Information session on Brattleboro budget planned


BRATTLEBORO -- The Selectboard has scheduled a special information session for Wednesday, April 9 to give the public an opportunity to learn more about the FY 2015 budget.

Brattleboro residents will vote on the budget at a special referendum scheduled for Thursday, April 17. Voting will be by Australian ballot and the vote will be held at the Municipal Center from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The board will present the budget at the special meeting Wednesday, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at Oak Grove School.

After Town Meeting Representatives approved the 2015 budget at the annual Town Meeting on March 22, 56 Town Meeting Representatives called for the special vote to allow the public to weigh in on the proposed $16.2 million budget, which, if approved, will raise the tax rate by almost nine cents.

"As a result of the petition, the decision about Brattleboro's budget is going to be made by the voters at large," Selectboard Chairman David Gartenstein said. "The Selectboard feels it is important for the voters to learn as much about the budget as they can. The meeting has been called so that people who have not studied the budget can talk about it and ask questions."

Gartenstein said the budget was put together over a period of several months by the board working with interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland and the department heads.

Town Meeting Representatives were then given an information packet and they attended a special information session before the Town Meeting, where they were also given an opportunity to talk about the proposed spending plan.

"The Selectboard made a good faith effort to plan for the town's needs over the next year in this budget," Gartenstein said. "The Selectboard members are very concerned about the high tax rate, but we recognize that there are needs that have to be met."

Under the town's charter a special Australian ballot referendum can be called, but the charter requires the vote to happen relatively quickly, and because the budget is voted on at an Australian ballot there will be no opportunities for the public to discuss the proposed spending.

Gartenstein said the meeting Wednesday will give the board a chance to talk about its budget decisions, as well as an opportunity for the voters to ask questions.

"As a general matter the members of the public are not as educated about the budget as those who have focused on it for months," Gartenstein said. "It is important for people to understand how we got here."

The budget has been posted on the town's website and 150 copies are going to be printed which will be available in the Municipal Center.

There will also be absentee ballots available for people to vote before April 17.

If the budget is rejected on April 17 then the Selectboard will have to come up with a new budget which will then go before Town Meeting Representatives again.

At the March 22 Representative Town Meeting the budget was approved, but only after more than an hour of discussion over the town's spending priorities.

The budget represents a level-funded service plan, but payments on the $14.1 million police-fire facilities renovation project in 2015 is adding about 6 cents to the tax rate.

"There were some efforts made at Town Meeting to lower the amount of the budget based on concerns over the cost of the police-fire renovation project, but a significant majority of Town Meeting Representatives voted to endorse the budget as presented," Gartenstein said. "The petition was signed by a broad cross section of Town Meeting members and it is difficult to know exactly what individual concerns lead to them signing the petition, except most of them, just like everyone on the Selectboard, are concerned about the high tax rate in Brattleboro."

Town Meeting Representative Spoon Agave, who handed in the petition to Town Clerk Annette Cappy last week, said it was impossible to speak for everyone who signed the petition asking for a townwide vote.

For some it is an attempt to put a hold on the police-fire renovation project, but others simply want to give voters a chance to weigh in on the budget.

Town Meeting Representative and former Finance Committee member John Wilmerding said he supports the budget, and will do so again, but signed the petition to give voters a voice in the process.

Agave said the Selectboard is out of touch with the average citizen who is facing significant financial challenges.

"The Selectboard is unaware of the level of financial difficulties that many residents are in," Agave said. "None of them have ever been in the position of having to worry if they will be able to make their next mortgage payment. This vote is giving town government the message that they need to understand what is going on in this town economically."

Finance Director John O'Connor said the vote on April 17 will not directly affect the police-fire project.

Town Meeting Representatives approved the project, and authorized the town to borrow up to $14.2 million.

The town has already borrowed $5 million and the application is in for the next $9 million bond, though the town can withdraw that application until June 13, O'Connor said.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or Follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.


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