Haley wants to listen, bring residents together
Editor's note: This is one of six Banner profiles of candidates seeking a Bennington Select Board seat in the March 3 annual election.
BENNINGTON — For Tom Haley III, this was the year he finally decided to run for the Bennington Select Board.
"I've always thought about running," he said, "but this time I got a few phone calls from folks and thought that maybe this was the time. I consulted with a lot of people and decided to throw my hat into the ring."
One of Haley's reasons for seeking a seat on the board is to try to bridge some of the sharp divisions he sees in town.
"I've been talking to people around town, and there just seems to be so much division among people," he said. "We have really got to get ourselves together somehow. If we are going to accomplish anything, we have to put aside the hatred and start listening and talking to each other, and stop treating people that disagree with us like they are our enemy."
One issue he has heard residents talking about is the perceived lack of transparency on the board and in town government.
"They feel that a lot of things are going on behind the scenes," Haley said, "and they really don't think they have a lot of influence in the process. I think a lot of that comes form not necessarily understanding how the process works."
He added, "I think that's on the board to reach out and have people want to be involved. Think there are a lot of good ideas out there in town; we need all the good ideas we can find."
Currently, he said, "the way we are doing things doesn't seem to be working on a lot of levels. But I think we can overcome that if we just take a moment and say, 'look, we want your ideas' and just help people understand the process."
Another major issue is a need to "really market our downtown," Haley said. "We've got a beautiful downtown here We have to find some way to make our downtown a destination again. With the bypass, it makes it real easy to drive on by, so we have to make it a destination, not a happenstance."
He said there also should be ways to take more advantage of popular regional events like the garlic festival, to encourage more of the visitors to shop or go to restaurants in the downtown.
"And I think we can do more events like that," he said. "We have the space for it."
Local option tax
On the local option tax issue, he said, "I really think the sales tax part of it puts too much of a burden on lower-income folks. It seems to be targeted at folks that shop at Walmart. I just don't think they have the means to shoulder that burden, so I would need to see more on what kinds of things that would be exempted from the tax."
Concerning a tax on meals, rooms and alcohol, he said, "I am more in favor, but I would really need to see it put in statute how [the revenue would be spent]."
Haley added, "Certainly, some of that money should go toward property tax relief and some of it toward marketing downtown. I'm opposed to some of it, but I think if we are going to put these taxes in place, we'll need put it in statute where those taxes are going to go. I don't think putting it all in the general fund is the way to do it."
Referring to the Select Board's stated intention to hold annual hearings to gather input and to vote on how option tax revenue should be spent in the coming year, Haley said: "On the proposal to decide year to year, I think some of it should still be mandatory toward certain things — you know, property tax [reduction], marketing. What those percentages should be, I haven't decided yet. I'm still talking to people about what they think."
The public comment portion of Select Board meetings also should be revised, he said.
"I certainly like to see a little loosening of public comment periods at the Select Board. So at least members of the board could react with folks just a hair. I understand that no definitive action can be taken because of open meeting [posting] laws, and they are there for good reason. But to be able to say to people, `okay, I understand you have an idea, this is what you need to do for us to be able to discuss this.'"
But little will change, Haley said, unless officials and residents can work better together.
"I really think one of our biggest problems in town, which is so divided on certain issues, is that a lot of that reflects the mentality that is going on the national level — it's us versus them," he said. "We are all residents of Bennington, and if we don't pull together and try to figure it out together, we are not going to make it happen."
He added, "We can't go back to the way we have done things in the past Those ways are not necessarily going to work nowadays. You hear folks screaming that their taxes are too high. Well, no one ever goes into one of these offices thinking that their first priority is going to be to raise taxes. But you've got to look at what the needs are of the town."
Spending cuts are possible, he said, but should be carefully considered.
"Could we make cuts somewhere? I'm sure, but you have to be really careful, because a lot of these programs and a lot of these functions of the town are absolutely necessary," Haley said. "And if you start slashing willy-nilly, people could get hurt."
Strong reactions to current issues "don't work long term," he said. "You have got to look long term. The solutions [only for] today mean you have just pushed the problem further down the road. You know, you can only kick the can down the road so far, till you run out of room and you've still got a can. I think we've been doing that in town, maybe more than a bit of it."
Not dealing with an issue long term includes services for the homeless, Haley said, adding that "it took a person dying, who was well liked," to get the community really focused on action to address those needs.
"It is not that those folks don't care; it's just that resources are limited," he said of officials and organizations trying to deal with homelessness. "And to start shouting at people is very unfair, because they do a lot of good work."
He added that "we definitely do need to do something about our homeless population here in town, but again it has got to be a long-term solution. If we are going to put up a warming shelter, it has be something that can be sustained and staffed, and maybe a place where maybe we can hook people up with services."
Haley is the chairman of the Bennington County Democratic committee and a past chairman of the Bennington Town Democratic committee.
"I hope people realize," he said, "I'm known around town for being a pretty liberal guy, but I spent a lot of time with my grandfather, and he was very conservative. For the time — he was a Reagan conservative."
But community involvement was important to his grandfather, Haley said, "and that is where I've gotten it from. And being able to engage with people on both sides of the political fence is something that I can do. We need to be able to get back to a place where we can have a discussion, disagree with each other, and come away, if not being friends, at least being civil."
He also decried "finger-pointing, shouting, making accusations, many of them unfounded," adding, "This talk of election fraud and so forth is — I think it's dangerous."
As an elected justice of the peace and therefore member of the Board of Civil Authority, Haley said, "I have looked at the documents and so forth that have been put out, and I don't see any evidence of fraud. There were mistakes made, and I have talked to Cassie [Barbeau, Bennington's town clerk], and she has taken steps to ensure they won't happen again. But there was no fraud. If you voted, your vote was counted. And I think that telling people that if they vote their vote might not counted is irresponsible and dangerous."
A member of the BCA, who will not be participating with that board during the election because he is on the March 3 ballot.
Haley said he is a Bennington native whose family has lived in the area for at least six generations. He attended local schools, graduating from Mount Anthony in 1988.
"Professionally, I worked my way up the retail ranks until I reached the point where I was managing large stores," he said, "eventually moving into helping companies open new stores and, sadly, shut down failing ones. I have extensive experience in all aspects of business management."
After the Great Recession, he said, "I was blessed to spend a number of years as a stay-at-home dad For the past few years, I have been making my living as a handyman in the Bennington area."
Haley is also a past member of the board at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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