In the race for mayor of Barre, city council member Lucas Herring faces off against fellow councilor, and director of Studio Place Arts, Sue Higby. Not only does Herring bring a long resume of municipal experience to the campaign, but he also has the official support of current mayor Tom Lauzon. Last week, Herring was kind enough to sit down with The Bridge and talk about the campaign, his positions on several policies, and the future of Barre.
The Bridge: You have a very extensive resume and served on many committees, councils, and boards for nearly a decade. What drives you to public service?
Lucas Herring: Even before being involved in Barre City, I was very active with the Vermont State Employees Association. I became treasurer for the board of trustees, and it was one of those activities that gets you thinking about what else happens outside the workplace and the issues that face people in general and not just your coworkers.
The Bridge: Why do you want to become mayor of Barre?
Herring: Over the past seven years I’ve been on city council, so I do know the workload. During that time I was also on the Barre Partnership, the school board, and the Granite Museum board. I did that while working my day job as an IT director for the Department of Corrections. I stepped off those boards to focus my time completely on my campaign for mayor.
The Bridge: What part of the job seems most challenging to you and what part seems particularly in line your expertise and experience?
Herring: Over the past seven years I’ve made a lot of connections, even working with other communities like Berlin and Barre Town. I know members of their select boards so I think I’m pretty well established and can hit the ground running on day one. The biggest challenge might be a new board. Since the city council will have three [new] councilors, two that have been there for a year and one who was appointed this last term, and depending how the election goes, [Michael] Boutin, who’s been there for eight years, might be replaced with somebody new. So it’ll be a green board that we have to start working with.
The Bridge: You have described the council as “contentious.” Can you expand on that and how you will address it.
Herring: When we came into this Park Center project, there was unknown information for new councilors that this is the type of work that happens. People go out and talk with businesses; they get the agreements in place; maybe they do it on their own, or maybe they bring it back to the council, but at the end of the day they disclose any information on any project that’s going on to say if they should be a part of it at all. It seems like the newer councilors weren’t aware of how these different types of economic development work, and it put some stress on the council and the project as a whole.
The Bridge: Do you disagree with some people’s assertion that there was a conflict of interest between Mayor Lauzon and the developers?
Herring: We looked at the statute and do have a policy in place that talks about conflict of interest, and the mayor did allow us to know everything that was going on from step one to when we decided not to move forward, so those items were disclosed.
The Bridge: So do you feel Park Center was a lost opportunity for Barre?
Herring: There may have been a missed opportunity with the hotel portion, and Montpelier has taken advantage of that, but I still think there’s an opportunity for development, and it’s part of our city plan from Main Street to Summer Street. These are the projects that we have been working on for several years.
The Bridge: Despite all the investment in downtown Barre, there are still a lot of empty storefronts. Why do you think this is so and how can you address it?
Herring: Well, Park Center would have been able to fill in some of those vacant storefronts, but honestly the challenges we have in Barre are the same you might see across Vermont and the United States. We do have a drug problem; the opioid problem is well known, and we don’t have population growth. If you look back at the history of Barre, we are about half the population we once were. Vermont is also the second oldest state in the nation, and a lot of people here have retired or will soon retire. And downtown is within a floodplain, which is an issue for a lot of developers, because if you have a building that already exists, you have to have flood insurance. If you want to raise it out of the floodplain, that costs a lot.
The Bridge: So how can you add some more vitality to downtown?
Herring: We have to embrace those who want to come in and make some developments in our downtown. We have a tax stabilization policy in place, and I was one of two council members who redrafted our tax stabilization policy to allow for multi-family dwellings and businesses to ask for stabilization. For example, with City Place, they have a 10-year tax stabilization, which allows them to put money they’d pay in taxes into the construction costs. In the next five years after, it goes up in increments of 20 percent so next year, you’ll see an extra $27,000 in tax revenue from that building alone, and that will continue each year until it’s at the market value.
The Bridge: So you think Barre is on the right path and it just needs more time.
Herring: I do.
The Bridge: How would you address Barre’s image problem?
Herring: What it is, is that we have a courthouse downtown, and a majority of those going to court are out front. Maybe they are smoking a cigarette or waiting to get into court, so you have the perception that maybe you have more crime here than in other areas. But if you actually check the crime rate, we are no different than Montpelier. So it’s a perception issue. How do you change that? Part of it is, we have a bus stop right out front; there are signs that say no smoking but it’s not enforced. If we can stop those individuals from congregating out front and appear like that’s the only thing that they are there for. The Agency of Education came with City Place so we had 300 employees from that building walking and visiting store fronts, which changed downtown because you had more foot traffic not related to the courthouse. The perception will go away once we start doing that more.
The Bridge: On the upcoming budget vote on Town Meeting Day, are there any measures you absolutely support and any you oppose?
Herring: I supported them all. We had a unanimous decision on those items when they went on the ballot. I support the general fund for sure. We need to have a budget so the next council can operate. I’ve been on the council when the budget failed twice, and you’re basically spending the time between Town Meeting Day and July 1 trying to understand what you have for money. But if you have that budget pass on Town Meeting Day, it allows you those couple of months to start the planning needed for July 1, when the money is allocated.
The Bridge: And the options tax?
Herring: I do support the options tax and think this is a way Barre City can benefit from external revenue. We’ve been putting so much on the property taxes, and the one thing that I hear when I talk with residents is they don’t want to have their property taxes go up any more. That is the effort we need to make so residents can still afford to live here while still trying to support those projects.
The Bridge: Drawing on your background in IT, what does the data say about Barre that maybe other sources don’t?
Herring: The data shows that there is growth. You can see that sales receipts are going up in Barre City, which means business is going up. I think a lot of the numbers we need to focus on as well are the average income of a resident and the age of a resident. We need to make sure we are bringing in younger families. Those are the working families that will be more involved in our community.
The Bridge: How do you do that?
Herring: We have to start asking what they want. We have what’s called the Barre Connection, a wireless connection within our downtown. Younger generations come out with their devices, and they want to be able to connect, so if we have an environment that they want to come to, youths will participate more in the events downtown.
The Bridge: What is your view on the $15 minimum wage?
Herring: This is one of those items that we have to look at because of the unintended ripple effects that might happen. If I raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, does the person who already makes $15 also get a raise? After getting their incremental raise over time are they not making more than someone who’s new off the street? And for businesses, does that mean now that I’m paying more in wages? Can I really afford to give them benefits like I have been in the past? Can I still afford to give the Little League team a donation? And if we are only doing this on a state level versus a national level, how does it affect our trade with other states? We might end up outsourcing jobs because it’s going to be cheaper for those businesses to do work in other places.
The Bridge: So you would not support the bill currently in the State House?
Herring: What I’m saying is that what we have to be mindful of all the unintended consequences. I think an incremental increase is good. We would be the highest minimum wage state if this was to go into effect. Does it need to be $15 or can it be compromised at a different number? I think there needs to be more discussion before voting on it. It’s a good concept, but as with a lot of good concepts, you have to look at the devil in the details.
The Bridge: The Barre Supervisory Union is going to be implementing a new school safety protocol called A.L.I.C.E. [Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate], and obviously with the shooting in Florida, the issue of guns and schools is a hot topic. As someone who’s worked on school boards, where do you come down on this issue?
Herring: There needs to be that fact-based discussion on who has access to guns and why. I’ll address mental health first. We had the flood in the state hospital in Waterbury and now we have a smaller facility in Berlin. So one of the questions we should raise is why do we only have that facility? Why don’t we have more capacity to deal with individuals with mental illnesses? The other question is how far are people taking this? I know many people who hunt, and they do have a constitutional right to bear arms.
The Bridge: What about background checks and weapons like the AR-15?
Herring: When I was on the elementary school board, we were looking at different access points to the school, because if there’s an active shooter, the elementary school only has one direct roadway into the building. So if you want to evacuate people and there’s an active shooter in the one entrance, how do you evacuate? You really can’t. So we were trying to find secondary access routes. I am glad they are taking on A.L.I.C.E. full steam.
That’s going to be the fact-based discussion. What are the types of weapons they are using in these assaults and do we need them? Honestly, if we can have a compromise, you know, people have the right to bear arms. They have a right for certain weapons that they can use for hunting, then we should have that compromise about those AR-15 weapons not being used in public.
The Bridge: So you would or wouldn’t support a ban on those weapons?
Herring: I think we should continue to have the conversation to see where that line is. But if it is that same weapon, I would fully support that type of weapon be banned
The Bridge: What has the process of running for mayor of Barre taught you?
Herring: I think the greatest thing that I’ve learned is that there’s a lot of diversity in our city, and that issues they have might be in conflict with each other. What I want to do is take both sides of these coins and bring them together and find out where common ground is and make sure we are addressing the actual issue.