BRATTLEBORO - In a split vote at a special town meeting Saturday, Brattleboro Town Meeting Representatives approved a $14 million renovation plan for the police and fire stations, but rejected a proposed 1 percent sales tax that could have paid for about 60 percent of the bond.
Town Meeting Reps debated both issues throughout the almost five hour meeting, which was held at Academy School.
The police-fire project was approved by a 99-34 vote, which was held by secret ballot.
The local option tax, which would have added an extra 1 percent on to the state's 6 percent sales tax for many retail goods, was overwhelmingly defeated. The local option tax was voted down by voice vote, and without a count, because so many Town Meeting reps stood up in opposition to the tax.
Only a handful of the representatives supported the tax.
Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray said after the meeting that he was surprised by the lopsided vote.
"I think the Brattleboro taxpayers lost the most today," he said. "Support it or not, this is a tax relief issue for everyone and the town could use the extra $660,000."
DeGray said he wants the entire town to vote on adding a 1 percent tax.
"This issue is not going away," he said. "I think this should come up again and I think the whole town should be able to vote on it."
After the meeting Brattleboro Bicycle Shop co-owner Barbara Walsh said she was glad the Town Meeting
"I was nervous when this started, but I think the Town Meeting Representatives care about the business owners and support our downtown," she said. "They seemed to see what this could do to our businesses."
And Sam's Outdoors Outfitters co-owner Stanley "Pal" Borofsky said the reps had a tough decision to make. He understands the need for the police and fire upgrades, but as a property owner he also appreciates the affect the project will have on property taxes.
"Everyone feels the pressure, but people have to understand what the erosion of business does to the whole town," he said. "It's a tough issue and I am sympathetic but I am glad the vote went the way it did."
When the Selectboard was debating the police-fire renovations and the local option tax over the past few months, the board grappled with how the discussions would play out during the meeting and how town meeting reps would vote on the two separate issues.
Selectboard member David Gartenstein said Saturday it was important for both issues to be talked about at the same time, even though Town Meeting rules only allow the body to discuss the issue that is on the floor
Town Meeting moderator Tim O'Connor tried to direct the conversation, and the representatives did stray back and forth between discussing the renovations and the tax.
"Even a moderator has a problem keeping order and keeping everybody happy," O'Connor said.
Ultimately the Town Meeting Reps voted to suspend the rules and allow both discussions to take place at the same time. Once the question on the proposed tax was brought up, opponents made a strong case against the tax.
Borofsky said the state's sales tax has crept up from 3 percent in 1984 to 6 percent today. He said boat sales in his Keene, N.H., and Hadley, Mass., stores far outpace those in Brattleboro.
He also said small, locally-owned stores are struggling against sprawl, and a new 1 percent tax will make it harder to survive. For every store that closes, Borofsky said, jobs are lost and shoppers have one less reason to stop in Brattleboro.
He said he supported the bond issue, but he asked the Town Meeting reps not to support the new tax.
Don Webster tried to separate the two issues, arguing that if the need was in fact there for the renovations, then it was important to support the project, regardless of how it was paid for.
Many Town Meeting Reps stood up to say they were undecided, and to comment on how difficult it was to choose a side on both of the questions.
Back and forth it went, for more than five hours, as shop owners argued against the tax and Selectboard members tried to explain that the tax was the only way to pay for it.
In the end both questions were decided by large majorities.
After Town Clerk Annette Cappy read the results of the police-fire vote, staff members of the police and fire departments cheered.
Town Manager Barbara Sondag said the Selectboard members will have a lot of work ahead of them as they refine the details and begin to make decisions on plan.
She said it is hard to know when construction will start, but hopes some of the work will be under way by next spring.
Sondag also said she was surprised by how little support there was for the 1 percent tax, but said she was looking forward to moving on and helping advance the police-fire plan.
"I was surprised how overwhelmingly the tax was defeated but I respect the decision of this body," she said. "They did understand the need for these renovations and no one wanted to put them off. Now we have to start discussing it and figure out our next step."