On Tuesday night, after many months of public discussions, behind-doors consultations and number crunching, the Brattleboro Selectboard approved a $15.8 million budget for the fiscal year starting on July 1. By a vote 5 to 0, the board voted to send the budget back to Town Meeting Representatives who will have their opportunity on June 2 to either approve it or send it back one more time.
On March 22, meeting reps approved a $16.2 million budget, but after a petition was circulated calling for a town-wide referendum, the issue went before all of Brattleboro's voters on April 17. By a vote of 478 for and 771 against, the budget was rejected. That means that less than 10 percent of the town's 8,340 voters shot down a hard-worked-on budget that department heads, the Selectboard, the finance manager and the town manager sweated over slavishly.
(On Tuesday, May 27, at 6:30 p.m., the board will host an informational meeting for town reps at Academy School in West Brattleboro.)
Nonetheless, the aforementioned town officials rededicated themselves to the process, and after hearing from a number of people, were able to cut out $402,759. By applying $200,000 of a general fund surplus to next year's budget, they were able to bring the projected tax rate increase down from 8.5 to 3.2 cents, a remarkable accomplishment for which all involved should be commended.
Also remarkable was the fact they were able to do so by not cutting any staffers from the town's library or parks and recreation department -- both possibilities raised the ire of many in town.
More than half the cuts came from a decision not to take out a second bond -- at $9 million -- for the town's proposed police and fire department renovations. If the bond had been taken out, the town's first payment would have been a little more than $261,000. Now, with the project on hold, that bond won't be taken out for the time being. What will happen to the $4 million left over from the first $5 million bond ($1 million has already been spent on plans, studies and consultancy fees), is not yet known. The future of the police and fire renovations are also in limbo, but that's nothing new, especially if you consider the town has had those upgrades on the backburner for more than 20 years.
In addition to not pursuing the second bond, the board cut $18,000 from the fire department in vacation buy back, holiday and incentive pay and the police department found about $19,000 in savings in salaries. The board also saved $40,927 by delaying the purchase of one police cruiser and $50,000 in sidewalk work. Meanwhile, the grass might grow a little longer in the town's cemeteries, as $2,000 was cut from the cemetery maintenance budget.
Fire Chief Mike Bucossi told the Reformer he was disappointed by the board's decision to hold off on purchasing the second bond.
"We thought we brought forward a very good plan. We listened and went back and looked at all the studies. We had public meetings and private meetings with special interests and civic groups. The plan has passed several times and people have been very supportive of the project. To have it derailed within months of breaking ground is frustrating."
Bucossi said he and Police Chief Gene Wrinn have employees who are working in conditions that are substandard and downright unhealthy. We wonder if it will not be too long before formal complaints are filed with the state.
And costs won't be going down, as everyone in the town offices knows. The longer Brattleboro puts off renovating the police and fire stations, the more expensive it will get. Some people think the $14.1 million project is a gold-plated extravaganza, but, as Bucossi noted, they worked long and hard to get it where it is now.
"A Band-Aid approach is not going to fix these issues," he said.
(And speaking of Band-Aids, the Selectboard still hasn't figured out where it's going to come up with the $400,000 necessary to fix deficiencies identified during a recent state inspection of the municipal building.)
Bucossi also said suggestions that the West Brattleboro station be closed as a way to save money is just not realistic.
"This is a perfect place to serve the citizens of that part of town. And the new plan calls for a smaller building. Yes, the footprint will be bigger, but the square footage will actually be less because it will be all on one floor."
The public and behind-the-scenes battles that led up to this point portend more trouble ahead for Brattleboro. As we all know, costs continue to rise -- whether that's fuel, salaries, insurance, road salt or asphalt -- and something has to give; it's either town services or our own household budgets, reduced to make up for increased taxes.
"We're not out of those woods, yet," said Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein.
Selectboard member John Allen said the whole process has been an eye opener for him.
"We are going into the next budget with our eyes more open than they were," he said.
And board member David Schoales voice a sentiment that is on everyone's minds when he said "We've got to find more money. We can't have fewer services."
There are all sorts of ideas for how to make that happen, but most of them -- such as raising the tax rates, instituting a 1-percent local option sales tax or establishing a "commuter" tax -- have proven to be unpalatable. The real solution is to encourage responsible job growth in the region, but that's an issue Brattleboro and its environs have been struggling with for several decades. And even with the Brooks House almost ready to open and millions of dollars from Entergy coming to the region, it's not an issue that will be fixed before the next budget season or the one after that.
Until then, Brattleboro residents might need to decide what they can and cannot live without, be that less sidewalk plowing or delayed street plowing in the winter, fewer library hours or a reduced number of activities offered by the recreation and parks department, fewer police officers on the beat or less administrative staff in the municipal building.
There are a lot of hard choices ahead, so it would behoove all the town's taxpayers to stay involved in the process and speak up for what they believe is most important. Otherwise the decisions will be made without their input and then it might be too late to offer remedies.