Main Street in Brattleboro seen from the top of the Brooks House building. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Main Street in Brattleboro seen from the top of the Brooks House building. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)
Monday December 3, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- With a self-proclaimed deadline of this Saturday looming to finish off the fiscal year 2014 budget, the Selectboard met with department heads Monday morning to get a final report on their proposed spending plans.

And while the board suggested a series of $200 and $500 cuts to line items, some big decisions remain as the board tries to close up a $785,000 gap to reduce the burden on taxpayers

"We all know where we need to be," DeGray told the department heads. "The issue is, how are we going to get there?"

The board is starting the budget process this year about $320,000 in the hole as the first interest payment on the approved $14 million police-fire project will be due in fiscal year 2014.

After Monday morning's meeting the board was still looking at an estimated $456,000 gap in the capital plan and general fund budget, even without considering the police-fire bond.

DeGray said that at this Saturday's session, Town Manager Barbara Sondag is going to have to come up with some significant reduction proposals to bring the budget down even more.

Even when it is all said and done, DeGray said, Brattleboro property owners are going to be looking at an increase next year.

The police fire bond, coupled with projected increases to insurance, fuel, electricity and salaries are likely to drive the tax rate up by at least three or four cents, even before the budget reductions are considered.

Sondag also gave the board some mixed news at the meeting.

Health insurance will be going up 18 percent, though she said that is a reduction from the 23 percent estimate she was projecting.

And, due to an increase in workers compensation claims, Brattleboro's Workers Compensation and Liability Insurance is projected to jump by almost $38,000 above Sondag's prior budget proposal

The board has already slashed the capital plan by more than $80,000 by deciding to put off maintenance work to the municipal building and replacing the skating rink boiler.

But the board is still looking for big ticket items to reduce, and Public Works Director Stephen Barrett was asked what he would be able to accomplish if his paving budget was reduced.

Barrett said even with his original budget of $400,000 for paving the town was going to have a hard time keeping up with its schedule.

The town has about 54 miles of paved roadways to maintain and with $400,000, less than 4 percent of the roads would be improved.

Barrett said the town is currently paving roads that have not been treated since the 1970s, and cuts would set that back even more.

At the meeting Monday morning the board heard from a number of department heads, and the board members made it clear that they were going to have to make some tough decisions this year.

Brooks Memorial Library Director Jerry Carbone said a recent patron survey found that there was a call to extend Saturday hours, and he asked the board to consider keeping the library open until 5 p.m. on Saturday.

The last round of cuts reduced Saturday hours to 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

At least three of the five board members said they would have to reject Carbone's new proposal.

Departments will also be looking to increase their revenues where they can to stave off a tax increase.

Recreation and Parks Director Carol Lolatte said some fees will go up next year.

As each department head spoke DeGray nibbled away at their proposals, cutting postage, training and office supplies.

At the end of Monday's meeting about $20,000 was shaved off the budget.

But DeGray made it clear that the real work lies ahead as Sondag, the department heads and the board try to prevent a steep tax hike next year

"We still have to come up with $400,000 and nobody will be spared," DeGray said. "We are not going to get to where we need to be by making minor reductions. It's hard every year, and it is hard again this year. This has not been fun."

The board is scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8, when DeGray says he hopes to finalize the budget.

Town meeting representatives will be asked to approve it at the March 2013 town meeting.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or hwtisman@reformer.com.