Brattleboro board to begin budget talks with assisting documents

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BRATTLEBORO — History and future goals were considered when creating the "comprehensive review of town operations" and "long term financial plan" documents that were approved on Tuesday night.

"I really think it's a substantial benefit to the town," said Select Board Chairman David Gartenstein.

The financial plan shows property taxes increasing by 5.25 percent in fiscal year 2018, 1.97 percent in FY19, 2.01 percent in FY20, 1.81 percent in FY21 and 3.39 percent in FY22. For every $100 of assessed property value, that would mean 6.3 cents in FY18, 2.5 cents in FY19, 2.6 cents in FY20, 2.4 cents in FY21 and 4.5 cents in FY22.

The increase for FY18 is expected to come in slightly lower than expected in the plan. Debt service for the first year of bond payments for the police-fire facilities project is driving up that cost.

"We believe the town should commit to investing $1 million annually to a sustained program of 'catching up' on our deferred infrastructure," the financial plan stated.

Brattleboro had "a prolonged period of cost cutting and budget constraints" over the last two decades, according to the review of town operations. The staff is constantly feeling the pressure of keeping the property tax as low as possible.

One part of the plan involves meeting with "other hub towns" from around the state to explore ways of bringing in additional money without raising taxes.

"Despite the extended period of intense cost-control work, our municipal tax rate is high compared to surrounding communities," Town Manager Peter Elwell stated in the review, adding that the figure is "about average for a regional economic hub town in Vermont and 11 percent lower than the nearby hub town of Keene, N.H. Our property tax rate would be lower if the town had more non-tax options for raising municipal revenue under Vermont law."

Before listing action items in the review, Elwell reflected on the budgeting situation.

"There is no more 'low-hanging fruit.' We can — and will — achieve additional efficiencies in town operations, but any major budget cuts in the future will require noticeable reductions in levels of service," Elwell wrote. "We have cut too far in some areas, saving money but negatively impacting the community in ways that were not intended and are sometimes not very visible. Examples include infrastructure maintenance and replacement, information technology systems and some administrative support services."

Implementation of an IT plan has already begun. The goal is to improve the security and functionality within the system. Last month, the town reported that its data system had been hacked at Central Fire Station.

Other action items currently being addressed include the continuance of "aggressively" pursuing grants for town projects and programs; updating and "synchronizing" agreements with all four employee unions; and starting projects outlined in an energy audit.

Over the next two years, the town hopes to update its website; create a regional economic hub coalition; review agreements pertaining to tax-exempt properties; and increase funding for pedestrian and bicycle safety.

Goals in the next two to five years include increasing training and professional development in all departments of town government; evaluating emergency-service collaboration; exploring the idea of turning Brooks Memorial Library into a "regional hub" library; and expanding the town's economic and community development "function."

Looking beyond the next five years, the single action item is to create a "realistic and sustainable" equipment-replacement program through budgeting.

Other business:

— The Agency of Transportation will provide funding for push-button lights to improve pedestrian safety at Holton Home on Western Avenue and the Union Hill intersection.

"We had an application in for two more of those lights and we've been awarded that grant," said Elwell. "Those projects will be planned this fall and executed in the spring."

The town was approved to receive a $596,000 grant for bicycle and pedestrian improvements along Western Avenue between Green Leaf Street and Bonnyvale Road. The state will be getting back to the town by January about whether the funding is available. Elwell said the plan was approved by the town about two years ago. Included in the scope of the work are draining improvements.

— A sidewalk going from the Municipal Center to Brooks Memorial Library is in bad condition and will be replaced, according to Gartenstein.

"We're still waiting for the engineering work to be completed," he said. "I can't promise that's going to be done this year before the snow flies."

— The town is submitting an application for a municipal planning grant in hopes of conducting a parking study of the downtown. The $20,000 grant and $6,000 match from the town would "build on previous planning work to guide future development downtown," according to town Planning Director Rod Francis.

Call Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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