BARRE — A shorthanded City Council made no decisions during a weekend budget workshop that raised more questions than it answered.
Is the council interested in overriding the recommendation of City Manager Steve Mackenzie by filling a vacant firefighter’s position?
That question was asked, but not answered on Saturday.
Will the Barre Partnership, which asked councilors to consider a significant funding increase earlier in the week, have to fight to prevent some of the money — $65,000 — it now receives from the city from being funneled to the Barre Area Development Corporation?
Councilor Sue Higby said both ideas should be discussed when the council resumes its review of what Mackenzie said will be his penultimate budget proposal.
Councilors wondering whether Mackenzie’s latest contract extension — one that expires on July 10, 2020 — would be his last got an answer to that during Saturday’s session.
Mackenzie told councilors the $12.4 million spending plan he has recommended doesn’t yet reflect the $10,000 he believes should be included to finance the search for his replacement. The search, he said, will need to be launched during the coming fiscal year and if the council wants outside assistance, the money should be added.
The observation underscored the looming end to Mackenzie’s run as city manager, which began in 2010.
As for the Aldrich Public Library, the budget Mackenzie presented for the council’s review reflects a 5 percent increase in the annual appropriation that he acknowledged was about $8,500 less than library trustees had requested.
Mayor Lucas Herring and other councilors present agreed the proposed increase — $10,550 — was fair, while acknowledging the library’s importance to the community.
Pretty much everything else councilors discussed — most of them ideas and issues raised by Higby — was not resolved.
One issue was whether to fill a vacant firefighter position Mackenzie opted not to fill as part of a reorganization that accompanied Fire Chief Doug Brent’s return to Barre.
Higby questioned whether money for the position — an estimated $88,000 — should be added to the budget for “safety and morale purposes.” Part of the cost of the position could be covered through overtime savings, though Brent said the precise amount was impossible to calculate.
Mackenzie said he didn’t necessarily object to Higby’s suggestion, noting his decision to eliminate the position was driven by the council’s directive he limit the municipal tax increase associated with the budget to 2 percent.
Herring said adding the position back could make hitting that target more difficult.
Meanwhile, Higby advocated a possible merger of the Barre Partnership and Barre Area Development.
Citing what she characterized as “significant overlap” between Barre’s downtown organization and the economic development agency it shares with Barre Town, Higby said she believed a merger could be the answer.
Both organizations made presentations to city and town officials earlier in the week. Representatives of the partnership said they were close to hiring a new executive director, and were hoping to secure an additional $40,000 in funding to negotiate with their preferred candidate.
Meanwhile, Joel Schwartz, executive director of Barre Area Development, updated officials on a marketing initiative designed to promote Barre and its “Rock Solid Brand.” That online effort, Schwartz said, is still a work in progress and short films featuring local attractions like the Millstone Trails, Thunder Road, the Barre Heritage Festival and the Vermont Granite Museum are in production.
Schwartz said maximizing the effort would require an advertising campaign that would cost $100,000 in the first year, spreading the word about a digital platform that would promote the greater Barre area.
Studio Place Arts, where Higby works as executive director, was one of the local resources featured prominently in a demo of the work that has been done so far.
Higby said she was eager to see that effort advanced and said the vacant executive director’s position created an opportunity to re-think how the city spends its community development dollars.
“It’s not just that there’s redundancy, it’s that there are opportunities that can’t be ... acted on because the organizations are kind of in their own worlds,” she said.
Higby called for a reallocation of the $120,000 that is now split between the two organizations that would create what she described as a “dowry” for Barre Area Development to advance its marketing initiative.
“This is a strategic opportunity for the city and we need to use the limited funds we have as wisely as we can,” she said.
Councilors agreed to invite representatives of both organizations to attend a meeting to discuss an idea that drew a skeptical response from Mackenzie.
“While they’re complementary (organizations) they’re not the same and I’m not convinced that merging them is a way to get more benefit,” he said.
Among the other issues Higby wants to talk about are Herring’s proposal to convert a portion of the iconic Wheelock Building into a downtown teen center, and former mayor Thomas Lauzon’s proposal to create a street, sidewalk and equipment fund.
Higby said she doesn’t believe the Wheelock Building is the appropriate location for a teen center and is interested in exploring the possibility of generating new revenue by renting the city-owned real estate.
Councilor Michael Boutin said he didn’t support the latter idea, and Herring said he was struggling to understand why a building that was the longtime home of the Barre Area Senior Center wasn’t suitable for a teen center.
While Higby didn’t object to Lauzon’s plan to create a fund to cover infrastructure improvements and major equipment purchases, she said she was opposed to using $50,000 that former Barre businessman Charlie Semprebon left the city following his death in 2009 as a one-time cash infusion.
Mackenzie defended Lauzon’s proposal and the one-time use of money from an annuity established by Semprebon that generates roughly $50,000 a year for the city.
“I support it and recommend it, but it’s the council’s decision,” Mackenzie said.