BRATTLEBORO—It took two hours of sometimes contentious debate, but a revised municipal budget was overwhelmingly approved Monday night at a Special Representative Town Meeting in the Brattleboro Area Middle School multipurpose room.
In a roll call vote, Meeting Members approved the new $15.7 million budget, 112 to 12.
The final total represented a series of 1 percent department cuts, delayed capital purchases, and changes in staffing such as reducing the hours for the animal control officer from 40 to 30 hours a week.
The board reduced the fiscal year 2015 budget’s bottom line through cuts of $402,759 and the use of $200,000 from the town’s unassigned fund balance to defray expenses. The reductions totaled $602,759.
Voters defeated the original $16.2 million municipal budget in a special town-wide referendum April 17. The budget passed Representative Town Meeting in March.
The new budget represents a municipal property tax increase of 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, compared to the previous fiscal year.
Prepared for debate
Town department heads sat at the back of the room, armed with three-ring binders and prepared to defend their budget decisions, but Public Works Director Steve Barrett was the only one asked to answer questions (about cuts to the sidewalk maintenance budget).
While $50,000 was cut from the budget for sidewalk repairs and maintenance, said Barrett, some repair funds will remain. The town expects grant funds to make extensive repairs to the sidewalks on the east side of Main Street.
In his opening remarks, Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein said the board started whittling down the budget by making broad changes such as removing $261,473 budgeted for interest payments toward the second police-fire project bond. Without taking out the $9 million bond, the project has been put on hold.
The board then considered deeper structural changes to reduce the budget, said Gartenstein. These structural changes would have included cuts to personnel and services.
Gartenstein added that comments at public meetings persuaded the board that voters did not want cuts to services. In response, the board considered 1 percent cuts across departments.
He said that the board chose not to make additional cuts to departments that received cuts early in the budget process, such as the listers’ office, whose staff have already been told they will have furloughs.
Some meeting members called for the budget’s defeat early in the meeting.
“This budget can’t pass,” said District 3 member Tom Finnell, speaking of elderly landlords on Elliot Street worried about keeping their buildings if property taxes keep rising.
Despite being a town meeting not about the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project, that project took center stage for a portion of the meeting.
District 2 member Kurt Daims argued that the body should have the right to debate the Police-Fire project. The Selectboard’s new budget, said Daims, swapped a $16 million budget for a new budget of around $16 million.
Moderator Lawrin Crispe told Daims that the project needed to be on the meeting warning in order to be debated.
“It’s highly improper to restrict debate,” said Daims, adding that the body could discuss the monies in the budget related to the first police-fire bond for $5 million.
Crispe said that, according to the Brattleboro Town Charter, the board has the right to withdraw issues and continue deliberations at a later time.
Also, he said, capital expenses cannot be voted on without first being considered by the board, which has not finished deliberations.
Amendments put forward by Daims also occupied the floor debate. Meeting Members defeated both amendments.
Daims’ original amendment had two parts: One proposed using the remaining monies from the $5 million police-fire bond taken out last year to pay down other town debts. The second would have taken an additional $500,000 of the undesignated fund balance to defray expenses.
The moderator deemed the first part of the motion as not germane as the police-fire project had not been warned. Crispe also questioned the legality of using bonds to make good town debts.
Town Attorney Robert Fisher agreed with Crispe’s reading of the law.
Crispe told Daims that the Meeting Members could vote on using surplus funds to reduce expenses.
District 1 Meeting Member Billie Stark reminded fellow members that they could use as much of the undesignated fund balance as they wished, but that doing so would impact the tax rate and not reduce the budget.
Should meeting members want to lower the budget, they need to lower expenses, she said.
District 3 Meeting Member Andy Davis said that proceeding with Daims’ amendments was a “sideshow to short-circuit” the budget work conducted by the board and the police-fire project approved in public meetings.
District 1 Meeting Member Lynn Russell called for keeping the fiscal year 2015 budget level with the current budget. This would give the town a full year to consider structural changes to keep property taxes down in the future.
Meeting members also approved creating an ad hoc committee to develop a proposal for a “futures commission.” The committee would create goals and bylaws for the commission.
The commission, proposed by Spoon Agave, would be to study major issues such as economic challenges confronting the town and “recommend[ing] a blueprint for moving Brattleboro toward becoming a sustainable community.”
Crispe also reminded meeting members that the Finance Committee needed new members. Both Town Meeting Members and citizens could serve. (Interested people should write Crispe at Crispe@sover.net.)
As members left the room, papers left on a chair outlined a strategy for slowing the debate and vote.
The strategy on one paper started, “The board has become rather aggressive on this issue and is trying to force a quick vote on this.”
“They may have the votes and may move to cease debate early,” continued the strategy. “So, we have to slow them down and show that we’re not lying down for it.”
The strategy then outlined making preliminary motions and using Robert’s Rules of Order to be aggressive and set the meeting’s pace.
“We may not be a majority, but our voice has grown since the referendum vote and we have the power to BLOCK the budget at this meeting or by referendum. The possibility of referendum is a good motivator,” read the strategy.
Outside the middle school, members congregated on the steps still discussing the budget and outcome of the vote.