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Proposed Brattleboro FY16 municipal budget shows modest increases

Debate continues on police-fire project

BRATTLEBORO—With two months remaining until Town Meeting, the Brattleboro Selectboard is in the home stretch on the town budget for fiscal year 2016.

According to a memo to the board from Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland, the budget shows a moderate increase of $39,628 over the current fiscal year.

If Representative Town Meeting members pass it as is, the $15,721,494 budget would yield a municipal tax rate of $1.1902 per $100 of assessed property value. That represents a rate increase of 2.47 cents over the previous year.

That said, this tax rate could decrease to $1.1381 should Town Meeting Members enact the ever-discussed but never-approved, 1-percent local option sales tax.

According to estimates from Finance Director John O’Connor, the 1 percent tax would add $600,000 to municipal coffers.

In an environment of increasing property taxes and, for many breadwinners, stagnant wages, the selectboard has wrestled with balancing the budget, delivering municipal services, and keeping the tax rate down.

Voters in April 2014 nixed the budget in a special townwide referendum a month after Town Meeting Members approved it.

Board members and department heads started discussing the proposed FY16 budget last autumn.

Solid waste expenses will decrease for FY16. New statewide legislation mandates that towns shift to pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) trash disposal systems.

Starting with the new fiscal year, Brattleboro residents will purchase marked trash bags from the town rather than pay for trash pickup through taxes. As a result, the town has decreased its solid waste expense by $451,145. This decrease meant a cut of $0.039 from the tax rate.

According to O’Connor, union contracts with the town expire this year. Unsure what the renegotiated contracts will contain, the town has included a potential 2-percent pay increase, totaling $130,000, for all employees in the FY16 budget.

One expense on the horizon includes an estimated $450,000 in repairs due to Municipal Center fire and life safety issues.

According to Moreland in a memo, a state Division of Fire Safety inspection of the Municipal Center last March revealed multiple problems.

The inspectors’ biggest concern centered on egress and how quickly people could exit the building in the event of a a fire.

Installing a sprinkler system throughout the building, adding fire-proofing, and updating the fire alarm system are among the changes the town is asked to make.

The FY16 budget includes $828,000 for capital needs over five years. It also contains $140,204 for interest payments should the town elect to borrow $4.7 million toward the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project.

The town would use the additional bond funds to complete work on the Central Fire Station on Elliot Street, and Station 2 in West Brattleboro, and potentially moving the police department to a different building.

Despite extensive discussions at Selectboard meetings and in the press, members of the public at the Jan. 6 Selectboard meeting said that the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project had not received sufficient public discussion or outreach.

District 3 Town Meeting Member Judith Davidson said that absent a public process, the town should halt process on the next phase of the police-fire project, or applying the $140,000 toward interest payments in the budget.

Davidson said it seemed to her last year’s special budget referendum was a vote on the police-fire project.

She added that she believes the public lacks understanding about the reasoning behind the project and that the town should hold “a really thorough public process on all three parts” — the police station, Central Station, and Station 2.

District 2 Town Meeting Member George Reed-Savory agreed. “I think it would be important to the community to open this back up,” he said of public discussion.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein said the town was completely up front about the project’s costs and its effect on property taxes.

“There was a great public participation on the police-fire project,” he said. He added that it’s not fair that the budget has been held hostage, and explained one way to pay for the police-fire project is to pass the 1-percent local option sales tax.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #289 (Wednesday, January 21, 2015). This story appeared on page A3.

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