Selectboard Candidates Questionnaire: Roger Arnold

Roger Arnold at Candidates Forum. Source: CATV screen shot.

Roger Arnold and Linda Cook are running for the three-year seat on the Selectboard. Below are Roger's responses to all five questions in the Norwich Observer Questionnaire. Linda's responses are here. The video of the Q & A from the Candidates Forum is available for viewing at this link.  

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Communications. Are you satisfied with how Town government communicates with Norwich residents? Why or why not? By how much would you be willing to INCREASE the Town Budget in order to to improve communications? 

I care deeply about effective communication and have worked on community engagement initiatives for my work in museumsdesign firms, and libraries. From attending Selectboard meetings over the last two years, I believe that communication with Norwich residents can be improved in two key ways: by running meetings more effectively and by focusing external communications on community engagement. 

Our community benefits when thoughtful research drives Selectboard deliberations. Members should be prepared to support their contributions to meetings with information from a range of citizen perspectives and research. We should accommodate different communication modes, learning styles, and perspectives for all our Selectboard meetings. Additionally, members should work tirelessly to recruit diverse voices—from longtime residents and newcomers alike—and should address the hurdles that may limit attendance at especially important meetings, such as childcare. Members should also respectfully challenge each other to frame issues more broadly so that all meeting attendees can easily understand the discussion, no matter how frequently they attend. 

External Selectboard communication with residents should not just focus on keeping our community informed, but empowered and connected. In addition to distributing communications online as they already do, the Selectboard could consider civic engagement tools, like Meeting-in-a-Box or other kinds of facilitated discussion primers, for use by our community groups to gather and share their ideas around questions relating to town services and community values. 

This work will require little to no increase to the municipal budget, just hard work! 

Development. The Planning Commission is working on a new Town Plan, which may be sent to the Selectboard for public hearings and approval within the next 12 months. It seems inevitable that the topic will arise regarding the creation of a mixed use zoning district in the Route 5 South area. What are your views regarding the possible establishment of a new mixed use zoning district in the Route 5 South area? 

I think zoning decisions must be considered and thoughtful. Community leaders must be actively engaged in listening to town-wide concerns and work hard to see the present in the future. I believe that by making the Selectboard more engaging and accessible, as I outlined above, we’ll be in a better position to enable participation.

A rezoning of Route 5 South to mixed use brings up complex issues around regional housing problems, infrastructure capacity, and land-use values. Like most of our community, I need more information. Here is what I think right now:

  1. There may or may not be a tendency for business leaders and community influencers to think of Norwich and the Upper Valley as Burlington and Chittenden County. I do not believe it honors our collective small-town histories to be matched to the needs of our state’s largest metropolitan area, and our community should not be expected to be receptive to any explicit or implicit comparison.  
  2. I believe that smart rezoning can be an opportunity to encourage and develop small, locally-owned business and generate tax revenue, while also keeping out big box retailers, as has been done in Brattleboro and elsewhere.
  3. We should give ourselves space to imagine what kind of vitality a purposefully planned housing community with school-aged children could contribute to Norwich, including lowering the per-pupil spending rate, which in turn contributes to lower property taxes and may create a cycle of making Norwich more affordable for all residents. 
  4. We must also acknowledge that our municipal services, including a lack of our own wastewater treatment, are not currently established to provide long-term care for the people who would live on Route 5 South.
Finally, whether we are talking about a parcel on Route 5 or not, citizens and Selectboard members should always respectfully ask each other questions that deepen our understanding of our individual relationships to land. It is tempting to divide our community based on who wants land use to support agriculture and open space, and who wants the land to be altered for housing development, but the reality may be that nearly every citizen wants the same thing: to make Norwich affordable and accessible, without altering our town’s unique qualities. 

Affordable Housing. Nearly everybody is in favor of more affordable housing in Norwich. What do you think Norwich’s local government should be doing to promote or create affordable housing in Norwich? 

Our Town Plan was rejected by the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission for its failure to address multi-family or affordable housing. Our access to certain state grants will continue to be restricted until a Town Plan is approved, so it is important to support our committees in their work. 

The Selectboard must identify affordable housing as an important, routine agenda item. Through thoughtful research and conversations, the Selectboard can vet the best data for discussing regional housing needs and insist that these numbers be used across town committees. The Selectboard should also more purposefully define the role of experts in housing strategies, and hear stories from renters with special needs, young families relocating from urban locations, and people who are at risk of being displaced because of high taxes or financial insecurity. I believe it is important for leadership to embrace the complexity of affordable housing topics and to demonstrate to our community that all ideas can be discussed, as long as equity and inclusion are central to our thinking.

I think that Accessory Dwelling Units—also known as in-law apartments—deserve more attention in Norwich. ADUs can increase housing supply without further land development, and facilitate the efficient use of existing housing stock. ADUs can also accommodate multigenerational living and house caregivers for the population who wishes to age in place. However, like all housing solutions, ADUs have their own particular cost burdens and unique septic considerations. To aid citizens in creating ADUs, the Selectboard, in dialogue with the Planning Commission, should consider using recently allocated affordable-housing designated funds to help residents offset costs after an achievable design plan has been secured. 

Goals. What are the several issues that you think the Town or Selectboard should or must address in the next 12 to 18 months?  Why? Do you have any specifics on how to address?  

There are a couple of things that come to mind:

  1. Storm damage from 2011 and 2017 was extensive, and climate change scientists suggest that extreme weather trends will become more frequent in coming years. We should work with our Town Manager and Director of Public Works to assess vulnerable infrastructure and to better understand the unique challenges of our narrow valleys and their relationship to water velocity. Being prepared for these storms can help mitigate future costs.
  2. We need to more meaningfully prepare for climate change and the impact it will have on our lives, particularly to those who are already on or soon will be on fixed-incomes. Low- and middle-income Vermonters typically are spending much higher percentage of their incomes on transportation energy than high-income Vermonters, to say nothing of the substantial burden of heating and electric energy expenses that we all face. When we work with our Energy Committees to support community solar projects and weatherization projects, we are improving the community’s well-being. We should also continue an appropriately paced transition of our town’s heating towards full renewables. 
  3. We should consider using basic project management strategies that allow us to index town resources, like salt and sand in the winter, to weather conditions, so that we can begin to make more educated inferences about what kind of expenditures to budget. We should, of course, work in dialogue with our Town Manager on this. 

Budget. The Selectboard sent to the voters a FYE 2020 Town budget of $4,271,793. Although the amount of the budget declined by about 5%, the property tax rate [without the separate monetary Articles for various nonprofit organizations] is projected to increase by 1.51%. For John and Linda: How did you vote on that budget and why? For Doug and Roger: How would you have voted on that budget and why?

I think greater clarification and communication needs to happen around our budgeting process. For example, I believe many taxpayers will be confused about why their tax rate is projected to increase despite the budget decrease. By way of explanation: due in part to continual costs from storm damage that took place on July 1, 2017, and faced with certain unknowns relating to FEMA reimbursement, the Selectboard made the decision to largely level-fund the designated fund balances. 

I am concerned that altering the appropriations to these funds without making major cuts to the operating budget will just push this problem to the next budget season, though I, too, understand the need to balance our town services with being fiscally responsible. 

There were several instances in this year’s budget where a department’s line item was insufficiently explained. It is important that next year’s budget demonstrates to the taxpayer that every line item has a committed purpose and that funding dollars are valued. Often, a budgeted expense was proposed based on an assumption about our community’s desire for a certain level of service. Next year, the Selectboard should work more closely with our Town Manager to make sure our department heads have early and reliable citizen feedback for their budget preparation, to ensure that there is no budgetary waste on unwanted services.

Voting for Town Officers and for all articles on the Warning will be by Australian ballot. The polls will be open Tuesday, March 5, 2019 from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm.

POSTED: 03.02.2019
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