Officials: Brattleboro economy healthy, but will face challenges

Friday March 15, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The town has successfully weathered the economic and meteorological storms over the past few years, but distant, gathering clouds will present challenges to future economic stability, town officials told members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Town Manager Barbara Sondag and Finance Director John O'Connor talked to members of the chamber during a breakfast meeting at the Brattleboro Retreat, Thursday.

And while the town emerged from Tropical Storm Irene in good shape due to its healthy financial picture, and has enjoyed relatively robust growth and development in light of the national economy, O'Connor and Sondag both said a rising tax rate and stagnant grand list will make it hard to maintain a healthy financial statement in the coming years.

"We've got real challenges in 2015," O'Connor said. "There's no doubt about it."

O'Connor opened the early morning meeting with a financial snapshot of Brattleboro's finances.

Over the past few years, after coming out of a much more unstable period, the town has been able to build up a surplus.

The town currently has about $1.6 million in its unassigned balance, or about 12 percent of its total general fund budget.

O'Connor said finance experts recommend that a municipality maintains between 5 and 10 percent of its budget in an unassigned balance, so he said the town's finances were strong.

Tropical Storm Irene caused about $1.8 million in damage to the town's infrastructure, according to O'Connor, and after state and federal assistance Brattleboro had to come up with about $90,000 to put its bridges, culverts and roads back together.

The town was able to pay for all of the work with cash, saving money on financing, though O'Connor pointed out that the human toll due to business and property loss is still being felt.

O'Connor also said the proposed 2014 budget maintains current services with only a 1 percent tax rate increase, but he warned the crowd that future budgets will likely be much more challenging for the Selectboard to put together.

Payments on the impending police-fire facility renovations will hit every tax payer in town, and at the same time the grand list is not growing.

The town was able to keep the tax rate down in 2014 by moving $756,000 from the surplus, an option that O'Connor said would not be available forever.

He said that with service costs that go up every year, the only option to increasing taxes is growing the grand list.

"You have to identify new sources of revenue to minimize the effect on other sources," O'Connor said.

Sondag echoed much of O'Connor's report about the previous few years, while stressing that it was hard work and good management from everyone who works for the town that helped Brattleboro build up its surplus.

She also highlighted the town's many development achievements last year, including the West River Park, the Union Station project and the near completion of the waste water treatment plant, and said private projects like the Brattleboro Food Co-op and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital expansions are good for everyone.

Especially in light of the development challenges facing communities across the country, Sondag said Brattleboro is enjoying a period of steady growth.

"It's exciting to be involved in a community where things like this are happening," Sondag said. "It's the bright and shiny things, like the waste water plant, but it's also equally exciting when businesses grow."

And Sondag said upcoming projects, like the $15 million reconstruction of Putney Road, a Main Street sidewalk project slated for 2014, and the ongoing redevelopment of the Brooks House, all indicate that growth will continue.

"There has been an important change where businesses are working with the town as opposed to trying to get what they want in spite of the town," said Sondag. "There is a lot to go on, and a lot of struggles ahead."

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


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