BRATTLEBORO—Representative Town Meeting Members experienced two positive developments at its pre-Annual Town Meeting information session on Monday night.
The first: Many new faces will join the ranks of Town Meeting members.
The second: Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein’s announcement property that taxes will not increase in the upcoming year.
With members gathered for an informational overview of the new $15.5 million fiscal year 2016 general fund budget in the Academy School gym, Gartenstein explained that, initially, the fiscal year 2016 budget had a 2-percent tax increase.
“Essentially, our goal was to provide level service,” said Gartenstein.
A combination of savings and budget changes, however, resulted in a 0-percent tax increase, he said.
The board approved a $15.7 million budget earlier this year. By March 3, however, reductions within the budget — such as the capital plan, fuel oil costs, and the Police-Fire Facilities Project — reduced the bottom line enough to also reduce the amount needed to be raised through property taxes.
The new budget, said Gartenstein, is $15.5 million.
Reductions included just over $59,000 on fuel oil at $1.99 a gallon and removing $140,000 to pay interest on additional bonds anticipated for the police-fire project.
Some capital projects intended to receive funding in the new fiscal year have received grant funding and can move forward now, said Gartenstein.
Certain capital projects, such as rebuilding the Green Street retaining wall, can’t wait, he said.
“That wall is falling down, and we can no longer predict how long it will stay stable,” he said.
Gartenstein explained that approximately 65 percent — $10 million — of the budget funds staff salaries and benefits.
Next, “big ticket items” like liability insurance, the $120,000 human-services budget, and street lighting add to the bottom line. Finally, approximately $2 million covers smaller expenses, such as phone service, road salt, or heating fuel.
Solid waste policy: the next generation
A significant change in the budget is the town’s decision to create an enterprise fund devoted to solid-waste removal.
Enterprise funds are budgets separate from a government’s general fund, or operating budget. They fund specific projects or activities. Governments can funnel tax dollars into such funds, but often their money comes from fees. Brattleboro’s parking system is managed through an enterprise fund.
Traditionally, Brattleboro residents have paid for curbside rubbish and recycling pick-up through taxes. This will change July 1, when a new state law will require that towns switch to a pay-as-you-throw system.
The new law aims to increase Vermonters’ rate of recycling and composting. One of the ways it seeks to achieve this goal is through mandating that people pay to toss garbage and that towns enact composting programs.
Brattleboro has decided to mandate residents buy town-approved bags for rubbish disposal. Recycling programs will continue and the town-wide curbside compost pick-up program will expand.
An annual transfer of $555,500 from the operating budget into the waste-management enterprise fund, and an estimated $350,000 from the sale of bags, will fund the town’s new pay-as-you-throw system. Medium bags will cost $2 and large bags $3.
“Everybody is way encouraged to take advantage of recycling and composting,” said Gartenstein.
Recycling and composting heavily will translate into very little rubbish going into the mandated trash bags. This should keep people’s costs down, he said.
When Meeting Member Andrew Davis (District 3) asked about the disconnect between a 0-percent budget increase and a new out-of-pocket expense for residents who will be required to buy town-approved trash bags, Gartenstein acknowledged that “[t]hat is a real increase people are going to be carrying going forward.”
Discussion about the project that won’t be discussed
Meeting Member Stephen Phillips (District 3), a member of the Police-Fire Project Oversight Committee, asked the board how it planned to advance renovations of Brattleboro’s two fire stations and police station.
The board initially included $140,000 in the fiscal year 2016 budget to cover interest payments for additional project-related bonds.
Word from the state bond bank, however, put a hold on the project. According to bond counsel, the motion to fund the project, approved at a Special Town Meeting in October 2012, approved borrowing to renovate three buildings in three specific locations.
Now that the town might relocate the police station to property on Putney Road, the project has changed enough to require a new vote by Representative Town Meeting.
Gartenstein opened the night’s meeting with the stipulation that the evening would not include debate or discussion on the police-fire project, since the project is not on the meeting warning.
While the board has not reached consensus on how to continue the project, Gartenstein said discussion would happen as soon as possible.
Board member David Schoales said a majority of the board supports the project. In the upcoming weeks — Gartenstein said months — Schoales said the board expected to receive a comprehensive plan for taking the project to the next level.
Saving for a rainy day
The board also achieved some budget reductions through dipping into the town’s unassigned reserve fund, or as Town Manager Peter Elwell called it, the “savings account.”
Elwell assured the meeting members that the town will maintain 10 percent of its operating expenses in the account for rainy-day emergencies.
The town relied on its unassigned fund balance in the days after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011. Former Town Manager Barbara Sondag told the board in multiple meetings that the reserve fund provided immediate financing to pay for repairs until state and federal disaster funds arrived.
The budget calls for using $96,000 from the unassigned fund balance toward emergency capital projects like the collapsing retaining wall on Green Street or the hole in the Elliot Street bridge.
Elwell stressed his belief that the town’s savings account should not be used for ongoing expenses. Doing so points to Brattleboro “living beyond our means,” he said.
Another pleasant bonus for the town was that the Grand List increased by $4 million.
That increase translates into more property assessments funding the budget, which can help reduce taxes for homeowners by about $4 on a $100,000 home, said Gartenstein.
Town Clerk Annette Cappy spoke to two proposed charter changes that her department asked to come before meeting members.
Town Meeting Members must approve the charter changes at two Town Meetings — one can be a Special Town Meeting — before the amended charter goes to the Legislature for final approval.
The first change she described as a “housekeeping item”: changing the deadline for incumbent Town Meeting members to submit campaign paperwork to the Town Clerk’s office so it will be the same date as the deadline for those running for the first time.
A second change could mark a first for the state.
Cappy, in discussion with the Secretary of State’s office, would like approval to use the town’s election tabulation machines for early voting.
Traditionally, early ballots sit in their original envelopes until election day, said Cappy. Some voters expressed concern that their early ballots are less private than ones made on election day because they must sign their names to the exterior envelopes.
Placing the early ballots straight into the tabulation machines, said Cappy, would commingle them with election-day ballots.
The machines would remain in a secure area marked with special tamper evident seals to verify that no one disturbed the ballots, said Cappy.
The Secretary of State’s office hopes that the potential charter change could spur a pilot program in Brattleboro that would explore if using the machines in this way increases voter turnout, said Cappy.
“We think this would increase voter participation,” she said.