BRATTLEBORO >> Town Meeting Representatives approved of the town's fiscal year 2017 budget but did not forget the community's poorer populations.
"I don't think our town budget is really the main driver of income disparity nationally or locally. We have a very responsible budget here. The system has worked. We passed this initiative in 2013. It went back to the people at that point and we moved forward with a more conservative option," said Andrew Davis, Town Meeting member of District 3, referring to a referendum in which the budget was rejected and in it contained plans for police and fire facility upgrades. "Let's pass this budget."
The subject of the increased municipal property tax rate mostly had to do with the Select Board adding to a debt service line item. This was done after Town Meeting Representatives approved of moving the police station up to Black Mountain Road at a special meeting on March 12. The fiscal year 2017 general fund budget now includes an overall 3.32 cent increase on property tax rates. That increase is felt for every $100 worth of assessed property, meaning owners of a $200,000 house would see their tax bill go up by about $75 from last year.
Originally, the budget was calling for a 1.82 cent increase. But approval of police relocation to the Reformer building bumped the number up another 1.5 cents to account for the first year of debt service for new borrowing. Funds taken out previously would be applied to fire facilities downtown and West Brattleboro. And the newspaper would remain as a tenant in the building under a deal. Altogether, the project is expected to come in at about $12.8 million.
At annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, Town Manager Peter Elwell said a state program caps the amount of property taxes paid by people making up to $47,000 annually with homes in town registered as homestead properties. Also, he pointed out that many residents are renting property in Brattleboro.
"At the very lowest levels of income, there's absolute protection," he added.
Town Meeting member Eric Schmitt, of District 1, said 62 percent of the elementary school kids in Brattleboro schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, meaning they are either at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. His takeaway: more than a majority of the students' parents make less than $30,000 a year.
"As someone who came from that world into now being able to afford things and not just make do, my impression is people who have never been in that place have no clue what it's like. They have no clue, 'Do I fix this? Do I go without? Do I replace it?'" Schmitt said. "This body (Town Meeting members), to me, obviously represents the higher-income portion of town overly much and is under representative of the lower-income portion of town."
An amendment shot down but proposed by Town Meeting member Kurt Daims, of District 2, would have reduced the budget by $176,906. He was the only member standing when the motion went to a vote. He called plans for police-fire projects "obsolete."
Another motion by Daims was defeated when he asked fellow Town Meeting members to consider upping the yearly salaries of Select Board members to $20,000 with the chair to receive $25,000. That would be quite a jump, given the amount ultimately approved was $3,000 for regular members and $5,000 for the chair.
Some Town Meeting members believe having a more "professionalized" board would be a good move and it could help provide opportunities to those who want to participate in local governance but cannot due to the stipend not being enough to cover day care and other costs that come with long meeting hours plus all the behind-the-scenes stuff.
The amount of time required for the job depends on the projects on the board's table, according to Select Board member David Schoales. Approximately four or five hours could be spent sifting through the reading materials before a meeting.
"This year, we pretty much moved in together," Schoales said. "We could share day care if our children were younger."
The issue, said Town Meeting member Spoon Agave, of District 3, "speaks to the level or quality of leadership that we need from here forward." He added, "I don't believe that a few hours a week is enough for the kind of leadership that we now need."
Before delving into the articles, Town Meeting member Dave Manning, of District 3, made a motion to have the Select Board and School Board members sit with the Town Meeting body rather than up on a stage behind a table with administrators and other officials. Daims agreed, saying the arrangement gave board members "undue authority over the rest of us."
The idea was voted down for logistical reasons including the meeting being filmed on Brattleboro Community Television and how many of the questions would be directed to board members. Also cited was tradition.
A $15,987,622 budget was approved for the Brattleboro Town School District.
"It's an extraordinary year in that we could put money aside into a reserve fund and still decrease taxes. And the reason for this? We kind of looked it as a blip. We don't expect that to happen again," said Jill Stahl Tyler, chairwoman of the school board. "There's a change in the calculated value of equalized pupil numbers. Equalized pupils is an odd sort of an idea that we count some children more than others and equalize them out."
Salary levels for Brattleboro Town School Board members were increased to meet those of the Select Board. Previously, school directors received $2,000 while the chair would get $3,000. The motion came after Town Meeting members witnessed a School Board meeting.
"The work is the same now," said Schoales, bringing up the Legislature's passage of the education law Act 46 when called upon to compare as he is a member of both boards. "It's been an astonishing year or two."
A meeting on Act 46 will be held at Academy School on April 6 at 6 p.m. The law is aimed at consolidating districts to address a declining student population, growing property tax rates and inequities among students. A study committee within the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union is currently taking on the legislation, which calls for new districts to be formed by 2019.
Before approving a $25,000 contribution to Southeastern Economic Development Strategies from the town's program income fund, which holds Vermont Community Development Block Grant money paid back to the town after being loaned out for local projects, there was discussion on Brattleboro's portion going to the regional group. Other Windham County towns committed $3 for every resident and Brattleboro helped pave the way for SeVEDS, providing a $25,000 grant up front then another $25,000 contingent on other towns matching the first grant. The effort had been deemed successful.
But this year, the Select Board decided to dedicate $2 for every resident.
"There are countervailing issues that impact the town of Brattleboro's financing that at least led me to vote at $2-a-head financing," said David Gartenstein, Select Board chairman. "The state of Vermont does not provide regional economic hubs with mechanisms to raise revenue in a way that allows us to defray our expenses such that real estate taxes are not disproportionately high. So we have to support, through our real estate taxes, the economic activities for the entire region which is concentrated here in Brattleboro."
A resolution to recognize Indigenous People Day in place of Columbus Day was approved before the meeting ended.
Articles involving appointments and elections were adopted, with vacancies on the Capital Grant Review Board and Town Finance Committee filled. Passed were municipal tax exemptions for the Brattleboro Post 5 Little League, Camp Waubonong, Bradley House, Holton Home, The Family Garden and Rescue Inc.
The proposed $78,000 coming from special assessments on properties within the Downtown Improvement District for capital and operating costs was approved with no discussion. And the proposed $223,276 to be raised through special assessments on properties within the Mountain Home Park Special Benefit Assessment Tax District was met with approval in order to pay debt service on water and sewer improvements in the Mountain Home and Deepwood mobile home parks.
An amount not to exceed $10,000 will go towards assisting Brattleboro Climate Protection, a group working closely with the town's Energy Committee. A total of $120,000 will support human service programs such as Aids Project of Southern Vermont, American Red Cross, Boys & Girls Club, Brattleboro Area Adult Day Care at The Gathering Place, Brattleboro Area Hospice, Brattleboro Senior Meals, Family Garden, Green Mountain RSVP, Groundworks Collaborative, KidsPLAYce, Meeting Waters at the YMCA, Senior Solutions, Southeastern Vermont Community Action, Visiting Nurse and Hospice of Vermont and New Hampshire, Windham Child Care Association, Windham County Safe Place Child Advocacy Center and Southeastern Unit for Special Investigations, WSESU's Summer Food Program and Youth Services' Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Also approved were municipal articles allowing for the mechanical tabulation of ballots from citizens who use early voting and the Select Board to borrow money in anticipation of taxes, grants and other revenue. School articles to authorize school directors to borrow money in anticipation of taxes, and accept and expend categorical grants and aid passed too.
Contact Chris Mays at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 273.