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Downtown Alliance receives approval for budget, work plan

BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard has approved the work plan and budget for the next financial year of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA).

The downtown organization’s items were on hold with the board while Town Manager Peter Elwell worked with DBA members to locate the origin of what turned out to be a $30,389.02 budget surplus.

DBA members told the board the surplus was in part from savings on staff salaries when the organization, formerly Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB), transitioned from a full-time executive director to a part-time coordinator.

The organization hopes to use this surplus money for its façade program, new lighting for the Whetstone pathway, and other downtown enhancements.

Members of the Selectboard asked Elwell to investigate the origin of the surplus funds in December.

The DBA promotes economic activity in the downtown. Its membership approved the $78,000 budget at the organization’s annual meeting in late 2015.

Monies from a special tax levied on properties within an area designated as the Downtown Improvement District (DID) fund DBA’s operating budget.

Consequently, the budget goes through a three-step process: first, DBA’s membership votes to approve the budget; second, the Selectboard; and then — finally — Town Meeting members in March.

Board chair David Gartenstein said Jan. 12 that the board questioned DBA’s budget when it came before the board in December.

Given the amount of the surplus, the board had a choice: Members could approve the budget as presented, or they could approve a lower amount and lower taxes in the DID, he said.

After weeks of poring over financial records as far back as 2005, Elwell told the Selectboard that, while complicated, the finances were sound.

Elwell said it took effort to decipher the organization’s finances, particularly its history in owning and operating the Robert H. Gibson River Garden at 157 Main St.

The organization has also acted as a fiscal agent for some local nonprofits like the Brattleboro Literary Festival, which also helped complicate the issue.

The organization, then BaBB, sold the building to Strolling of the Heifers in 2013. Maintaining and operating the building had driven the organization into debt.

“Everything appears to be in order,” Elwell said, adding that he couldn’t pinpoint a specific source of the surplus.

Unequivocally, he could say there was an operating surplus from the past two fiscal years of $19,514.63.

He added that the “soundness of the books” meant that the “retained earnings” — what the town calls a budget surplus — of more than $30,000 was a “reasonable figure.”

Underspending on staffing and event and rental income offset by other expenses contributed to the extra funds, Elwell said

Selectboard member John Allen urged his colleagues to approve the budget, since there was no impropriety.

“It goes before their people [membership]; they’re the ones that really accepted their budget,” Allen said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #340 (Wednesday, January 20, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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