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The Commons
News

Brattleboro budget process begins anew

Municipal departments discuss figures with Selectboard

Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page A1.



BRATTLEBORO—As opposed to some recent years, where the Selectboard has had to make tough decisions when putting together the next fiscal year’s budget, the process so far for the Fiscal Year 2019 municipal budget has been relatively smooth sailing.

A three-hour budget workshop Dec. 2 with the Selectboard and town department heads saw no big surprises or contentious debates.

Longer conversations mostly came from newer Board members asking procedural questions. One topic that kept coming up was what time Santa was appearing across the street at the Gibson-Aiken Center.

Representatives from each municipal department presented — and explained — their budgets in detail, and answered questions posed by Board members and staff from other municipal departments.

These figures are preliminary, and there are at least five more Selectboard meetings — regular and special — to finalize the budget. By Jan. 23, all budget decisions “have to be wrapped up” to give municipal staff enough time to draft the Town Meeting warning, according to Town Manager Peter B. Elwell.

At the Dec. 2 meeting, Elwell explained why the Selectboard had called a special budget meeting, and why so much of the work was getting done that Saturday morning: “because of scheduling challenges this year.”

Overall budget goals

According to a Nov. 2 memorandum Elwell sent to the Selectboard, municipal staff maintained two goals in preparing for the FY19 budget: Maintain all current levels of service, and contain “the cost of town government to the greatest degree possible."

They were mostly successful. Many line items in the budget are level-funded.

The proposed FY19 General Fund Budget, including total revenue and expenditures, is $17,547,230, which is an increase of $53,389, or 0.3 percent, compared with the FY18 General Fund Budget.

If passed, this budget will raise property taxes by $0.0342. “Assuming no change to the Grand List [...] actual taxes paid for FY19 would increase by $34.20 over FY18 for each $100,000 of property value,” according to Elwell’s Nov. 2 memorandum.

In the proposed FY19 budget, rising employment costs caused increases in nearly every department’s budget.

During the employee union’s collective bargaining process, the town agreed to a 2 percent salary increase for organized municipal labor. Elwell said he advocates for the same raise for non-union staff. Most departments’ figures reflect this increase.

Workers’ compensation insurance premiums have gone up, and this isn’t unique to Brattleboro. For all staff combined, the rates rose $49,275 over last year. Elwell noted municipal staff is working to decrease the town’s exposure, but the rates keep rising.

Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor asked Elwell about the “Vacation BB - Retire Pay” line item. Most departments’ budgets show substantial increases for this entry. Elwell explained that long-time staff can “bank” their vacation benefits and the town will “buy them back,” and the budget reflects planning for that, and upcoming staff retirements.

One department that saw a reduction in the “Vacation BB - Retire Pay” line item is Finance — Director John O’Connor explained the 80.5 percent drop is because he may retire soon.

Resources to increase diversity

An unusual staff-related increase is the planned addition of a new position in the town manager’s office: a human resources professional.

Elwell added $60,000 to the budget for that person’s salary. At the Nov. 22 regular Selectboard meeting, he noted, “a town of this size and complexity” needs someone in this role, and this person will also support the Selectboard’s goal of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in municipal staff.

This past year, the Town Manager’s Office and the Selectboard developed a plan to increase diversity in the community and in municipal staffing. Some parts of the FY19 budget set aside resources to meet this goal.

In the “Town Manager’s Office” portion of the proposed budget, Elwell added an extra $700 for staff trainings and conferences “to reflect our commitment to more proactive [diversity] training.”

Elwell added a $10,000 increase in the “Personnel Management Expense” line item of the “General Services” budget for implicit bias training. He said he expects to keep this expense in subsequent fiscal years “to continue improving the workplace environment.”

“I think it would be a good investment to continue to fund this” as a proactive move, said Elwell, who noted “$10,000 is a really modest investment, and we could invest more without being irresponsible."

“But,” he said, “we’re starting from zero.”

Keep the pool?

Recreation & Parks Director Carol Lolatte pointed out that like other departments, most of her budget increases were in staffing. But, she noted, “we have not had any [major staffing] changes since 1995,” and all employment adjustments up and down are seasonal.

The same number of staff, Lolatte said, have “taken on large projects, including fundraising."

“We do have our hand out a lot for projects,” Lolatte said, and mentioned a few of the larger Recreation & Parks projects funded by donation only, with no money coming from taxes: dasher boards at the Nelson Withington Skating Rink, four new scoreboards at the town’s ballfields, and the disc golf course and dog park at Living Memorial Park.

“There’s a lot of community support out there,” she said.

Lolatte noted her department can maintain a high level of service without adding staff because of the extensive pool of volunteers that coach youth sports, assist at the Senior Center, and help out at the annual Ski & Skate Sale and Winter Carnival.

Another pool became the subject of a brief debate: the public swimming pool at Living Memorial Park.

“How’s our pool doing?” asked Selectboard member John Allen.

“Well, it held water last summer,” Lolatte said.

In early 2017, the town spent $30,000 to fix failed winter repairs on the pool’s liner. Lolatte noted the pool deck “is crumbling and needs to be replaced."

Allen questioned whether the pool “is worth it.” With the short usage season — which is when the pool earns revenue from admission fees for swimmers — Allen asked, “is it a loss?”

“Pools in New England are generally not able to stay open long enough” to pay for themselves, Lolatte said. But, she pointed out, “it’s the only option in Brattleboro. It’s not like there’s a beach you can go to.”

“The value isn’t in the dollar,” said Board member David Schoales, who noted children can eat lunch there “every day,” which provides “value to the youth and parents [and] is way beyond the cost” to maintain the facility.

Another good value to the town, according to Elwell, is Town Attorney Robert Fisher, whom the town keeps on retainer.

“We get a tremendous amount of value” from the annual expenditure, Elwell said. This year, the “Contracted Legal Services” line item will go up 2 percent and cost taxpayers $106,080 for FY19.

Fisher “represents the town very well,” said Elwell, and when Fisher has to spend additional time on a town concern, he does not send an extra bill. This, Elwell noted, often keeps Fisher’s hourly fee “below market rate.”

Computer stuff

To explain the $5,000 in the “Software Licenses” line item in the “General Services” proposed budget, Elwell noted this was a long-overdue change.

“We hadn’t been budgeting for software licenses and we need to be,” he said, in order “to be fully compliant with software licensing — and we weren’t.”

Now, he said, town staff are “maintaining our computer systems in a more robust manner,” which costs more money. The “Computer Equipment Maintenance” line item went up 90 percent from FY18 to the proposed FY19 budget, for a FY19 total of $57,000. That figure, though, doesn’t include hiring a webmaster or IT professional.

“We invest ourselves as a staff every day” to keep the town’s website content “robust,” Elwell said, but the town soon should invest money to make it easier for newcomers to find things on the site.

“We could use a webmaster, but it won’t come cheap,” he said, adding that the Selectboard and municipal staff will need to have this conversation in the future.

Board members Tim Wessel and David Schoales both advocated for discussing this in the next year and planning for it in the FY20 budget. Board member Brandie Starr said the town should also consider budgeting for implementation if it wants to accept payments for taxes and other fees online.

“We intend to make [the town website] more user-friendly,” said Elwell, “but we’ve got transparency [now]. The [information] isn’t hidden.”

Finance Committee Chair Franz Reichsman asked Elwell “how secure is our system?” Elwell said the municipal computer system is “more secure” than it was last year, when, during the month of August, the system experienced a security breach.

A modern and up-to-date firewall, a system for regular password changes, and an attentive and regular systems contractor keep the town’s system safe, Elwell said.

“We now have both oversight and daily management of our systems,” he said, and added, “it’s driven by the IT experts.”

Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland noted the town tightened up its servers, too. Whereas the town’s system was formerly served by multiple, aging servers, “now there’s one,” and it’s mirrored into another server as backup.

And, Moreland said, three times each day the entire system gets backed up to a third offsite server location. The town also upgraded its email protocol “to eliminate bogus email flooding,” he noted.

“We need expertise, and we have that now” with the contracted IT service, said Elwell.

Bonds/Notes budget falls

In other good news, Finance Director O’Connor said the “Bonds/Notes” budget has gone down 7.9 percent in the FY19 budget because of refinancing.

Next year, it could be even lower. The bond and note principals are almost paid off, and the town will make no payments on those in 2019. The note, he explained, was for fire equipment, and the bond was for “various capital projects."

The “Ambulance Service” line item in “Auxiliary Services” will go up by $16,500, for a 7.1 percent increase compared with last fiscal year. This is because the town agreed to incrementally eliminate the discount it received from Rescue, Inc. for Brattleboro hosting the nonprofit ambulance company.

Elwell said the town formerly provided Rescue, Inc. with some services, but when that ended, so did the discount — but in stages, to cushion the effect on the town’s budget.

When Elwell noted the roughly $60,000 per year savings the town has achieved by replacing all of the streetlights with LED fixtures, a discussion ensued about whether it was worth it.

Starr said residents have expressed not feeling safe.

“It has become an issue that people think the streetlights are too dim,” added Chair O’Connor.

“I’m downtown a lot at night, and it’s dark,” Starr noted.

Elwell and Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett explained the LED lights are more directional. The old lights — high-pressure sodium fixtures — cast a 360-degree spray of light, including into the sky. The old fixtures also cost more to light.

Chair O’Connor said she wanted “solid answers for the public” on lighting equipment and its costs.

“Is it simple or expensive to change” the fixtures, she asked. “The public deserves to know what it’ll take to make this change,” she noted.

Elwell said he and Board members can talk about that in detail in a future meeting. Barrett said he will ask Green Mountain Power if the current LED fixtures can spread light more diffusely.

Fire department costs

The Fire Department successfully reduced some of its energy costs by $1,500 in this proposed budget. Chief Michael Bucossi explained the lower gas and diesel amounts are due to “more stable fuel costs.”

But the electric bill line item went up by just over $9,500, Bucossi said, because of the bigger square footage at the new Central Station. That’s just an estimate, though, he said, and the true cost for electricity “will be a moving target for the next few years.”

The Fire Department’s FY19 budget shows a $15,000 reduction in vehicle maintenance. It is coming down from a sharp increase a few years ago, Bucossi explained, “from repairs to the infamous ladder truck.”

At the Dec. 5 regular Selectboard meeting, Board members and the Town Manager are expected to discuss purchasing a new aerial ladder truck to replace the 1994 Pierce 105-foot aerial ladder truck, which has reached the end of its lifespan.

The estimated cost for this truck is $1 million, and the town will likely have to borrow half of that to pay for it.

Allen expressed alarm at the 175 percent increase in building repairs. “You’ve got a brand-new building!” he said.

Assistant Chief Leonard Howard III explained the cost. “We’ve got a new building, but some of the stuff in it isn’t new and needs to be maintained.”

Bucossi noted the Central Station’s overhead doors were one example; it is expensive to keep them clean and in working condition, and it wouldn’t be good for them to come crashing down on a truck as it enters or exits the bay.

Police staffing

Like most other departments, the Police Department’s budget increases were mostly found in the staff-related line items. Most of the lengthy discussion between Captain Mark E. Carignan and Selectboard members was about how to recruit and keep police officers.

The department has experienced challenges with staying fully staffed.

“Twenty-seven officers is sufficient for safety,” being proactive, and assisting other community entities, explained Carignan — but, he added, “we’re down five officers.” “22 officers is sufficient for public safety, but it does limit” the department’s ability to work on quality-of-life issues, Carignan noted.

“If we’re fully staffed, it’s a 20 to 25 percent increase” in officers on patrol, Carignan noted.

In the Department of Public Works budget, the painting and repair of bridges will see a 22 percent increase in FY19. Barrett said the $1,800 cost “is a minimal amount” to keep the town’s bridges repaired.

Like other departments, the DPW’s budget increases were mostly staff-related.

Although the sand and salt line items were level-funded for FY19, Barrett noted they dropped in previous years because “we use less salt and sand today than we did 15-20 years ago,” due to “more science [going] into the application, and the equipment is better calibrated” in its release of the materials.

Elwell noted he, Barrett, and the Selectboard will soon discuss adding a second sidewalk plow to the DPW’s equipment.

The Downtown Association seeks a restoration of their funding, Elwell said, from the $75,000 it received in FY18 to the $78,000 the town gave it two years ago. “They’ll come to a future Selectboard meeting with their proposed budget,” Elwell said.

Elwell said he and his staff are monitoring solid waste fees. “There’s a noticeable, incremental increase” in tipping fees for recyclables, he said. “It’s a real-time thing that’s happening right now.”

“We are watching it carefully to see if there’s something we should adjust” in the budget, Elwell said.

In July, the Chinese government announced to the World Trade Organization that it plans to ban various types of solid waste, including recycled plastic and unsorted paper, from entering China.

According to the National Waste & Recycling Association, in 2016, “about a quarter of recyclable paper” was exported to Chinese mills from North America, and in 2015, “over 20 percent of post-consumer bottles and 33 percent of non-bottle rigid plastics from the U.S. were exported.”

“We’re in the middle of a transitional year,” Elwell said. “We have seen a small increase, and we budgeted conservatively,” which, Elwell said, should “buffer a major cost increase” for recycling tipping fees.

Upcoming budget meetings

At the end of the Dec. 2 meeting, Elwell announced upcoming FY19 budget meetings.

In addition to the Dec. 5 ladder truck discussion, the Selectboard will hold a special meeting Dec. 14 to discuss in detail the potential level of service increases in human resources, winter utility items, and $10,000 in training.

At the Dec. 19 regular Board meeting, the Selectboard will work on any changes to the budget proposal since its original Nov. 1 release.

On Jan. 2 and 16, at regular Selectboard meetings, the Board will work out “detailed budget decisions,” Elwell said.

The meetings are open to the public.

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