Tim O'Connor, who was Brattleboro's Town Meeting Moderator for 22 years, said that in his more than two decades with the gavel he'd never presided over a Town Meeting as long as the one on March 23 -- 13-and-a-half hours.
OK: Town Meeting Reps did take a lunch and dinner break, but to their credit, they didn't take any after-meal naps and returned to continue the discussion.
About 130 people spent the day and a good part of the night in the gymnasium of Brattleboro Union High School, determining how best to chart the short- and long-term future of the town. The bond for the renovation of the police station and the town's firehouses got a lot of debate, but after 20 years of discussing what to do with the facilities, Town Meeting Reps decided the time was right for the investment.
What got the most amount of debate, to the surprise of many because in the past it's received minimal discussion, was the town's school budget. Just after 10 a.m., the budget was presented to the reps, and with a break for lunch, they made their decision a few minutes after 2 p.m. Though there was quite a bit of back-and-forth on whether to cut the budget and by how much, $15 million was approved by a vote of 89 to 37.
As was appropriate, much of the discussion focused on the impact the budget -- which, if you count Brattleboro's contribution to the union high school, makes up two-thirds of the town's expenses -- has on tax rates. School administrators pointed out any reduction in the budget would result in layoffs and some reps pointed out that saving money in the short-term almost always results in more costs in the long-term, especially when it comes to education. We are glad the reps overwhelmingly agreed. Brattleboro's schools are one of the reasons the town is recognized as one of the best small places in the country to raise a child.
Because the Selectboard in the past few years has so assiduously kept its eye on the bottom line, assisted in no small part by town administrators and department heads, a budget surplus has been recognized and some of that money -- $750,000 -- was approved for capital improvements. Another worthy investment.
Town Meeting Reps also approved more than $360,000 to pay for repairs to the town's ice rink and a town budget of a little more than $14.5 million, a 1.9-percent increase over last year. A back-door motion to defund the police/fire bond by taking out the first-year's interest payment was defeated.
Just the same there has to be a serious concern that, on average, taxes will be going up by almost 11 percent. One meeting rep noted that the folks voting during Town Meeting were, on the whole, more financially comfortable than most of their constituents, and they should take that consideration seriously.
But as outgoing Selectboard Chairman Dick DeGray told the Reformer on Monday, "People are saying we may not like this, but it's something we have to do."
You can't give up on your community or hope a brighter economic day is somewhere on the horizon. If you want your town to continue to be a good place to live, you have to make investments, whether it's in the schools, the local ice rink or in the police and fire stations.
And the Town Meeting Reps who sweated over every line of the meeting warning are to be commended for asking questions, making suggestions, conducting a civil debate and staying until the job was done.
To quote O'Connor: "That's what it's all about."