Brattleboro officials present budget challenges
BRATTLEBORO -- The Brattleboro Selectboard held an informational meeting Wednesday to give voters an overview of the fiscal year 2015 budget.
A special townwide Australian ballot vote on the budget will be held Thursday, April 17, at the Municipal Center from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., after 56 Town Meeting Representatives signed a petition asking for the special vote.
Town Meeting Representatives get to hear about the budget at a pre-Town Meeting; the Selectboard held Wednesday's meeting to give voters a chance to ask questions about the budget before next week's vote.
Town Meeting Representatives adopted the FY 2015 budget at the March 22 Town Meeting, but the special vote will now be held to give the voters a chance to weigh in on the proposed budget.
About 40 people showed up for Wednesday's informational meeting, which was held at Oak Grove School.
Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein explained that most of the budget goes for personnel, and he said any cuts would have an impact on the services that are provided to residents of Brattleboro.
"The town is, in many ways, a service organization," Gartenstein said, explaining that about 85 percent -- $11.6 million of the $16.2 million budget -- goes toward personnel costs.
Gartenstein said the board worked with interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland over a period of months, and he said the board considered making cuts of up to 5 percent across all departments. Those discussions, Gartenstein said, included cutting snow plowing, eliminating trash pickup, not paying volunteer firefighters, consolidating dispatch, limiting animal control and abandoning some of the roads.
All of these cuts, according to Gartenstein, would have had an impact on the services the town provides.
"Ultimately many of these proposals would have taken services that are provided by the town below what is a basic minimum needed to provide core municipal services and to make sure we have emergency services available," Gartenstein said. "I am not aware of any waste in the budget. These departments are working in the most efficient way possible."
Brattleboro resident Rusty Sage said cuts would be felt beyond those individuals who might lose their jobs.
"It's not a matter of somebody losing their job, as heartbreaking as that is," Sage said. "We would lose services that people come from other towns to utilize."
Resident John Carter asked the board about finding other sources of revenue instead of focusing on cuts.
Gartenstein explained that a local option tax has been voted down twice, and he also talked about the board's visit to Montpelier to seek help for regional economic hubs. But ultimately, Gartenstein said, the town did not have many options for coming up with other revenue sources.
Anne Senni wanted to know if the board could cut the pay of some of the higher wage earners on the town payroll. Gartenstein said he did not think staff members were overpaid and he said the town did not consider making those cuts.
And Beverly Behrmann suggested that the town could consider cutting the trash pickup to save money.
The Parks and Recreation Department was asked about fuel oil use, and representatives from the Brattleboro Police Department answered questions about its vehicle purchase policy.
With each question, town staff and the Selectboard gave answers, saying there were not many options for saving money in the budget.
Gartenstein said he wanted to hold the meeting Wednesday to present the budget and answer questions, and he said the budget would be available at the municipal center and on the town website.
If the budget is defeated on April 17 then the board would have to present a new budget to Town Meeting Representatives. There is no time frame, but the board would try to get a budget passed before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
During the second half of the meeting, the board talked about the town's $14.1 million renovation of the police and fire stations. Payments on the project are going to add about $1 million to the budget over the next few years, and the town will be making payments for the next 20 years. Gartenstein talked about the need for improvements to the aging buildings. He said there have been no other major projects for decades and there were life safety issues to address at each building. Gartenstein said the project started at about $20 million and was pared down to the $14.1 million. He said Town Meeting Representatives approved the work in October 2012, but turned down a 1 percent local option tax at the same meeting. And at this year's Town Meeting a move to take the project money out of the budget was defeated.
Gartenstein said the architect and project manager have been hired and about $650,000 has been spent already, and construction could start this summer. The town is continuing to try to save money, and the Police-Fire Facility Committee is going to see if any money can be cut from the budget.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311 ext.279.
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