Brattleboro Selectboard girds for tough budget process
BRATTLEBORO -- For the past few years the Brattleboro Selectboard has approached budget season with weary eyes.
With one of the highest tax rates in the state, the board knows that taxpayers have little appetite for more increases and so every year the board, and town officials, work to keep the municipal tax increase as low as possible.
This year it will likely be impossible for the board to avoid a stiff tax increase, and what remains to be seen is just how high the tax rate will climb.
Bond payments are due on the town's $14.1 million police-fire facilities project.
Over the next few years the payments will be as high as they are going to get over the 20 years' worth of bond payments.
In 2015 the town will have to pay $740,566, and the following year, which is the largest payment the town is projected to make, taxpayers will have to come up with about $1.24 million just to pay for the police-fire project.
This year the town paid a $122,991 interest payments for the project.
The Selectboard members started talking about the fiscal year 2015 budget at their meeting Tuesday.
They discussed a wide range of ideas, such as a pay as you throw trash system and a 1 percent local option tax, and while they did not reach consensus on a way to bring in more revenue, they did all agree that it is going to be a very tough year to put together the town's spending plan.
"We're going to be facing significant budget pressures this year," Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said Tuesday. "Just to run the budget at status quo, given increases in personnel costs, insurance, fuel and other coverages like health insurance, we can certainly anticipate that there could be an increase, even without the interest payment, of 1, 2 or 3 percent."
Gartenstein had the board talk about the budget early because he said the board failed to give clear direction to the town's administration last year early in the process, and with an even more challenging budget process ahead Gartenstein said he wanted to make sure the board was very clear about its expectations.
"This is going to be a very different year entirely. There aren't going to be any more nickels or dimes we are going to find in the couch cushions," said Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland. "If the board can articulate its position early, I can bring that back and work with the town staff."
To start with, Gartenstein asked Finance Director John O'Connor to provide the board with two plans.
First Gartenstein said he wanted to see what the budget would look like with only the bond payment increases considered.
The board members would be forced to consider some kind of reductions if they only increase the tax rate by the few pennies related to the bond payments and Gartenstein said he wants to know how deep those cuts might have to go.
And he asked for a second scenario with the services remaining at the current year's level, taking into consideration projected increases in salaries, insurance and fuel, as well as the bond payments.
Still, it is going to be hard to keep spending under control.
The board has already heard about a proposed $350,000-$450,000 upgrade to the skating rink at Living Memorial Park, and Recreation and Parks Director Carol Lolatte also said the town pool could need work in the coming years.
At the meeting Tuesday, Selectboard member Kate O'Connor said she is hearing from residents who feel like it is time for the board to start making tough choices on spending.
"The one thing I hear is that everyone is concerned about their taxes. Everyone is concerned about their own budget," O'Connor said. "So we have to be concerned about the town budget. I think everything is on the table for us to examine and to think about. Just because we do something now doesn't necessarily mean we can afford to do it in the future. It doesn't mean we can't do everything we do now, but we have to be very thoughtful, and very open to what we may have to do."
And John Allen agreed that the board might be ready to make some suggestions that won't be popular with town staff or with some residents.
"This is going to be the year there is no sacred cow," Allen said. "This is not a personal thing. This is not a vendetta against anybody; I just think that this year is going to be very, very tough to try to maintain a balanced budget. This is a belt-tightening year. This is the year we are going to have to really adjust."
While discussing the approaching fiscal storm the Selectboard talked about some of the options available for increasing revenues and they included at least two proposals that have already been rejected by town voters.
Selectboard member David Schoales said the town should consider a local option tax, which Town Meeting representatives overwhelmingly rejected at a special meeting in October 2012.
Schoales also said the town should look at a special tax on service providers, such as doctors.
Schoales made the argument that residents from surrounding towns work, shop and visit service providers in Brattleboro but do not have to pay any taxes.
"People come into this community, they use this community, drive on the roads, they use the services, but they don't contribute to the costs of those services," said Schoales. "We need to find a way to get revenue from people. I think a sales tax or a service tax is a way to do that. It's ugly, nobody wants to raise taxes, but nobody wants to cut programs or fire people either so we have to look at the revenue side."
Gartenstein said he did not think the town was ready for another discussion over an option tax, but he did say it might be time to talk about a pay as you throw trash system
The Legislature has already passed a rule requiring municipalities to reduce waste, and instead of waiting, Gartenstein said Brattleboro should move toward a pay as you throw system to save some money now.
The board also discussed next year's Capital Plan, which has more than $2 million in projects and purchases in it, though it is clear the board is going to have another round of tough decisions to make about the plan.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.
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