September 16, 2014

Blankenheim: Challenger brings business background

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By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Bob Blankenheim believes his experience as a corporate executive will help him effectively serve on the Williston Selectboard.

Voters sometimes like candidates with a business background. But Blankenheim may also have to convince voters that a lawsuit he and others have filed against the town is beneficial.

He is running for a three-year seat on the board against incumbent Judy Sassorossi. It is his first try for elected office.

Blankenheim is among the 37 Williston residents suing to nullify an agreement between the town and the Chittenden Solid Waste District. The agreement, approved by voters in 1992, permits operation of the current transfer station off Redmond Road and a future landfill. Blankenheim lives less than a half-mile from the site.

He at first flatly denied that unhappiness about the landfill prompted him to run. But then he softened that statement, while emphasizing his candidacy was more about changing the way Williston does business.
“I guess what I would tell you is that it wasn’t the only thing, it was one of the things,” he said. “But more important than the landfill was the honesty that didn’t happen, the informing of the people that didn’t happen.”

He views the landfill agreement as just one indication that the town could be better managed. He also wants to improve the budget process and change how the town handles development.

Blankenheim talked at length about his life and views during a wide-ranging interview at the Observer’s offices. He spoke confidently, like someone used to taking charge.

Blankenheim was born in Milwaukee, the son of a business executive. His family later moved to suburban Chicago.

He attended the University of Denver, where he received a degree in business administration. He followed in his father’s footsteps, working as a manager for large firms.

Blankenheim is currently vice president of operations/general manager for a company now known as IntraPac Inc. in Plattsburgh, N.Y. The firm produces packaging for personal care products.

He moved to Williston in August 2004 with his wife of 35 years, Gwen. They live on Ledgewood Drive, a subdivision off Mountain View Road. Given Blankenheim’s background and personal stake in the matter, it is unsurprising that he talks about the landfill agreement in terms of a bad business deal.

“If I would have negotiated a contract like that, as poorly written and as one-sided, I probably would have gotten fired,” he said, noting the agreement includes no expiration date or any provision to increase fees the waste district pays to the town.

Williston’s conflict of interest ordinance would forbid Blankenheim from discussing or voting on any matter involving the landfill. He pledged to recuse himself whenever the landfill comes up.

The landfill proposal, which is still being formulated by the waste district’s board and must receive state approval before anything is built, is a friction point between the two candidates.

Sassorossi questioned how Blankenheim could effectively serve on Williston’s governing board when he is suing the town. Beyond the basic conflict of interest, she said the lawsuit raises the question of whose team he is on.

Blankenhiem asserted that the lawsuit actually aligns him with the town’s interests because it would overturn an agreement that shortchanges Williston in terms of revenue and threatens all residents’ quality of life.
Sassorossi was on the Planning Commission in 1996 when it approved the subdivision where Blankenheim lives. Before the approval, the Chittenden Solid Waste District requested the board require the developer to tell prospective homeowners about the landfill. The board declined based on legal advice.

Blankenheim and others now say they would never have bought homes there if they had known about the landfill.

Blankenheim acknowledged that it was no accident he sought Sassorossi’s seat instead of the other Selectboard opening on the March ballot. But he said he holds no personal animosity toward her.

“I’m not looking for retribution,” Blankenheim said. “I think I’m better qualified to do what has to be done for Williston.”

Blankenheim feels Williston should take a more businesslike approach to the municipal budget. He criticized the board for formulating the current spending proposal based on a 5 percent increase.

“The budget should be a ground-up budget,” he said. “It should be starting at a point where you justify every position, and you justify any increases based on what the needs are. In some cases those needs are going to exceed that magical number, whatever that number is, and in some cases you are going to be able to cut it back.”

He’s also worries that the town takes a “ready, fire, aim” approach to growth. He thinks the town failed to provide adequate infrastructure to support its many businesses, which could eventually hurt revenue from the local sales tax that funds more than a third of the municipal budget.

“We run the risk of damaging the economic engine that generates a substantial amount of revenue for the town,” he said, noting that shoppers who face too much traffic congestion might decide to go elsewhere.
Though his government experience is limited, Blankenheim said the town may be better served by someone new.

“Is (Sassorossi) better qualified to understand what’s going on right now? Yea, probably,” he said. “How long will it take me to get up to speed? Probably about a month and a half. I’m a pretty bright guy.”

CANDIDATE QUESTIONNAIRE
Name: Robert E. Blankenheim
Address: 893 Ledgewood Drive
Age: 60
Number of years living in Williston: 3 1/2 years, moved into our house in August of 2004

Employer name and job description: IntraPac (Plattsburgh) Inc. I am Vice President of Operations/General Manager of the operation of the IntraPac Group with responsibility for the management of the company including P&L and the development of both operating and capital budgets. The Plattsburgh Operation employs 150 full time employees with sales in excess of $16 million dollars.

Previous experience in elected or appointed positions, or community service: I served on a subcommittee for the Vermont Solid Waste Reduction bill dealing with recyclables; was President of a home owners association that had over 350 homes, ran its two water plants, had a complete recreation center including a pool and tennis courts; Served on Church boards and was President of the church council.

What is the most important issue facing the town of Williston? How should the town address this issue?
I believe the largest challenge facing the town is the lack of infrastructure. One element of that infrastructure is the roads within the town. The plans for handling the additional traffic on currently overcrowded roadways needs to be addressed before any additonal expansion in the town. The traffic patterns within Tafts Corners are currently not workable and just adding a number of access roads is not an answer to the problem.  The expansion of both 2 and 2A should be undertaken before any new developments such as the Growth Center are permitted. The businesses within that area are an economic engine to the Town and need to have the necessary accessibility to remain competitive. The CIRC with its current location and questionable start date will not provide the necessary relief from the traffic issues within Taft Corners. 

The town may face a financial squeeze over the next few years, with falling sales tax revenue and a potential recession, reducing available funding for municipal services. If there is a budget crunch, would you cut services, raise property taxes, or do both?
What is required is out of the box thinking to solve these key financial& service issues. Essex and Essex Junction are also facing significant budget issues and it may be time to partner with the surrounding towns to look for synergies and the ability to share services at a reduced cost. If there is a choice between increases in taxes versus service cuts we need to be sure those service cuts do not affect the health or protection of the residents. Any increases in taxes that may be required should be minimal and as a last resort to balance the budget.  I would support a tax increase if satisfied that all unnecessary costs have been removed from the budget. Tax increases should only be taken as a last action, as once on the books those taxes are never repealed.  

Some residents oppose a proposed landfill in Williston. The landfill would produce revenue for the town but those living nearby fear pollution and falling property values. Do you support or oppose constructing a landfill in Williston? Why?
I don’t support the landfill.  There is a true misconception the regional landfill will have a positive affect on the tax base for residents within Williston.  The HTA holds no great hope for a financial windfall for the town.  This landfill will reduce property values and real estate taxes for residents closer to the site, not to mention the quality of life to all residents. Those lost taxes will be offset by an increase in the tax multiplier, which will increase real estate taxes for those residents not living near the site. In addition, the residents will be paying for the building of the landfill in a number of ways. It could come as a tax increase on your house or in the cost of waste removal. Waste reduction and technology in the management of solid waste is changing and the need for this or any landfill in the near future is not justifiable.  The rationale for this landfill may have made sense 15 years ago, but times and technology have changed and we need to embrace those changes.

Williston has struggled over the past 20 years to balance commercial and residential growth with a desire to maintain the town’s small-town character. Is Williston growing at the right pace? Should the town tighten or loosen existing controls on growth?
Williston needs to control its growth. There is a need for significant improvement in the Town’s roads and infrastructure before Williston permits additional growth.  The Growth Center is a good example of a development that should be built, but not without addressing the issues of the current Williston residents and the businesses within Taft Corners.  I believe people in Williston do not want added congestion on the town’s roads for the sake of growth.  If the State is in favor of building this Growth Center, then it should step up and make the necessary improvements to the state roads in Williston to manage the additional traffic that the Center will generate. The added burden that future development will have on the sanitary sewers should also be a concern as we now approach capacity at the plant shared with Essex and Essex Junction.

 Census figures show most people who work in Williston don’t live here, while most Willistonians commute to other towns. The situation is caused largely by a lack of jobs in town that pay people enough to afford Williston’s relatively high cost of housing. How can the town address this disconnect between employment and housing, which leads to traffic congestion and pollution?

There are many towns in this country that are bedroom communities where people live but don’t work.  The previous Boards have encouraged business growth in retail and light industry but neither of these can support the income levels required to live within the Town. With the expense of developing land in Williston, which in turn drives up the cost of the lots, it is difficult for builders to offer homes with lower selling prices. If this is a concern, then we have two options. First, we need to encourage the building of business campuses that will attract companies looking to relocate either regional or head offices to Vermont, which will bring in the families that can afford Williston.   The other option is to require developers to build a percentage of the homes within a development to be more affordable housing.  Improvements in the roads in the Town will help resolve the traffic and pollution issues.

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