BRATTLEBORO — Although Town Meeting members voted to have the Select Board consider allocating 2 percent of the municipal budget to human services, requests from organizations didn’t add up to that much.
The Select Board, which warns articles for annual Representative Town Meeting, usually takes a figure recommended by the Human Services Committee. Now, the board has to decide whether to try to fill the gap or let reps figure it out.
The committee is recommending all 34 agencies receive the full funding they requested this year for a total of $276,400 of the fiscal year 2022 budget. The figure represents about 1.3 percent of the prior fiscal year’s budget, an approximately 30 percent increase over last year.
Committee Co-Chairwoman Ann Fielder read a letter at the Select Board meeting held remotely Tuesday, thanking the organizations for submitting applications her group reviewed.
“Your mission, accomplishments and plans for improving our community are inspiring,” she said, calling their services “vital.”
The process involved scoring applications with a rubric by looking at financial documents, descriptions of operations, any organizational changes, reserve fund balances, agency size, fundraising capacities, projected revenue and impact to Brattleboro. Fielder said the committee is focused on improving the quality of life in town.
All of the organizations scored high enough to be considered for partial or full funding, Fielder said. Because of the reps’ recommendation, the committee decided to suggest fully funding all requests.
Still, the total didn’t hit the 2 percent mark.
“It is not our practice or policy to give agencies more than what they ask for so this is how we came up with this number,” Fielder said. “A good 70 percent of them scored pretty high in the rubric. A few got in under the wire. These were some of the smaller organizations so it wasn’t that difficult for us to fund them. They weren’t asking for $20,000.”
Board Chairman Tim Wessel said the motion that passed 47-25 at the end of Representative Town Meeting was non binding and advisory — it was not warned but proposed by Town Meeting member Emily Megas-Russell that the Select Board consider dedicating a minimum of 2 percent of the prior year’s municipal budget to human services going forward. Wessel anticipates the funding amount will be debated at the annual meeting, as has been tradition in recent years.
“I think that what you’re doing right now is giving consideration, as Representative Town Meeting asked you, to the level of funding you deem appropriate,” Town Manager Peter Elwell said. “I think you’re having the conversation right now that was envisioned.”
Town Meeting member Cassandra Holloway suggested the committee should have been informed earlier by the board if there was a desire to do something different.
Fielder said the committee felt comfortable with the process. Ultimately, the decision to make the recommendation was unanimously approved by the group.
“At the end of the day, it wasn’t a perfect process — it never is — but we did the best we could,” Fielder said, describing how the committee was put in a “funny position” between Town Meeting reps and the Select Board.
The topic is anticipated to come up sometime later this month as the Select Board assembles a warning for the annual meeting. Board member Ian Goodnow said he wanted more time to look into the issue.
Citing concerns from taxpayers worried about more expensive tax bills, Wessel suggested the potential for having a bigger conversation about how the community wants to fund human services in the future. He said it’s not about worthiness but democracy.
Board member Brandie Starr expressed some shock at the board not immediately taking the committee’s recommendation.
“I was like, ‘Oh great, it came under 2 percent. Excellent. In the year of COVID, people were fully funded. Excellent. Moving along,’” Starr said. “I’m just confused. Where did this go?”
Wessel said, “It hasn’t gone anywhere. This is what democracy is about. I’m representing a significant constituency.”
Starr said board members don’t need to be scolded about democracy. She recalled having conversations with Wessel in past years about how the committee works hard and its recommendations have been questioned at Representative Town Meeting.
Ain Thompson, a committee member, said the non-profit sector is one of the largest employers in Brattleboro so it would be good to help those groups through the COVID-19 pandemic. Gary Stroud, another committee member, described the funding as “investing in community.”