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)
Saturday December 8, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- The Selectboard, Town Manager Barbara Sondag and the town's department heads, battled through a detailed, and sometimes tense, four hour meeting Saturday morning to try to reduce the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget.

The board was facing a more than $700,000 gap between the 2013 budget and the proposed 2014 one, and with little will to ask more of Brattleboro taxpayers next year Sondag and the board slashed away at the budget all morning to try to stave off a steep tax increase.

Board Chairman Dick DeGray said he wanted to finish the work Saturday, but after Sondag introduced an 11th hour plan to take some accumulated money out of the capital plan budget to pay for expenses this year, the board asked for more time to try to understand the implications of Sondag's proposal.

"At some time we have to make some damn decisions about what the hell we are doing," a frustrated DeGray said at the end of the four-hour session.

In the end the board nipped away at more than 20 line items and was able to reduce the budget by about $15,000.

That still left about $356,000 to cover, and that was without considering the $325,000 interest payment for the police-fire renovation.

Even though the board was unable to finish its work it was clear that there were not likely to be too many other cuts this year and the budget was most likely going to increase by between $350,00 and $700,000.

Now the board just has to figure out how to pay for the services.

Sondag's plan includes taking money out of the capital budget.

The money in that account comes from years of accumulated projects that came in under budget.

It is mostly money that has already been borrowed, and the move would require approval from town meeting representatives.

Some of the board members said the move was a "sleight of hand," and would only put off some hard decisions one more year while the board uses borrowed money, which will eventually have to be paid back, to fund this year's expenses.

Finance Director John O'Connor said he was going to do some analysis to see which plan would cost more in the short, and long, run.

Sondag met with the department heads after last Monday's budget session and recommended additional reductions to bring the budget down.

She said her cuts came mostly by making small adjustments across the board and not by cutting any staff or services.

Any furthers cuts, she said, would come at the expense of services or staff.

But at the same time Sondag said that every single cut will be felt at some level and will affect the work done by the town's staff in 2014.

"These cuts will change how we do our business day to day," she said. "They do have implications."

The board did not seem willing to go further and make staffing or service cuts, though that option remained on the table.

DeGray offered a number of recommendations of his own last week, but Sondag added some of those back in after meeting with department heads, while offering other cuts to bring the budget down.

Sondag questioned whether the board backed DeGray up on all the cuts because no votes were taken.

She said it was frustrating to be asked to adopt the proposed cuts from the board without a vote.

DeGray was likely frustrated that Sondag did not include the cuts from the previous meeting and the board had to go over all of the previous cuts once more, line by line.

There were some big increases that the board could not avoid.

Health insurance will jump by $105,000, an approximately 18 percent jump from this year.

The board went through the budget, almost line by line, and voted on each proposed cut and addition.

And while the board did take some funding proposals out of the budget, others were kept in.

The board agreed to find the funds to support an ASL interpreter for the board meetings, at the annual cost of $12,000.

The Planning Department also got its $30,000 for consultation services associated with the projected costs of rewriting the zoning regulations.

The board discussed reducing Selectboard salaries, but DeGray said it should be up to the next board should decide on the salary.

Selectboard member Chris Chapman wanted to get rid of a proposed $6,000 Selectboard salary increase, but the rest of the board voted to keep the increase.

Sondag wanted additional money for a GIS mapping system that she said would help the town in the long run, but the board slashed $1,000 from that fund.

The discussions got a little testy when the board wanted to add $5,000 to support the NEA arts grant, right after the board cut the GIS funding.

Sondag said that while the arts grant was important she could not support making a cut to a vital program while supporting the art grant.

Sondag and Parks and Recreation Director recommended that non-residential adults pay an extra $5 next year which Sondag said would bring in an extra estimated $2,000.

Sondag also said that the town is just starting to use a new database in the rec department which will give the town more accurate numbers in the future,

Board member David Gartenstein said he wanted to know if the town was subsidizing non resident services and said he hoped the board would have more information next year to make that decision.

Board member Chris Chapman said he could not support cuts that affect "the most vulnerable" in town, while fellow board member Ken Schneck said a steep tax hike would likely affect the most vulnerable, as well, and possibly more so.

The board has until the end of January to finalize the 2014 budget.

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