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Proposed town budget up 3.71 percent

Town manager and staff report more than $155,000 in savings

BRATTLEBORO—After three months and eight meetings, the Selectboard unanimously approved the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget on Jan. 19.

Board chair David Gartenstein said, “This budget provides essentially level service from last year to this year.”

Compared to fiscal year 2016, the proposed budget increased 3.71 percent.

This increase translates into a property tax increase of $0.0182 per $100 compared to the previous year. The owner of a house valued at $100,000 can expect to see an additional $18.18 on the tax bill.

The tax impacts for houses valued at $200,000 will have an increase of $36.37, and an increase of $54.55 on houses valued at $300,000.

The tax increase for fiscal year 2017 does not include costs related to the Police-Fire Facilities Project.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that since November, Selectboard members and town staff have suggested and sought savings.

These efforts amounted to $155,150 in reductions, Elwell said.

According to Elwell, a reduction of $22,750 was made to the town’s assessment to the Windham Solid Waste Management District. A 50-cent per gallon reduction in the cost of heating oil also helped. Net metering credits accounted for $5,000 in savings, and staff also made changes to the telephone expenses to the tune of $3,000.

The board’s decision to change the municipal curbside trash collection from weekly to every other week accounted for the biggest savings: about $105,500.

Elwell said that department leaders reduced the operating expenses, in the form of supplies and services. Across the board, staff found ways to hold their budgets even or reduced them, he said.

Elwell said these reductions showed employees’ self-discipline.

An impressive display, he continued, because the fiscal year 2017 reductions follow years of cutting costs. Employees constantly seek grant funding and find more efficient ways to deliver services, Elwell said.

Elwell started as town manager a year ago as the board finished building the fiscal year 2016 budget.

“It was helpful that I came on board at the conclusion,” he said, noting that the process helped him prepare for the current budget process.

The fiscal year 2017 budget reflects some changes in the town’s priorities, Elwell said.

To cushion the town against financial uncertainties, the board has ensured that it keeps 10 percent of operating costs in reserve.

“Got that sense of security for unexpected things,” he said.

The board has also prioritized capital funding and projects. Over time, the town will purchase equipment and fund projects with cash rather than debt, Elwell said.

Brattleboro has “significant” infrastructure needs, Elwell said.

Deferred maintenance becomes expensive over time, he said, and old infrastructure’s maintenance costs and replacement costs “increase over time.”

The immediate goal is to catch up on the most pressing infrastructure needs, Elwell said. In the long run, he hopes the town can keep its infrastructure in better overall shape.

Elwell has served as town manager in towns larger than Brattleboro, like Palm Beach, Fla., and Roxbury, N.J.

Those cities and Brattleboro have different challenges, “but not because of size,” Elwell said.

In the case of the well-resourced Palm Springs, when challenges arose, the money existed to address them, he said.

Brattleboro doesn’t have the same level of financial resources, but one thing Elwell loves about the town is the community’s level of engagement.

This town has a number of committed people working to address challenges, he said.

“All of that is helpful to us,” he said.

Town Meeting Members vote on the budget at the annual Representative Town Meeting on March 19.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #341 (Wednesday, January 27, 2016). This story appeared on page C3.

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