It's that time of year again -- the annual Representative Town Meeting where the fate of Brattleboro's spending priorities for the coming fiscal year are decided.
Up until about two weeks ago there was some concern that interest and involvement in this yearly tradition was waning.
Town Clerk Annette Cappy had low expectations going into the March 12 pre-Town Meeting information session because of the record number of empty seats for the Representative Town Meeting on March 22. However, she was admittedly giddy the following day when she officially certified the residents who showed up and printed out a new list that had every single seat filled.
"We have a full house," Cappy said. "I don't know where they all came from, but it is very encouraging. It's good to know that we do have people out there who are willing to serve."
We couldn't agree more, and we are grateful to those who stepped up to serve as representatives. By doing so they are helping to keep this democratic process alive, and they have restored our faith in citizen participation that is so crucial to our local government.
As District 2 representative Julia Grover said, "This is our form of town government. If enough people don't get involved it doesn't work."
Brattleboro is the only municipality in Vermont that has a representative form of town government. Cappy said she thinks it still works well for the town. "As long as we can find people to run I think this system works for us.
Representatives from among the town's three districts will vote on the town and school budgets, spending articles, and other townwide referendums, including a proposed 1 percent local option tax and using the town's Agricultural Land Protection Fund to start an Energy Efficiency Fund and help defray taxes.
The most controversial item on this year's agenda is the option tax. According to the town Finance Department about $650,000 could be raised by instituting the new tax on retail purchases that are allowed under state tax code.
The local option tax was already rejected by Town Meeting Representatives at a special meeting in October 2012 when the $14.1 million police-fire renovation project was approved. The former Selectboard wanted to adopt a 1 percent local option tax then to help pay for the project, but while the project was approved, the funding mechanism was not.
The current Selectboard put the question on this year's Representative Town Meeting warning because the board wanted voters to weigh in on the proposal, and then give Town Meeting Representatives another chance to consider the tax following a townwide vote.
That non-binding vote on March 4 saw the option sales tax pass by a slim margin, 438 to 402.
Those in favor of the new tax point out that it would reduce the tax rate in Brattleboro by about 5.5 cents, dropping the projected 2015 municipal tax rate from 8.5 cents to 2.9 cents. They argue that Brattleboro property taxes are already too high and local taxpayers need a break.
However, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and many local businesses have come out against the tax over concerns that it could prompt more customers to drive across the river to tax-free New Hampshire.
Town Meeting representatives need to weigh this and other issues very carefully, and consider all the pros and cons, as they prepare to vote on Saturday. Talk to your friends and neighbors to see how they feel about the option tax, the town and school budgets, and the Energy Efficiency Fund. Remember, you're there to represent not only your own views, but also those of everyone else in your district.