and I’ll say you made a bad choice.”
Hickory said, “I’m pretty no nonsense,” adding that he’d lead with “common sense.”
“If it quacks, it’s probably a duck,” he added for emphasis.