By HOWARD WEISS-TISMAN
BRATTLEBORO - The Selectboard is thinking about slowing down the $14 million police-fire renovation project to reduce the impact on the fiscal year 2015 budget.
The board held a special meeting Tuesday to begin talks on a new FY 2015 budget after voters rejected the proposed budget during a special referendum on April 17.
The board did not make any decisions at Tuesday's meeting, but rather gave interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland a long list of proposed cuts to see what effects they would have on the budget.
One recommendation was to not take out the $9 million bond on the police-fire project and begin to look at ways of possibly doing only a portion of the renovation project, but the board also talked about a long list of potential cuts.
The board members debated a number of cuts, which included cutting two positions from the library staff and two positions from Recreation and Parks Department, closing the West Brattleboro Fire Station, and not plowing the sidewalks next winter.
"I don't think we should nickel and dime this," Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said. "Anytime the voters at large overturn a decision made at Town Meeting it is a significant issue. It is a big deal and the board should respond with that perspective in mind."
Town Meeting Representatives approved the $16.1 million budget at Town Meeting on March 22, but a special referendum was called after 56 Town Meeting Representatives signed a petition calling for a townwide vote on the budget.
The budget was rejected by a 771-478 vote and now the Selectboard has to present a new budget to Town Meeting Representatives.
Gartenstein said he wants to get the budget work done as soon as possible to make sure there is time to call the special Representative Town Meeting before the fiscal year ends on June 30.
If the board does not have a budget in place before July 1 then it will have to borrow money.
He said if the board has a new budget in place in the next week or so, then a meeting can be warned for late May or early June, though another referendum can be called for and Town Meeting Reps can always turn down the budget as well.
The board is scheduled to meet on April 29 to continue talks on the budget, and to possibly vote on a new spending plan.
Early in the discussion Tuesday night board member David Schoales said he wanted to only address the police-fire project, and not consider any staff cuts.
Schoales said he wanted to take the proposed staff cuts off the table, but Gartenstein and board members John Allen and Kate O'Connor said they wanted all options to be considered.
"Everything has to be on the table at this point," Selectboard member John Allen said. "This can not just be about the police-fire project. This was put in our laps and now we have to figure out how to do it. Taxes are too high and people can't afford it."
Most of the town department heads were at the meeting, and about a dozen residents also came out to talk about the budget.
Many residents cautioned the Selectboard from overreacting to the April 17 vote.
Steve Minkin said the vote was only about the police-fire project, and he said the other town services should not be cut in an effort to reduce the tax rate.
But George Reed-Savory, a Town Meeting Representative, disagreed.
Reed-Savory said he is hearing from property owners who are tired of the ever-increasing tax rate, and he said Brattleboro residents he is hearing from are afraid of losing their homes.
O'Connor agreed that the board has to consider significant cuts to keep the tax rate down.
The town has already taken out a $5 million bond for the police-fire project, and about $750,000 of that money has been spent.
If the board declines to take out the additional $9 million for the project, and looks for ways to do only a portion of the work, then only $261,000 will come off the proposed budget.
That would only save two of three cents on the tax rate, far less O'Connor said, than what property owners she has been talking to are demanding.
Along with the police-fire project and staff cuts, the board also talked about eliminating the animal control officer from the police department, putting off the purchase of a new police cruiser, not approving any skatepark proposal, and asking department heads to consider a 5 percent across-the-board cut.
The board also talked about eliminating the Human Services Review Committee and asking all organizations to request funding directly from the Selectboard.
The board is asking Moreland to look at all these cuts and come back with how much each would save from the budget.
The board seemed committed to creating a budget that did not raise the tax rate at all, or that only raised it by two or three cents, but that would likely have to include staff cuts.
"We presented a business-as-usual budget and Represntative Town Meeting overwhelmingly approved that budget," Gartenstein said. "The voters have now defeated that budget and we have to take a broader perspective. It is hard to determine where the police-fire project is going right now. We can not continue with business as usual."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.