Our Opinion: The $340,000 question

The time has come for full and transparent disclosure from the Town of Bennington and its Select Board about the decision to proceed without a state permit in building the new salt shed on Bowen Road, and the puzzling decision to turn down $340,000 in grant money for that project.

At this juncture, any suggestion that Town Manager Stuart Hurd or other town employees should face additional discipline or lose their jobs over this episode is premature at best, and an overreaction at worst. Emotions are understandably high, with Hurd's years of service earning him fierce loyalty in some precincts and sharp criticism from others. But any such decision must follow a full vetting of the facts. A parade of torches and pitchforks won't do.

At this point, we know that Hurd stood in front of the Select Board on Jan. 8 and apologized for proceeding to build the salt shed before the state Agency of Natural Resources issued a permit. He stood up and faced the music from Select Board Chairman Tom Jacobs.

We know that Hurd and the seven-member board met in executive session — in private, away from citizens, reporters and TV cameras — after the public portion of that meeting was over. And we know that on Jan. 13, during a budget work session, the board voted to set Hurd's salary at its current rate, with no raise.

Was that a punitive decision? Jacobs told the Banner that he was "not comfortable in stating the reason for the board's decision." Hurd said it was a "personnel issue discussed in executive session."

We know that construction of the salt shed began before the Agency of Natural Resources, the state's environmental regulatory agency, had issued a permit allowing the town to build in a wetlands buffer zone. That permit arrived early this month, well after construction began, and ANR, which is investigating the matter, could fine the town up to $42,500 for breaking the rules.

We also know the town turned down $340,000 in federal grant money offered by the state Agency of Transportation for the construction of that salt shed. Hurd explained in an interview with the Banner that accepting the bid "would have meant throwing out the completed design, bidding the design contract and starting over."

Here's where things get fuzzy.

By Hurd's accounting, failing to start construction last year would have jeopardized between $60,000 and $75,000 in cost savings on the project. But that makes less sense when one considers that waiting for the ANR permit — and accepting the grant — would have netted the town $340,000 in grant money.

Any way you do the math, $340,000 is greater than $75,000. If there's a good reason that isn't as simple as it looks, it needs to be made clear.

What was it about that grant and the way this project was managed that made accepting the funding impossible? Surely, the town has experience in applying for and using state and federal grant dollars and knew what to expect. And certainly, Hurd has experience in trying to limit costs to the town.

Last and not least, we need to know with greater certainty what the Select Board did and did not know.

In a strongly worded letter to the editor published in Friday's Banner, Jacobs stated, "without qualification," that despite claims the Select Board knew about or was complicit with the salt shed project, "this was not the case in whole or in part."

"The manager [Hurd] has repeatedly indicated the Select Board was not aware of the permit issue. Any continued effort to suggest or infer otherwise by any individual will not be tolerated by this member of the select board," he said.

We have no cause to doubt Jacobs. But it begs another question: If it is true that the Select Board didn't know and wasn't in the loop, then why was that the case?

If any of the seven board members knew Hurd was going to start work before ANR issued a permit, we presume they might have warned him that wasn't worth the risk. And if board members knew Hurd was going to turn down a $340,000 grant — something they so far have been mum about — we suppose they might have asked whether the town could afford to decline that much funding.

The Select Board need not be in the business of micromanaging every town construction project. But when large federal grants that can save taxpayers money are at stake, then some level of government involvement seems like a reasonable request.

This should not be a blame game. That's of no practical use.

So why insist on full disclosure?

Bennington needs to put this episode behind it, so it can move forward with confidence that similar missteps can be avoided in the future. The only way to do that is to put all the cards on the table and fully understand what happened and why.


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