The Selectboard is having a more difficult time than ever this year with the budget. Assuming that it will follow through with the additional $9 million bond for the police/fire project, it must reduce the level of service from last year by a value of about $650,000 just to keep the municipal tax from rising more than nine cents. The school levy is still to be added. The municipal problem is eased by the good fortune that the skating rink was patched together with a much smaller amount of money and the $292,000 that was not spent can now be used to maintain more critical services. (The Selectboard is meeting on the budget as I write but little is expected to change).
I have attended two of the budget meetings. I am not going to gush over what a great job they are doing. Time is running out, their backs are to the wall and the only option in their toolbox is to cut and cut more. There is no opportunity left for more creative solutions. This is the normal state of affairs in late December of every year. Yet this year there is a glimmer of hope. This is the first year in memory that the board is firing on all five cylinders or at least close to it. Yes, it is a problem that they have almost no experience in this job. It is a problem that they are lacking knowledge about finances, let alone local economics. It is a problem that they have no training for and limited practice in functioning as a collective team. Yet there are some fundamental differences this year that are refreshing to see and important to acknowledge.
Foremost is that the board is functioning at a higher level than I have ever observed. Primarily this can be attributed to a style of chairing that is more moderate, subdued and less imposing. This has allowed for and encouraged a much higher level of contribution from the remainder of the group. When board members function more as peers than independent competitors the quality of engagement deepens and potential is realized.
The quality of the work of the entire board has improved. This is evident in two critical areas. The first is that, at last, we have a board that is beginning to recognize that balancing the budget is a patch, not a cure. They are noticing that the leaks in the roof have been growing every year and patching the biggest one yet this year is not likely to prevent an even larger one next year.
Yes, the board knows it can slice off another layer of important social services to balance the budget. (Among the most painful on a long list, is a proposed increase in the cost of the summer day camp which burdens the working poor even further). It also seems to recognize that it still isn't replacing the same old failing roof. Recognition that balancing the budget is a mere stopgap activity is a major advance.
The second important advance is that the board knows it hasn't got a clue about where to go next. Recognizing its own limitations is indeed another major step forward. It seemed to me that in the 25 years I've been observing local politics, the prevailing view has been that if one was over 18 years of age and popular enough to get elected to the Selectboard one was qualified to do the job. Perhaps, in times long gone by, it was true. Every problem was fixed simply by raising taxes. Nobody worried. The well was going to keep filling itself and that was that. Until it hasn't. The fate of this town rests on a Selectboard that notices that the level in the well is lower every year and is committed to solving that problem.
It takes a year on the board just to begin to see it come into focus. It takes another year to begin to see our municipal problems. It takes a third year to understand the power, responsibilities and options available and have even a chance of looking in the right places for solutions. Even that much progress is possible only if one has been fully committed and engaged over the entire period. Ask any serious professional with ten or 20 years experience to compare their skills and competency with what it was at three years.
I am throwing down the gauntlet. I am asking the members of this Selectboard to do all in their power to return for at least two, and better yet, three more years. If we keep returning to square one we're bound for disaster.
Spoon Agave was a member of the Brattleboro Selectboard and is a current member of the Development Review Board. He is the current chairman of the Finance Committee and is the former chairman of the Charter Commission.