BRATTLEBORO -- For the second time in as many years Town Meeting Representatives have rejected a local option tax that would have helped raise revenues to offset the rising tax rate.
At Representative Town Meeting Saturday the members overwhelmingly defeated a warning article that would have established a 1 percent tax on some retail goods.
The question was defeated on a voice vote.
Town Meeting Representatives rejected the same question in October 2012 at a special town meeting when the $14.1 million police-fire station renovation project was approved.
Town Meeting Representatives debated the issue Saturday for about 90 minutes.
Stan Borofsky, co-owner of Sam's Outdoors Outfitters, said the tax had already been discussed.
He said downtown business owners were working hard to stay afloat, and the new tax would make it only harder. Large retailers have been moving to Keene, N.H., because New Hampshire has no sales tax, Borofsky said.
He said he supported the police-fire renovation, but argued against using the new tax.
"This is a very big deal for us at Sam's," Borofsky said. "An additional tax is just another nail in the coffin for our business owners. The biggest threat is the loss of businesses in downtown."
Additional Town Meeting members spoke, and almost all of them said they rejected the idea of instituting a local option tax.
But Eli Gould made arguments in favor of the tax.
"We need to consider this local option tax," he said. "We as a body have put out major mandates and now we have to look at every possible source of funding. If we made a choice to spend we need to look at every possible choice to raise funds."
Selectboard member David Schoales said it was a tough choice, but he said higher property taxes would be more damaging than an additional 1 percent sales tax, and he said he was in favor of the new tax.
Town Meeting member Steve Phillips said the tax would hurt business and that the Selectboard had to control its spending.
"Our high taxes are not a result of not enough tax revenue," Phillips said. "Our high taxes are a result of too much spending."
And Town Meeting member Bob Tortolani said while his neighbors were concerned about the rising tax rate, they also supported downtown businesses and he said he was opposed to the new tax.
Paula Melton, who said she was torn over the decision, reminded the Town Meeting members that the townwide vote did support the new tax.
Voters on Town Meeting Day approved a nonbinding resolution in favor of the new tax.
After a long debate the tax was turned down.
The town had a pretty good turn out Saturday, with 143 of the 153 Town Meeting Representatives attending the annual meeting, which ran for more than 10 hours.
Budget and police-fire project
The $16 million General Fund Budget was approved, but only after a lengthy discussion on the renovation projects at the police and fire stations.
Town Meeting Representative Spoon Agave made a motion to reduce the budget by $600,000, the amount he said that the police-fire renovation was going to cost the town this year if both bonds were taken out.
Judy Davidson then made a motion to reduce the budget by $261,473, which Davidson said was the amount of money the town would spend on the second, $9 million bond, which has not yet been taken out.
"The people in town want to slow this project down," Davidson said. "If we do this it would send a clear message to the Selectboard that we don't want this project to go ahead as a $14 million project. We want to slow it down and do it one piece at a time. The town can't afford to do this in one lump sum."
The motions to reduce the budget in order to slow down the police-fire project set off a discussion that lasted almost two hours.
George Reed-Savory said the project was more expensive than it needed to be. He said he has been speaking with constituents who are concerned with how much the project is going to cost.
"The people I talk to are demanding it," Reed-Savory said about lowering the price of the project. "The people I talk to are very dissatisfied in what we are doing at this point.
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said the project was still necessary, and he said it would be difficult to halt the project with a number of contracts already in place.
Many of the members of the Police-Fire Oversight Committee said they have been working to reduce the cost.
"It's never going to be easy. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow to get us out of this tough situation we have found ourselves in this beautiful town," said Prudence Mackinney, a member of the oversight committee. "If we want to build what we need for these very important functions we have to go forward with this."
Ultimately the proposed reductions were rejected, but the debate continued on the town's budget and tax rate.
Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said the board did what it could to keep costs down, but any additional cuts, he said, would lead to staff reductions.
After another 30 minutes of discussion the proposed FY 2015 budget was approved as presented.
Town Meeting Representatives decided to use a portion of the money in the Agricultural Land Protection Fund for non-agricultural use.
The Selectboard asked Town Meeting Representatives to consider using all of the money in the Agricultural Land Protection Fund to start an Energy Efficiency Fund, as well as to help defray taxes.
The Selectboard originally wanted to use the principal and interest, about $95,000, in the Agricultural Land Protection Fund for the alternative uses.
But the Agricultural Advisory Committee recommended that the money remain in the fund.
Selectboard member David Schoales amended the original article, asking town meeting members to approve using only $45,000 for an energy efficiency fund, while retaining $50,000 to help farmers.
Town Meting Reps approved the Schoales amendment.
The Selectboard wants to start an Energy Efficiency Fund to conduct a thorough energy audit of the town-owned buildings.
Gartenstein argued that there were other avenues for farmers to access funds, while Town Meeting Representative Steve Phillips said it was important for the town to take a long-range view on protecting farm land, and Phillips said he wanted to retain the full $94,000 in the fund
The Agricultural Loan Fund was only used twice in 30 years.
Caitlin Burlett, a member of the Agricultural Advisory Committee, stressed the importance of keeping the money available to farmers, while Energy Committee member Ralph Meima said the committee supported the move to start an Energy Efficiency Fund to begin audits on the town-owned buildings.
Many Town Meeting Representatives said they wanted to support both farming and energy efficiency, and wanted to try to find the funding to support both initiatives.
In the end the $50,000 was kept in the Land Protection Fund to help farmers if they want to access the funds.
The Brattleboro Town School District's $15.3 million budget was unanimously approved.
The budget was up only $75,000, less than 1 percent, and the budget passed with very little discussion.
Town Meeting Representatives gave the school board approval to borrow up to $52,000 through a no-interest loan to do lighting efficiency upgrades in the town's three elementary schools.
Projected savings are expected to be about $5,500 a year, more than what the town will have to pay back on the loan, school administrators said.
And the school district will take out a five-year bond for up to $375,000 to pay for a wood pellet boiler at Academy School after Town Meeting Reps approved the expenditure.
Spending town surplus funds
An article that sought to move $200,000 from the unassigned fund balance toward this year's expenses was defeated.
Selectboard member John Allen said he wanted to move some of the money from the unassigned balance to help taxpayers this year.
The move would have reduced the town's unassigned fund balance to about 8 percent of the town's spending, under the 10 percent that Finance Director John O'Connor recommends the town should retain.
Allen said the board has been asking a lot of department heads and there was enough money in the fund balance to help defray taxes this year, but Town Meeting Representatives defeated the question.
And he also made the argument that the town could end up with a surplus this year, which would add some to the unassigned fund balance.
"I still feel it is a good amount, the taxpayers need it, and it is a good time to do it," Allen said.
But Town Meeting Reps were not willing to reduce the surplus fund by so much.
"It's better to have it and not need it than to not have it and need it later," Alex Muller said.
The other Selectboard members were mixed in their support, and many Town Meeting Representatives who spoke said it was not a good time to spend down the money with more challenging fiscal times still on the horizon.
A separate article seeking to use some of the money assigned last year to fix the Nelson Withington Skating Rink toward taxes this year was approved. The skating rink upgrades came in much lower than originally anticipated.
The Selectboard's requests to spend $92,371 from the unassigned fund balance on repairs to Elm Street, and another $57,500 from the unassigned balance for upgrades to the emergency response radio system were also both approved.
WTSA New Director Tim Johnson was honored by the Vermont Legislature for his 40 years of service. State Rep. Mollie Burke read a House Resolution recognizing Johnson's career.
Representative Town Meeting members approved spending $10,000 to help fund Brattleboro Climate Protection, and another $110,000 to support 28 human service programs.
Human service spending was reduced from the current year's level of $152,000. The Selectboard asked the Human Services Committee to reduce this year's expenditure to help soften the impact on taxpayers.
An article to exempt American Legion Little League Field from its municipal portion of taxes for three years was approved by Town Meeting Representatives.
Annette Cappy was unanimously appointed to continue serving as the town and town school clerk.
John O'Connor was elected as the town and town school treasurer, and Fisher & Fisher Law Offices was retained as the town's attorney.
George Herzog and Lissa Weinmann were elected to serve on the Capital Grant Review Board, a committee that oversees grant applications the town makes.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.