MANCHESTER >> Town officials and representatives of the Community Food Cupboard have come to an agreement on the terms of a new lease of space in Town Hall where the food cupboard operates.
The lease will run for the next three years, and expires on Dec. 31, 2018.
The agreement brings an end to a period of uncertainty that began earlier this year when the food cupboard and town officials couldn't agree on the lease terms when their former lease came up for renewal. The food cupboard, which occupies a roughly 600 square-foot room at town hall, balked at signing a longer and more detailed agreement than the shorter and more familiar one they had been operating under for most of the 22 years they have been based in the municipal office facility. But those issues have now been resolved, said Emmy McCusker, the president of the food cupboard's board of directors, who attributed the situation to a lack of communication between all sides.
"I think all in all, it's a better understanding and avoids this in the future," she said. "We look forward to working with the town and serving the people of the area."
Town Manager John O'Keefe also described the deal as a "win-win," adding that "it landed in a good place."
One of the main sticking points between the two sides was the congestion that occurred in the main corridor of the town office building on Wednesdays and Thursdays when the food cupboard distributes food to those who have signed up and qualify for their help. Under the terms of the new lease, the food cupboard will encourage its patrons to not gather in the hallway more than 30 minutes before they open and begin distributing food.
Another issue was the over-use of a rest room along the same main corridor. A second rest room, located next to the other one that is typically open for public use, will be designated for the food cupboard's use. The food cupboard will be repsonsible for maintaining and managing it, according to the lease.
Rental costs will remain the same at $100 per month for the first year of the lease, and will rise to $125 a month from July 1, 2016 until June 30, 2017. That will bump up to $150 per month for the remainder of the lease, running from July 1, 2017 until Dec. 31, 2018.
However, if the food cupboard opts to seek and obtains additional public revenues through a special appropriation voted through at March Town Meeting, the rent will rise sharply to $1,000 per month in the first year of the lease, to $1,250 permonth in the second year and $1,500 per month in the third year. The aim here was to try to discourage organizations who are already receiving substantial "in-kind" assistance from the town from seeking more through special budget requests.
"Our contribution to the food cupboard is free electricity and really cheap rent," O'Keefe said, adding that finding 600 square feet od usuable space in Manchester for $100 month with free power and heat could be a tall order. "We are trying to discourage people from taking both in-kind aid and then coming back and getting a voted appropriation."
The food cupboard could still, like other organizations that operate across several towns, seek such revenue from other towns if they chose to, without triggering the rent increase clause.
At the same time, the way the lease is written, the food cupboard doesn't waive its legal right to seek additional public funds at town meeting. They have that option, but if they pursue that course, the rent will rise substantially, he said.
The food cupboard serves about 400 area families, or more than 1,000 people, per week on average, McCusker said, a number that has been steadily increasing upwards over the years. They come from several towns across the entire Northshire region. This past week, they distributed 150 turkeys for the Thanksgiving holiday, and others received a $10 gift certificate from Price Chopper, an option that may make more sense for smaller families, she said.
Most of their supplies come from the Vermont food Bank or the federal Department of Agriculture. Several local stores, as well as Shaws and Price Chopper, have also helped them and offered donations of food. A "plant a row" program at Hildene's gardens also helps, she added.
Given the increase in demand the food cupboard is experiencing, one by-product of the lease discussions is an idea to expand their space by demolishing a wall on the side of the building that faces the parking lot and at present opens out into a small courtyard. As a construction issue, such a project would not be technically difficult, O'Keefe said.
"In looking at it carefully, it seems like it would make sense," he said.
It also made sense to re-write the lease to make it morespecific and detailed, spelling out the provisions to explain why they existed as they did. There were several unanswered questions that needed clarifying, he said.
"This (agreement) will be recorded in the town clerk's office, so when somebody picks this up they should have enough context in the lease to understand why we gave the community food cupboard a $100 per month lease," he said.