On March 22, Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting defeated the 1 percent optional sales tax and approved the FY15 budget, which includes the first interest payment on the second police/fire facilities bond. So, what happens next?
First let’s state the obvious: Brattleboro is in a bind. It took many of us to get it there, myself included. We initially approved the police/fire facilities project and then rejected cutting the overall budget enough to scale it back. Meanwhile, we defeated the 1 percent sales tax multiple times.
I and many others stand by our sales tax votes. I and many others definitely believe that our police and fire department facilities need to be upgraded. The decisions we’ve made, however, mean we are staring at imminent major property tax increases, which is not good for homeowners, renters, commercial property owners and business owners. Nor for growing our grand list, which may be the only longer range way we have out of this situation.
I believe that the Selectboard has been frugal in crafting the new operational budget. I do support the board’s new approach of having department heads come before it to justify the filling of any new vacancies. I think it is true that any substantial paring would now mean reduced services, including reduced library and recreation services as well as for fire, police and public works.
In my opinion the Selectboard should now give the Police/Fire Facilities Building Committee a new charge, a more flexible charge. We know what the key health and safety and vehicle garaging needs are. Instead of asking the committee, however, to oversee a process to necessarily upgrade the central fire station in place and upgrade the police station in place and upgrade the West Brattleboro fire station in place, they should be given more leeway to look at other possibilities for how all the critical needs can be met.
The thought of buying and retrofitting a commercial building instead of adding on to an existing station was mentioned to me during a late break at the Representative Town Meeting. Would that work? Would that save money while still meeting the key objectives?
The Selectboard did ask the Police/Fire Committee to look into such possibilities. The consultants studied this but could not find any good candidate buildings. Did they have enough time to do a thorough investigation? If a pause were put on at least part of the overall project, would that enable a more in depth look? Would a new building come on the market which might fit the bill?
A fire department has very specific space needs, most especially because of the large size of its engines. Maybe there is no cost effective way to answer that for our biggest equipment except by adding on to the current central station. A police department, however, with its very mobile police force that spends much of its time on the road, may not have as many such constraints. Yes, we need a real secure entry way (sally port) for bringing in prisoners, both for the benefit of our officers and those being detained. Yes, we need better holding cells. Yes, we need a storage area that does not have mold.
Is there an existing building in town in good condition that might be purchased for $1 million or $2 million? If we could purchase one for about that and spend money to add a sally port and holding cells, can we have a new police facility for about $2 million or $3 million instead of $5.5 million?
Such a solution might not be the ideal vision the police department has been wanting. Can we afford the ideal, however, if there is a solution out there that does in fact solve many of the current needs and also will serve us well for many years? If a candidate building were available but was not downtown, we could still choose to leave a satellite office in the Municipal Center. Or, maybe dispatch services could remain there.
Purchasing a commercial building from a for-profit company will take it off the tax rolls, which would not be helpful. What if, however, it is more space than the Police Department needs? Can we subdivide or condo-ize and lease or sell the remainder to private businesses? Or to the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation so that they have some office incubator space? If the savings in buying instead of building new were large enough, it would make up for many years of lost property taxes from that real estate and also buy us time until some of our other bonds are paid off, thus smoothing out our tax rate over time.
I don’t know whether this idea of buying instead of building new will stand up to close scrutiny. I do strongly feel, however, that a new charge from the Selectboard to the police/fire committee can set free some of this out of the box thinking. And a less expensive but still quality solution may come of it.
Regarding the West Brattleboro fire station, I have heard arguments both ways about whether it is needed. Some say no, let’s just have one station (like many Vermont towns our size do). Others say we can get a lot of value for our buck out of a new small station in West B. The latter is partly because it can play a critical role in future storms like Irene and partly because it is closer to the farthest reaches of our town. (In the interests of full disclosure, I am the President of the West Brattleboro Association board, though our board has never voted any official position on this project.)
Can the Selectboard initiate an effort to take a new look at things? Yes, town meeting voted in favor of a $14.1 million bond to do this project. At the same time, however, it did not direct anyone to spend all of it, or how quickly to spend it. If substantially less can be spent while still meeting the main project objectives, this can head off some of the property tax increases.
Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein has long made it clear that he did not support the police/fire station project without new revenues to pay for it, with the 1 percent optional sales tax specifically in mind. Selectboard member John Allen has been the one most adamantly pushing for lower property taxes. Selectboard member David Schoales wanted to see the 1 percent tax pass to help pay for the project. Why shouldn’t the Selectboard now want to encourage a new approach?
Meanwhile, a critical decision coming up is whether to take out the second bond for the police/fire project, and for how much. An application for this would be due to the Bond Bank by May 15. Once signing on to another bond, the die is cast for the next 15 or 20 years.
I believe we are not so far into project contracts where we would have wasted a lot of money if we take some time out at this point. While it is true that if we wait we will see higher interest rates, if we can save enough then we can offset those.
I am personally in favor of a second bond well short of $9 million. Enough in conjunction with the first bond, for example, to upgrade the central fire station for maybe as much as the projected $7 million. Upgrading the police facilities next to the Municipal Center, however, should be put off until the possibilities for purchasing a building are fully investigated. Building a new West B fire station at this time would need to be strongly justified as well.
It is definitely not an easy time to be a Selectboard member. It is definitely not an easy time to be a Town Meeting representative. Most especially, it is a challenging time to be a home owner or renter or commercial property owner or business owner. We like our firemen and policemen and other town staff. We like the services we get. We would like to keep affording them for many, many years.
Michael Bosworth is a Town Meeting Representative from District 1 and for the past three years has been a member of the Town Meeting Finance Committee. He is currently the board president of the West Brattleboro Association.