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Olga Peters/The Commons

Members of Brattleboro Common Sense waited for their turn to speak at a Jan. 29 Selectboard meeting.

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Brattleboro will vote on changes to town charter, local option tax

Selectboard approves ballot for town elections, warning for Representative Town Meeting in March

BRATTLEBORO—At the end of a four-hour meeting, the Brattleboro Selectboard approved the March 3 townwide ballot and March 21 Representative Town Meeting meeting warning.

Depending on how votes go in less than two months, residents could see the adoption of a $15.7 million municipal budget and the lowering of the legal voting age for town elections.

The townwide Australian ballot, along with the customary election of town officers, will include three articles seeking to amend the Town Charter and a non-binding article on the 1-percent local option tax.

A tense air filled the Selectboard Meeting Room on the second floor of the Municipal Center on Jan. 29.

While board members and members of the public alike spoke to items on the printed agenda, personal agendas underscored much of the meeting’s debate.

An atmosphere of mistrust ballooned during the final public hearing on three ballot initiatives to amend the Town Charter.

Kurt Daims, who leads an organization called Brattleboro Common Sense, spoke at length on the three petitions. He started the public hearing requesting that the board adjourn.

According to Daims, the board had broken the law because it started the special meeting at 5:15 p.m. but did not start the public hearing at that time.

The hearing proceeded. State law requires public hearings happen within 10 days of each other.

Daims told the board that “everybody” in town hated and had lost faith in the “stodgy” Representative Town Meeting (RTM).

The ballot articles were motivated by the “disillusionment of the people of Brattleboro with their town government,” Daims said.

The first initiative seeks to lower the legal voting age for town elections from 18 to 16.

The second article would allow residents to call for a townwide vote on any municipal expenditure above $2 million.

The third article calls for term limits of six years for Town Meeting representatives, aims to reinstate a town Grand Juror, and would require employers provide their workers with two hours of paid leave for voting.

Daims, himself a member of RTM for more than six years, said that the charter amendments restore citizens’ free speech and diminish meddling by RTM.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein was the most vocal of the board members during the hearing.

He said that portions of Daims’ articles were “anti-democratic” and could prove “destructive with respect to town government.”

The state constitution sets the legal voting age at 18. Gartenstein asked whether Brattleboro could legally enact a local ordinance allowing youth of 16 and 17 to vote in town elections.

A special procedure for purchases above $2 million could cause confusion, Gartenstein said. Term limits, he added, would “destroy” RTM.

The state requires two public hearings for ballot items submitted through a petition. The amendments will appear on the March 3 townwide Australian ballot.

The board decided that it wanted to launch a public education outreach in response to the three amendments. The board instructed Town Manager Peter Elwell to work with town staff and draft a response to the articles for discussion at the Feb. 3 Selectboard meeting.

Former board member Dora Bouboulis said that the board should remain neutral on the three articles.

The board strongly disagreed.

The verbal exchanges during the hearing between Gartenstein and Daims upset one audience member, who said she felt Gartenstein had become disrespectful: that taking a stand on issues would be unethical for the board, and constitute an abuse of power.

The RTM meeting warning

Approving the warning for the Representative Town Meeting scheduled for March 21 included approving the town budget, a discussion about the 1-percent local option tax and the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project, and whether to add a request to establish a Futures Committee.

The board approved a municipal budget of $15,721,497. This included a $1 million capital budget.

Gartenstein said that the projected fiscal year 2016 tax rate is $1.1902 per $100 of assessed value, a 2 cent increase over the current year.

According to documents from the Town Finance Department, the 1-percent sales tax could bring in enough revenue to drop the tax rate to $1.1381.

The budget total had increased by $7,000 from the Jan. 20 board meeting.

According to Elwell, the board had previously removed $7,000 for building maintenance costs at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, whose property the town owns. BMAC has had a maintenance agreement with the town for more than 40 years.

Elwell said that BMAC missed the deadline for requesting the maintenance funds because of a misunderstanding and that reinstating the $7,000 seemed reasonable.

Gartenstein said the budget includes $207,000 in potential salary increases. All three of the town’s union contracts are up for renegotiation this year.

The town expects to save money on garbage disposal and pickup in the new fiscal year: Along with decreases in disposal fees, the town projects raising $355,000 from the sale of trash bags when it moves to pay-as-you-throw, Gartenstein said.

The Human Services portion of the budget totals $120,000.

The board approved the budget, 4-1. Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor was the lone dissenter.

Police-fire project non-discussion discussion

Budget discussion inevitably turned to the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project.

“I do not think at this point it’s prudent to be taking out another bond on the police-fire facility until we have a plan for the police department,” O’Connor said about her “nay” vote.

Central Station and West Brattleboro Station are ready for construction. New questions have emerged about relocating the Police Department to a different property on Putney Road.

The board included $140,000 toward interest payments in the event the town moves forward on borrowing another $4.7 million toward completing life safety renovations on the three emergency service buildings.

“As long as the money is there for the police-fire bond, I’m going to vote against” the budget, O’Connor said.

Gartenstein said he voted in favor of the budget Jan. 29. He plans to move at RTM to decrease the budget by $140,000.

Board member John Allen, who serves on the police-fire facilities oversight committee, said he wanted to keep the projects moving forward.

“It’s like buying a car and letting it sit at Auto Mall and paying payments,” he said of stalling the project.

Elwell advised the board that changing the location of the police station may require going back to RTM for re-approval.

Gartenstein asked people keep on topic regarding the budget and not debate the police-fire project.

Daims stood and said he was angry the town wouldn’t let people speak in depth about the police-fire project on Jan. 29.

Meeting Member George Reed-Savory said he viewed last year’s budget referendum as a defeat of the police-fire project.

“The town voted against it,” he said. “So I think the town has already decided.”

Resident Dale Joy countered Daims and Reed-Savory.

“The discussion about police and fire goes beyond finances. We have to start thinking of our future,” she said.

If we want a community that stays safe during fires or crimes,, she added, then the community needs to support the people who keep it safe.

Then she said, “We need to think of our safety more than an extra $250” (for a tax increase on a property valued at $500,000).

1-percent on two ballots

The board approved placing the 1-percent option sales tax on both the townwide ballot and the Representative Town Meeting as a binding article. (The townwide ballot is a non-binding article.)

Resident Ann Wright said she had little faith in Town Meeting members. She said she emailed her representatives last year to say she favored enacting the 1-percent tax. None of her representatives voted in favor of the tax.

A tense point in the meeting also centered on whether to put the question of establishing a new committee before RTM.

Meeting Member Spoon Agave spearheaded the creation of the Futures Committee at last year’s RTM.

The board worried the committee could create jurisdictional boundary issues with the Town Planning Department. It also questioned if Agave’s request to establish the committee should appear on the agenda based on a motion passed by RTM last year.

Planning Director Rod Francis raised concerns in a Jan. 13 memo, saying that if RTM “were to create a Committee of the Future the potential for confusion, conflict, and duplication with the statutorily defined role of the Planning Commission exists.”

“If such a body is established, I would strongly urge that no General Fund resources be utilized to support it,” Francis concluded.

Town Attorney Robert Fisher of Fisher & Fisher wrote in a memo to the board that Agave’s request to establish a futures committee was not required to appear on the RTM warning.

According to his reading of 2014 RTM meeting minutes, Fisher wrote that the Selectboard “is under no legal obligation to place an article on the Representative Town Meeting Warning” for the establishment of a futures committee, when the directive of the Representative Town Meeting in June 2014 was to to establish an ad hoc committee that report back to Representative Town Meeting with its recommendations at Town Meeting 2015.

The board finally approved placing the article before RTM as regular business.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #291 (Wednesday, February 4, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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