By Julia Purdy
KILLINGTON— On Thursday, April 12, the Killington Select Board held a special meeting for the specific purpose of receiving public input and discussion on two urgent topics, which emerged from Town Meeting this year: future management of the Green Mountain National Golf Course and the search for a replacement for the town manager, whose contract was terminated on March 28.
Thirty-two observers were present at the special meeting Thursday, in addition to six Killington department heads and employees.
Finneron prefaced the meeting by saying no decisions would be made that night and clarifying that the meeting was to listen to public input only. He said the board would go into executive session at the end to address topics discussed.
Town manager search discussion
Deborah Schwartz was the Killington town manager until her contract was terminated “without cause” March 28. She had held the position since April, 2016.
Finneron said that a search committee is being formed and asked for input about what residents would like to see for qualities in a future town manager. Input will be passed on to the search committee to include in its criteria, he said.
David Rosenblum asked who is acting in the interim: whom should citizens talk to, who is hiring, firing and supervising employees, who is responsible for seeing that the bills get paid?
Finneron said all inquiries should be directed to the Select Board, who will relay the concerns to the appropriate staff.
Questions and comments were thoughtful, civil and probing, focusing mostly on two topics: salary and qualifications.
Ed Fowler summed up the thoughts of many when he said, “I really feel the [town manager’s] salary has got out of control.” While the town manager seemed pleasant and courteous when he met her, he said, she was “exceptionally well paid for the skills she had.”
David Rosenblum suggested that Killington should look at salaries in other towns.
George Brant implored the board to seek out a candidate with appropriate qualifications for the job. “We’re hiring people as town manager who have never done this in their life. … I’d like to see you do something inhouse with the staff you have,” he said.
This remark led to several people supporting Chet Hagenbarth as interim town manager, with many hoping he’d be selected for the permanent position, too.
Pat Linnemayr commented that Hagenbarth works well with others, which had been an issue with the previous town manager. Finneron agreed that’s “critical” to a number of different parties.
Pete DeMaio commented that Hagenbarth already does “half our work as town manager.”
Vito Rasenas echoed Brant’s and DeMaio’s sentiments and filled in a little history. He said Hagenbarth’s position was created during former Town Manager Seth Webb’s tenure. A large part of the town manager responsibilities in Vermont is as a de facto road commissioner, Rasenas said. Rasenas spoke in favor of Hagenbarth based on Hagenbarth’s experience and familiarity with the town, “absolutely” as interim and preferably as permanent town manager.
Both Rasenas and Pete DeMaio questioned if time would be wasted going through the search process.
Gerrie Russell said she wanted someone “who thinks out of the box” and has a vision for Killington, not depending on the Resort but moving forward on its own. “Make sure we ask those questions: what have you done in the past that proves you can address the present here and move us forward?” Russell said.
Jay Hickory said competency should include familiarity with Vermont statutes, taxes, and the New England Municipal Resource Center (NEMRC).
Green Mountain National Golf Course (GMNGC) discussion
The conundrum the town faces with the golf course is its recent history of operating in the red, a fact that became unavoidable during budget discussions for the town report, and how to turn that trend around. The topic has urgency because the golf course is due to open for the season in three weeks. As with the town manager selection, the Select Board brought the problem to the residents.
Updated golf course stats reveal that in the last five years, only 2014 showed positive revenue of $1,100 over expenses, and $23,000 below operating costs.
The board members agreed that there has been no wrongdoing, but the way the books were kept led to confusion. Originally the golf course was combined with town expenses, said McGrath.
“When the golf course was on a calendar year there were a lot of things you did not see, there was no separate audit, it did not have its own bank account,” she explained. “At the end of the year the financials look different than six or seven months before, because things aren’t being put in the right place, commingled or misattributed. … You’re not seeing the actual numbers so you’re not seeing the actual depth of the problem.”
Haff said, “I don’t think there’s any hidden agenda here, not everybody knows how to read those types of financials. It cannot cover its capital expenses and truly move forward … This golf course is about $500,000-$600,000 behind in needed capital improvements,” he added. “The goal is to get the golf course off the voters and get it so it is making an operating profit and reinvest those funds to take care of the capital needs of the golf course.”
Other facets of discussion involved day-to-day operations, the overall direction of the golf course into the future, marketing to bring more people to it, and how those things would be accomplished – in-house, with a consultant, or through a management company?
Jim Haff has been acting as liaison with Brown Golf Management of Bluffton, S.C., and he offered a review of past negotiations with Brown Golf.
Haff said that when he was on the Select Board in 2011-2012 GMNGC management brought Brown Golf to the Select Board, and the board hired Brown Golf under contract to conduct an analysis of the course.
Haff said Brown Golf made several proposals, including continuing on the present path, either hiring a consultant or as management, and he endorsed continuing to work with Brown. He said that significant time was spent with Brown Golf then, “so they have a head start on what other companies would do.”
Patty McGrath expressed doubt that another company would be able to step in quickly enough, given the time constraint.
Select Board members and members of the public expressed their desire to retain control over the quality of operations.
Haff said that any contract with BGM would include monthly meetings between the management company and the Select Board. “This contract has so many safety nets in it,” he said. “There is nothing that says these people are going to come in and do what they want, it’s what we want them to do.”
The proposed contract is that Brown would get a management fee but no percentage of revenues.
In response to Ed Fowler’s concern about the town’s expense in keeping the golf course afloat with infusions of cash, Haff said the golf course was voted as an enterprise fund and should pay for itself based on fees and income revenue. The town is responsible for bond payments.
“This town needs to realize we are still liable and responsible for maintaining this golf course to a certain degree to keep people coming here to golf,” Haff said.
“We’re trying to turn around this $20,000-$30,000 loss every year,” Finneron emphasized.
At 9:40 p.m. the board went into back-to-back executive sessions to discuss options for interim town manager and the golf course. While officially no action was taken, the board did authorize Haff to move forward with completing a contract with Brown Golf.
The board expects to have final information regarding an interim town manager at its regular meeting April 17.