On Thursday, during a special referendum, Brattleboro voters rejected the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget that the Selectboard and the town's department heads sweated over for many months prior to its approval at Representative Town Meeting on March 22.
Wait. Let's backtrack a little here and rephrase that: On Thursday, during a special referendum, less than 10 percent of Brattleboro's registered voters rejected the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget ....
By a vote of 771 to 478, the Selectboard was told to go back, rewrite the budget and re-present it to Town Meeting Representatives at a special, as-yet-to-be-scheduled meeting. Apparently Brattleboro's 7,099 voters, who couldn't be bothered to stop by the Town Clerk's Office to cast an absentee ballot or vote on Thursday don't really care whether a small percentage of townspeople get to exercise their will over the direction the town will take.
"This vote sends a clear message that the registered voters as a whole in the town of Brattleboro don't want their taxes going up to the extent originally approved by Representative Town Meeting this year," said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein after the vote total was announced.
Gartenstein was careful to parse his message to the media, but we must disagree with him that this is "a clear message" from the registered voters. As noted above, what it was was a clear message from less than 10 percent of the voters.
Now the Selectboard has to go back and decide what can be cut from the already bare-bones $16-million budget or just send back the budget "as is" and let Town Meeting Representatives decide, line by line, how best to reduce it in accord with the 771 people who voted no.
The 2015 budget was overwhelmingly approved at this year's Representative Town Meeting on March 22, but the special vote was called after 56 Town Meeting Reps signed a petition requesting the special vote.
The proposed FY 2015 budget would have raised the tax rate by about 8.5 cents.
The Selectboard went into this year's budget meetings contemplating cuts across the board to help keep down the tax rate, but after hearing from department heads, the board approved a level-funded budget, with no cuts or expenditure increases. At Town Meeting this year a few motions were made from the floor to slash the budget, and the Town Meeting Representatives also debated the budget for more than an hour, but in the end the budget passed by a voice vote.
While Gartenstein would not speculate how the board will go about putting together a new budget, he did say "The Selectboard will look forward to resuming discussions on the budget and presenting a new budget to the Town Meeting Representatives."
"It certainly is apparent that there is a substantial disconnect between the vote at Representative Town Meeting and the popular vote on the budget," Gartenstein said. "The budget passed by a significant margin at Representative Town Meeting, and that was not the case with the popular vote."
Perhaps it's time to once again rethink whether Representative Town Meeting is the best form of governance for Brattleboro. But, we remind you, recently a Charter Revision Committee considered whether it should change the system, and even considered whether the town should have a mayor, but after many months of discussions, those ideas were eventually rejected.
It doesn't really solve the problem either of low voter turnout. If you scrap Representative Town Meeting and instead go to an Australian ballot system where all the voters get a chance to weigh in on issues such as the budget and the 1 percent local option sales tax, you still have to wonder if more than 15 percent of the voters will actually bother to check the boxes on a ballot.
So now the Selectboard has to decide whether an across-the-board cut of say, 10 percent, is necessary to make the 2015 budget more palatable to the 771 people who voted no.
We wonder if that means cutting staffing in the town's departments, the elimination of sidewalk plowing following a snowstorm, an even slower repair schedule when it comes to potholes and gouged-out muddy roads, eliminating the contribution the town makes to the many worthy human services organizations in the county, or the reduction of hours at the library or in the town's many recreation programs, a number of which benefit the young and the elderly. Chances are everything is on the chopping block, and chances are, when the ramifications of the cuts start to hit home, not many people will be happy about it. We'll bet the majority of those who will be unhappy are members of the 85 percent who couldn't find the time to cast a ballot.
It was also unclear Thursday how the vote could affect the town's $14.1 million renovation project for the police and fire stations. The town has until June 13 to decide if it is going to go ahead and bond for the final $9 million for the project. The town has already borrowed $5 million for the renovations to the three buildings. And though about $1 million in payments on the police-fire bonds were included in the budget that was rejected, Town Meeting Representatives have already approved the project and the Selectboard has the authority to move ahead with the bonding, even in light of Thursday's vote.
"The Selectboard has noted that since the police-fire facility renovation project was first proposed, that without an additional revenue stream the tax increase would be very substantial, but Representative Town Meeting twice declined to adopt the one additional revenue stream that is available to us," Gartenstein said about the two votes to reject a townwide 1 percent local option tax. "I can't predict at this point exactly what response the Selectboard will have and exactly what direction the Selectboard will take in formulating a new budget. The Selectboard is going to have to get together soon and make some decisions and present a new budget."
On Tuesday, at 6:30 p.m., the board has scheduled a meeting to begin the discussion. We will be interested in following the wrangling that will be necessary to meet the demands of the 771 people who voted no, and just as interested in what Town Meeting Representatives will decide when they are finally called upon to review what the Selectboard presents them.
This process will most surely affect the future of how Brattleboro looks and how the town's departments can respond to their responsibilities in the years to come, so it would behoove everyone in town, including the 7,099 who couldn't find their way to the Municipal Building on Thursday, to keep an eye on the ball.