"Where you stand depends on where you sit," she said.
I'd heard this political adage before, but this time it truly resonated. We'd been discussing the Brattleboro town budget, and we both conceded that our day-to-day experiences in this town shape our views. As a mom, I see my whole world through the lens of my young children. I want strong schools; I want solid infrastructure that supports town services and invites new residents and businesses; I want a safe town, equipped to deal with the heroin onslaught; and I want a robust economy that will lift local children out of poverty.
I am willing to swallow the bitter pill of higher taxes because I have the comfort afforded by the long view. And I know that, in all likelihood, my family will not have to choose between buying heating oil or paying our property taxes. I am fortunate. But it is not solely my good fortune that drives my position. It is the love of my offspring and my fear about the future -- theirs, mine and Brattleboro's.
If I were retired and subsisting on an inadequate fixed income, I necessarily would have a very different perspective on the budgetary crisis. Rising taxes might be my preeminent concern -- even if it meant critical infrastructure went untended or town services got cut. I received an email from a reader several weeks back in which his fear was palpable. He described how an older neighbor of his -- a local landlord -- is thinking of selling of his "retirement" investment because he is losing money. The rising costs of heat, hot water and taxes make it untenable for him, but he feels trapped. Like others I've talked to, the soft real estate market forces his hand, and he stays put. In my own neighborhood, the immaculately maintained house directly behind mine has been on the market for two years. Other friends will most likely sell their house at a loss.
If I were among the scores of residents living in poverty, I would feel the proposed budget cuts to sidewalk plowing, the library, and the rec department acutely. The rec department is a life saver; parents can provide their children with healthy recreation even if they have little more than pocket change at their disposal. And one need only look at the library's doors before they open each day to see this institution's great worth to the town. The throngs gathered represent a broad cross-section of residents, but the library is a physical refuge for the poor and a critical information portal for those without access to computers. The cruel irony is that some of the proposed budget cuts -- in order to make life more affordable in this town -- would affect the poorest among us most deeply.
In a recent conversation with a town employee, she conceded, "I am biased." She is, but so we all are. We are shaped by our experiences, our history, and the demands of our fears and hopes. We cannot stop listening deeply to our neighbors; nor can we move the conversation forward by accusations nested in unfounded mistrust. One Selectboard member shared with me that it is really demoralizing to work so very hard and receive emails that begin with the phrase, "You people ..." When basic civility breaks down, it is time to seek the meta-view and take comfort in the realization that we Brattleborians are certainly not alone. Towns all over Vermont have reached a breaking point over taxes and expenditures.
The sluggish economy, a flat grand list, the downturn in the real estate market, rising poverty, lack of economic development, our incapacitated Brooks House block, and the chickens coming home to roost in regard to deferred maintenance and infrastructure repairs all contribute. But one Technicolor Dumbo in the room is the unwieldy, impenetrable statewide school-funding mechanism. One would be hard-pressed to find an individual who could accurately depict all its moving parts, but the results are obvious: Our school budgets increase even when local boards level fund their schools.
Clearly, our issues are greater than Brattleboro, and we must continue to engage at the regional and state level to unravel these complicated quandaries.
At the local level, we must do the difficult work of attacking our budgetary problems together. The recent huge turnouts at Selectboard budget meetings have buoyed my spirits. When we have more people -- from a wide swath of the Brattleboro experience -- fully involved in brainstorming possible solutions, we have a better chance of crafting remedies that honor the diversity of our day-to-day experiences. I hope we will make small but significant changes to the town budget now, but hold off on bigger ones until we get critical input from more residents in the next cycle. But people need to show up.
The other day, for the first time since moving to Vermont 17 years ago, I became disoriented on a run. I started out on familiar pathways and well-worn trails, but as I got deeper in the woods, I lost my sense of direction and landmarks by which to navigate. I eventually worked my way back to town, after three miles had turned into six miles, and I was late to a meeting. But once I was safely home the unexpected detour offered a fresh perspective.
We have been lost. We have loped along on the same routes hoping desperately for a different outcome. The unprecedented public engagement in the current budget discussions perhaps means we've finally reached a breaking point. And from the current crisis grows the potential that we can develop a new way forward that combines both irrepressible optimism and a sober assessment that things must change.
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