BRATTLEBORO—The two big-ticket items — municipal and town school budgets — passed with overwhelming majorities on Saturday at the Annual Representative Town Meeting.
Months of budget preparation, a special meeting on the Police-Fire Facilities Project, elections of new Town Meeting members, and two informational meetings culminated in one of the shorter Annual Representative Town Meetings in recent history.
Town Meeting members voted on 30 articles during the almost-eight-hour meeting.
Town budget passes
Meeting members approved the $16.2 million municipal budget as presented by the Selectboard.
The fiscal 2017 budget carries a tax increase of 3.32 cents per $100 of assessed value: 1.82 cents related to funding the municipal budget and 1.5 cents necessary to fund the first year of debt repayment on the Police-Fire Project bond.
According to a memo from Town Manager Peter Elwell, the fiscal year 2017 budget increased 2.9 percent over to the current fiscal year’s.
Spoon Agave (District 3) said that he could afford to pay the tax increase, but he worried about people in town who could not.
“I’m in a position that I cannot take into consideration a very large part of my community because I know nothing of their circumstance,” Agave said.
Donald Webster (District 3) countered that it’s presumptuous and unfair for the meeting members to assume that just because people have low incomes, they don’t want municipal services like police and fire.
Margaret Atkinson (District 2), a former town school board member, said she wanted to remind people that the role of government is “providing things collectively that we can’t provide individually.”
The meeting members approved six members to the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee. The committee will analyze aspect of Brattleboro’s finances and make recommendations to the other meeting members.
Incumbents Paula Melton (District 1) and Franz Reichsman (District 2) agreed to serve another year. Maya Hasegawa (District 2), Ralph Meima (District 3), and Carrie Storm (District 2) also joined the committee. Meeting Member Tad Montgomery (District 2) nominated Avery Schwenk, former Selectboard candidate, to join the committee.
Along with the budget, the body approved using $449,225 of the Unassigned General Fund, sometimes called a budget surplus, for two capital projects: the Bonnyvale Road Retaining Wall and the swimming pool at Living Memorial Park.
The board will use $134,225 of the total to reduce the tax levy for fiscal year 2017.
Charter changes approved
Two changes to the Brattleboro Town Charter were approved.
The first change shifts the deadline for incumbents to hand in their notice to have their name placed on the ballot to the sixth Monday prior to the election. The original deadline called for in the charter was the seventh Monday, which will fall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which the town now recognizes. Town offices will likely be closed.
Change number two allows the use of mechanical tabulation of ballots from citizens casting early ballots.
Town Clerk Annette Cappy recommended both changes.
Special funding approved
Meeting members approved a slate of smaller funding packages, special tax assessments, and tax exemptions for various local organizations and programs.
• Two special assessments: $78,000 from an assessment raised on downtown property owners to fund the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s programs to promote Brattleboro; and $223,276.48 for the Mountain Home Park. Special assessments are district-based and raised for specific purposes like Mountain Home Park’s repayment of a debt to the town.
• $10,000 for Brattleboro Climate Change.
• $120,000 to fund multiple human service organizations such as Brattleboro Area Hospice, Boys & Girls Club, and KidsPLAYce.
• $25,000 from Program Income (this money comes from a revolving loan fund, not taxes) to support the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies.
Meeting members approved five years of municipal property tax exemptions for six properties: Brattleboro Post 5 Little League, Rescue Inc., Camp Waubonong, Inc., Holton Home, Bradley House, and Family Garden, Inc.
Meeting members also approved two years of education tax exemption for Bradley House and Family Garden.
Budgets pass despite Police-Fire Project concern
Meeting members overwhelmingly defeated an amendment proposed by Kurt Daims (District 2) seeking to reduce the municipal budget by $176,906 — the same amount required to pay the first year of debt on the Police-Fire Project.
Daims has long opposed the project, citing a number of factors, including the burden of the project on taxpayers.
Members one week prior, on March 12, had approved reallocating funds to move the police department to Black Mountain Road in a 111–27 vote.
By unanimous vote, members also approved the $15.9 million town school budget. This budget covers Brattleboro’s three elementary schools and Early Education Services.
According to the School Board directors, the fiscal year 2017 budget represents spending of $15,292 per equalized pupil. This amount is 1.8 percent less than the previous year.
School Board Chair Jill Stahl-Tyler explained that the town schools got lucky this year with the 1.8-percent decrease, due to a one-time recalculation at the state level that factored preschool-aged students into the state education-funding formulas for the first time.
According to Stahl-Tyler, the town schools have provided services for these children for years. She cautioned the audience to not expect the same stroke of good fortune next year.
Pay parity for School Board directors
The School Board directors received a stroke of luck themselves: Meeting Member Mary Copans (District 3) made an amendment — and the representatives approved — raising the school board directors’ annual stipend to match Selectboard members’.
Each director typically receives $2,000 per year, with the chair receiving $3,000. Copans’ amendment raised the compensation to $3,000 and $5,000, respectively.
Copans argued that the directors worked as hard, as long, and on issues just as complicated as the Selectboard.
After the vote, Stahl-Tyler said that the directors would shift some other items in the budget so as to not go above the state’s spending cap for school budgets with the new compensation.
Committee to study board compensation
Daims also put forward an amendment regarding board compensation.
Early in the meeting, Daims proposed an amendment to raise the Selectboard members’ annual stipend from $3,000 (members) and $5,000 (chair) to $20,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Meeting members liked Daims’ argument: higher compensation could help diversify the board. It would allow more people of lower income levels work the hours these leadership positions demand.
Young parents, for example, could become more active in town government if they had a stipend that could let them pay for essentials like child care during meeting times, Daims argued.
Meeting members agreed with the premise. They did not, however, feel comfortable making such a big change on the fly.
Atkinson (District 2) said that when the representatives started talking about “professionalizing the salary of town government,” the reps needed to also consider if they were opening the door to professional politicians.
Instead, Franz Reichsman (District 2), one of the members of the Town Meeting Finance Committee, said the committee would investigate the issue. The committee will report its findings by next Representative Town Meeting.
Later in the day, a few meeting members felt angry when they learned that Daims had intended to fund the additional board compensation by effectively seeking to defund the Police-Fire Project.
Resolutions and goodbyes
Meeting Members passed a number of non-binding resolutions at the end of the meeting under other business.
• Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein read a resolution thanking outgoing board member Donna Macomber for her nearly three years of service on the board.
• Meeting Members passed a non-binding resolution by Dylan Mackinnon (District 2) to rename the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
• After the meeting adjourned, Meeting Member Dora Bouboulis (District 3) discussed the petition she’s circulated to bring the March 12 Police-Fire Project vote to a town-wide referendum.
To trigger a referendum, Bouboulis must gather either 50 signatures from Town Meeting members or approximately 400 voter signatures, equivalent to 5 percent of registered voters.
Bouboulis said that she might not be able to gather enough signatures but feels strongly that big projects that carry as much financial and social weight as the Police-Fire Project should be voted on directly by all voters, not just by members at Representative Town Meeting.
Her deadline is Tuesday, March 22, at 5 p.m.