BRATTLEBORO -- Town Meeting Representatives took care of the town's business Saturday during a marathon 13-hour meeting in the Brattleboro Union High School gym.
Between the start of the meeting at 8:30 a.m., and when it adjourned just before 10 p.m., representatives debated the school and town budgets, approved a number of spending articles and also held a long discussion on the upcoming police-fire renovation project.
The Selectboard's proposed $14.6 million budget was approved, but only after town meeting reps took another look at the upcoming $14 million renovations of the town's police and fire facilities. A motion was made to remove $335,962 from the budget, which is the amount for the first interest payment on the police-fire project. That motion was defeated by a 74-44 vote after representatives spent more than two hours discussing the issue.
The reps had approved the police-fire project in October, but at the same meeting turned down a proposal to enact a 1 percent option sales tax.
Now, with the tax rate set to jump by 10 cents as payments on the bond come due, some town meeting reps were trying to figure out if the project is still feasible.
Town meeting members can not direct the Selectboard on how to spend money, but board member David Gartenstein said he would have taken the budget reduction as an indication that the town should not go ahead with the renovations.
"There's not enough money to pay for this," Town Meeting Representative Steve Phillips said.
A number of town meeting reps stood to say that while they supported the project in October, they were struggling to find a way to possibly put the brakes on the renovations now.
Town Meeting Representative Marshall Wheelock said changes in the national economy have caused him to rethink his original vote to support the police-fire project.
"We are looking for a way to moderate the impact this project will have on us for the next few years," Wheelock said.
The proposed $14.6 million budget is up 1.9 percent.
"It was not an easy budget to put together, but none of them are," said Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray. "It is a responsible budget that provides the services the town has come to expect."
The discussion to find the funds to support the Robert H. Gibson River Garden came up while Building a Better Brattleboro was asking town meeting reps for its annual budget. BABB was seeking $78,000 for its 2014 budget, but that request did not include the money needed to keep the River Garden open.
Town Meeting Rep Robert Oeser wanted to raise another $20,000 from the property owners in the downtown district to keep the River Garden open and controlled by BABB for another year.
Oeser and DeGray debated the public's investment in the River Garden and also disagreed on whether it was appropriate to discuss the issue at Town Meeting.
Town attorney Bob Fisher said he thought Oeser's request was not germane to the BABB budget article.
"The town has no authority to tell the organization what to do with its assets," Fisher said.
Fisher also said the decision by the town meeting reps to fund BABB for the year does not allow the representatives to alter the budget, which has already been approved by the Selectboard.
DeGray did not want the River Garden discussion to take place during the BABB budget request
Ultimately town meeting reps agreed with DeGray and they voted to stop discussions on the River Garden amendment.
BABB's budget request for $78,000 was approved.
A request to fund upgrades to the Nelson Withington Skating Facility was also approved by town meeting representatives.
Town meeting reps agreed to spend up to $362,000 to upgrade equipment at the rink, with the understanding that Parks and Recreation Director Carol Lolatte would work with the Selectboard while purchasing the equipment.
The Selectboard had to amend the amount of money to fix the equipment at the skating rink after Lolatte found out more information about the equipment.
Selectboard members Gartenstein and Dora Bouboulis both said they could not support Lolatte's request because they did not have enough time to go over the proposal.
Lolatte originally was going to ask for $172,000 and then found out different equipment was necessary to upgrade the rink equipment.
The town will finance the $362,000 over 20 years.
The Selectboard's request to use $765,000 from the unassigned fund balance to pay for capital projects in 2014 was also approved. The money will be used to pay for improvements and purchases in all town departments.
And the representatives voted to raise $223,276 through special assessments on property within the Mountain Home Park Special Benefit Assessment Tax District to pay for capital improvements to the water and sewer lines in the Mountain Home and Deepwood Mobile Home Parks.
Just more than $131,000 was approved to support social service agencies in the region that serve the people in Brattleboro. That amount was level funded this year.
Brattleboro Climate Protection will receive $10,000 next year to continue its work reducing the town's energy use, and town meeting reps approved the formation of a Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, district to let property owners fund home energy projects through special assessments on their buildings.
The school district's $15.3 million budget passed, but only after almost five hours of debate and proposed amendments.
The school budget was up 3.9 percent over the current year.
High taxes, the needs of low income residents and the growing responsibilities of public schools was debated all morning.
A motion was made to reduce the budget by 1.49 percent, as recommended by the Town Meeting Finance Committee.
Billie Stark and Ronnie Johnson, both of whom served on school boards in the past, said they were considering supporting the cuts, saying that while it was important to support education, Brattleboro taxpayers were facing too many increases.
"Our taxpayers can't afford it this year," Stark said. "Somewhere in there has to be room for us to get by."
Don Webster, however, pointed out that the Brattleboro increase was lower than the state average and the town meeting reps should support the work the school board completed to arrive at the proposed budget, he said.
A proposal to reduce the budget by 1.49 percent was rejected by a 67-62 vote.
Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley said the proposed cuts would have to come out of the enrichment programs in the schools, including foreign language, art and music.
In a separate vote, just more than $76,000 was taken out of the school district's fund balance to help pay for capital projects.
Town meeting reps also approved $275,000 for improvements to Academy and Oak Grove schools. The money will be used to replace floors in Academy School and make upgrades to the kitchen and parking lot. At Oak Grove the funds will be used to improve the heating distribution system.
The money will be borrowed for up to five years.
A motion to add $1,200 to the school budget so school board meetings could be televised was defeated by town meeting reps, though school board Chairwoman Margaret Atkinson promised to find the money to get the meetings televised.
DeGray, Bouboulis and Chris Chapman, all of whom are leaving the Selectboard, were recognized for their years of service.
New Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe opened the meeting by recognizing former Town Moderator Tim O'Connor for his 22 years of service, saying O'Connor "Set a tone of respect, impartiality and common sense in the true spirit of Democracy."
O'Connor, for the first time in more than two decades, took part in the annual Representative Town Meeting from the floor.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow him on Twitter @HowardReformer.