Brattleboro budget: Many ideas, few good options
BRATTLEBORO -- About 160 people packed into the Brattleboro Area Middle School multi-purpose room Thursday night to listen to the Selectboard talk about the FY 2015 budget and offer their own opinions about Brattleboro's tax rate and services.
The board members spoke for about an hour, followed by a few comments from department heads, and then took almost two hours of public input. At the end of the meeting the board put off making any decisions about the budget until at least Tuesday night, when the board is next scheduled to meet. But it was clear by the end of the night that while the people of Brattleboro have many opinions, they hardly speak in one voice.
They listened to people argue for, and against, the $14.1 million police-fire facilities renovation project. They heard from Brattleboro natives, and from taxpayers who are new to town. There were those who said the townwide vote only represented a small minority, and others who said it was a mandate to make real changes to how business was done in town.
The board heard from a senior who said she had to keep her heat down at 60 degrees to make ends meet, and a property owner who said he would not mind spending a few extra dollars each month to retain the same services.
Most of the Brattleboro residents who spoke said they did not want the library budget cut, but a handful of people did say that taxes were too high and something had to be done, no matter how painful the cuts.
Even among the board members there was little agreement on how the board should proceed.
"There are no good choices that we face at this point," Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said at the beginning of the meeting. "There is no single cut that we need to consider that I think can be shown to be more important, in terms of quality of life, or less important. They are all about the same."
The Brattleboro Selectboard has to come up with a new budget after voters overturned the proposed $16.2 million FY 2015 budget in a special referendum on April 17. That budget, which included payments on a $9 million bond the town was going to take out to pay for the renovations to the police and two fire stations, would have raised the tax rate by about 8.5 cents. Without any changes the combined school and municipal Brattleboro tax rate in 2015 would jump 17.5 cents, to $2.90.
Now, with a wide range of options before them, the board is trying to come up with a spending plan that will be accepted by Town Meeting Representatives at a special meeting, but not rejected again by a townwide vote.
At the meeting Thursday the board did set the date for the special Representative Town Meeting. Town Meeting Reps will meet on Monday, June 2, at 6:30 p.m. in the same BAMS multi-purpose room to vote on the budget.
Thursday night's meeting was called after more than 100 people showed up for the original budget discussion April 29, forcing the board to move the meeting to the larger room at BAMS. The heightened public interest arose after the board members began talking about some of the options they were considering to bring down the budget.
Gartenstein directed interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland to determine how much money the town would save if the board did move ahead with a series of staff cuts. The board is talking about eliminating two positions at Brooks Memorial library, two in the Recreation and Parks Department, the police department animal control officer and the winter sidewalk snow plow operator. They are also considering cutting out one police cruiser, putting off sidewalk work that was planned, and eliminating the purchase of a traffic safety tool. Those cuts would save the town about $593,000.
The department heads who spoke Thursday each said the cuts would be severely felt by the residents of Brattleboro.
Brooks Memorial Library Director Jerry Carbone, at a previous meeting, said the cuts would force the library to reduce its hours. Recreation and Parks Director Carol Lolatte said cuts to her department would send the department into a tailspin, with fewer people signing up for programs, and in turn, less revenue coming in to the town. Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett said his department has been nibbled away at for years, and the latest proposed cuts would only worsen the existing conditions of Brattleboro roads. And Police Chief Gene Wrinn argued for keeping the animal control officer, saying his officers were already pushed to capacity, and that fewer tickets would lead to a reduction in revenue.
The board was split on the proposed cuts, with Gartenstein saying he was in favor of moving ahead with some of them, board member Donna Macomber saying she would only support cutting the animal control officer, and Kate O'Connor saying something had to be done.
"I don't like doing this anymore than anyone here likes it. But there's a reality we're in this town," said O'Connor. "Unfortunately we're having to do things that none of us want to do. We tried everything we could to avoid making cuts to personnel, but the budget was rejected and it's come back to us, and there's nothing else. This is painful for everybody."
The one cut that just about every board member agreed to was the decision not to take out the $9 million bond for the police-fire project, though the board did not take a vote on the issue. Gartenstein, Macomber and O'Connor said the project should probably be limited, and the $9 million bond should not be taken out.
Board member John Allen said he wanted to get the work done on the Elliot Street fire station, though he was not sure what that would cost, while David Schoales said Town Meeting Representatives should come up with a new plan, which might include extending the next bond out to 30 years to make it easier to pay down.
But even as the board appeared to be reaching some level of agreement, at the same time Gartenstein stressed the need to address the health and safety issues at all three buildings. The roof at Central Station needs to be replaced and the firefighters there are sleeping in quarters that are connected to rooms that receive direct exhaust. There is mold in the West Brattleboro Fire Station and officers in the police department have to bring sometimes violent and inebriated prisoners through public doors and down a steep staircase.
Schoales said even though voters turned down the budget by a significant majority, it was hard to draw a clear message form the vote.
"I don't think there's any way to determine what the intention behind the vote was. Anybody I talked to has had different ideas and different thoughts about that," said Schoales. "Each of us choose what we believe it meant. We give it our own spin based on what we believe. I don't think that's the best way to go. Democracy is complicated ...coming up with options and choices I think is our job right now."
O'Connor said voters were looking for relief from the town's surging tax rate.
"The vote that occurred to overturn the budget I do believe it was about (the police fire project). But I also believe it was about high property taxes."
The board allowed the public to speak and about 30 people weighed in, with many acknowledging the board's very tough situation. If the board was looking for direction from the public, the comments instead varied widely.
Don Webster said the town should use more of its surplus, while Ron Pickering advocated for a greater commitment to economic development. Jane Southworth wants the board to have another vote on the 1 percent local option tax, and Anne Senni said the board should whittle away at the budget instead of enacting major cuts.
There was strong opposition to the library cuts, as well as support for the police, recreation and public works departments, which all have seen their share of reductions over the last few years, a number of the audience members said.
Former Selectboard member Chris Chapman received the loudest applause of the evening when he recommended that the board simply bring the same budget back to the Town Meeting Representatives.
"I'm here to take a risk and say a very difficult thing," he said. "I believe the Selectboard, given all the facts here, would be within its rights and responsibilities to resubmit the same budget to Representative Town Meeting, that it did earlier this year, and not propose these cuts that would cause pain to our community."
The board closed the meeting without making any decisions about the budget.
Gartenstein said he was going to try to continue the budget discussion Tuesday night in the Selectboard Meeting Room, though he said if 100 people show up again the board will have to put off the discussion and find a larger room again.
He said that even if the police-fire project is put on hold the combined school and municipal tax rate increase next year would about 15 cents, which he said is still too high.
"It's my sense that many members of the board, myself included, don't believe that's responsive enough," Gartenstein said. "We've been way clear for many years that we can't continue with business as usual, but if we're not going to be taxing ourselves at this rate, some structural changes are going to be necessary."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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