BRATTLEBORO—On Aug. 4, Town Manager Peter Elwell released an in-depth overview of town operations, a draft document he calls “a to-do list in context.”
On its surface, it is a list of 50 action items, such as creating a long-term financial plan to accompany the annual town budget.
At a deeper level, the goal of overall long-term stability for the town and its tax rate underscores every item on Elwell’s list.
“We can be methodical in our planning and stable in our implementation,” he said.
Once finalized, the comprehensive review will act as a touchstone for which initiatives and monies the town prioritizes.
“This represents a very long-term commitment,” he said.
The document could potentially represent a culture shift for Brattleboro from often reactive to proactive long-term, methodical planning.
In recent years, town operations have happened in an environment of pass the hot potato. It has been common to ask which operations, services, or infrastructure the municipality can afford, often followed by the question of what the town could do without.
Chronically underfunding town needs often leads to emergency situations that the municipality must react to, Elwell explained.
These emergency situations can contribute to “wild spikes” in the tax rate or the town’s emergency fund, called an unassigned fund balance, Elwell continued.
For example, delayed maintenance at the Municipal Center resulted in the state fire inspector handing the town a list of fire code violations two years ago. The town succeeded in negotiating a three-phase plan to remedy the issues. Still, the price tag exceeded $400,000.
Instituting big-picture planning and funding of town needs, however, is a more proactive approach.
It can help stabilize the tax rate and budget, Elwell said, because town staff and the Selectboard will be able to adjust their spending to coincide with the paying off of debts or the launching of large projects.
“But getting there is a 10-year proposition, not a two-year proposition,” he said.
The 11-page draft document represents more than a year of effort and hundreds of hours of staff time, according to Elwell.
Elwell said he looks forward to receiving community members’ thoughts, questions, and suggestions.
Members of the public can submit comments on the review until Sept 9.
Elwell will incorporate public comments into a new draft comprehensive review before resubmitting it to the Selectboard. The board will discuss the document at either its Sept. 20 or Oct. 4 meeting.
Moving away from ‘underinvestment’
Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein praised the review.
“This is a great piece of work,” Gartenstein said. “It will serve as a model and series of guidelines for moving forward and improving town operations.”
Elwell said that because the comprehensive review will reflect the town’s priorities, “it’s very important that the Selectboard owns it.”
Elwell cautioned community members not to expect “substantial” cost savings within the review. Instead, he said, the community can expect efforts to moderate spending and increase the stability of town operations, services, and the tax rate.
The level of quality in Brattleboro’s town staff and the community’s engagement impressed Elwell at his first interview with the Selectboard, he said. Elwell took the post of town manager in January 2015.
Brattleboro has “so much that’s done well,” Elwell said, that he feels the town is ready to undertake a prolonged improvement effort.
Shortly after his hiring, the Selectboard asked Elwell to complete a comprehensive review.
Elwell, with the help of town staff, said he examined every aspect of town government.
He had three objectives:
1. Save money (without negatively affecting services).
2. Improve services (without increasing costs).
3. Prudently increase spending in areas previously cut severely, or in areas where new investment would provide positive results for the community.
Elwell summed up his findings by saying that Brattleboro’s prolonged cost control has resulted in the town’s “underinvestment” in crucial areas like infrastructure.
“In too many instances we’ve been waiting for the system to fail,” he said of the town’s history of delayed maintenance.
The municipality must recalibrate, he said.
According to Elwell, the town has experienced the financial ups and downs any community experiences.
“Put another way, there were periods of investment and period of cost cutting, but the overall trend was upwards and the overall focus was on maintaining the generally high levels of service,” he continued.
“Then, during the past two decades, Brattleboro experienced a prolonged period of cost cutting and budget constraints in virtually all areas of town government,” he said.
“Some cuts have resulted from innovations and efficiencies, while others have simply reduced resources to avoid or contain increased costs,” he said.
The action items listed in the review are grouped into “already accomplished,” “short term (0-2 years),” “medium term (2-5 years),” and “long term (more than five years).”
Elwell listed seven findings in the introduction to the comprehensive review.
His first finding: “There is no more ‘low hanging fruit’,” Elwell wrote. “We can — and will — achieve efficiencies in town operations, but any major budget cuts in the future will require noticeable reductions in levels of service.”
During discussions in 2014 after voters defeated the town budget in a special referendum, some opponents of the estimated $14.1 million Police-Fire Facilities upgrade project expressed fear that paying to rehabilitate the stations would lead to a loss of other town services.
Elwell also noted that some deep cuts, such as in updating information technology systems, might have saved money but have had negative consequences.
“During the past two decades,” Elwell wrote in the review, “Town staff has developed an outstanding ability to respond to and overcome crisis situations.”
Elwell said it’s important to him that the community recognize town staff’s ability to soldier on through every challenge and budget cut sent its way.
“Implementing the action items will result in more long-term planning and fewer emergencies,” he continued, “but we will benefit from staff’s resilience and adaptability as we encounter unforeseen challenges and/or unintended consequences during implementation of changes in the way we do business.”
Action items included in the review are: creating a long-term financial plan; increasing, where possible, sources of current and potential nontax revenue; and creating a realistic and sustainable capital improvement plan.
Other items focused on increasing — or saving — revenue include organizing a regional economic hub coalition and implementing revenues other than the property tax through measures such as instituting a payroll tax on commuters; reviewing payments in lieu of taxes on tax-exempt properties; and considering centralizing administrative town functions.
Some action items focus on the nitty-gritty of managing a large town of almost 12,000, such as allowing residents to pay for more town services with a credit or debit card, completing succession planning for all departments, and updating employee manuals.
Elwell said the review didn’t turn up anything shocking for him. What it highlighted, he said, was the magnitude — or not — of some of the town’s challenges.
Addressing and funding capital investments and infrastructure “clearly needs to be aggressive,” Elwell said.
He warned that getting honest about the town’s capital needs “will feel scary at first.”
“We’re going to have to work together … to find the right balance there and pace there,” he said.
Members of the public can submit comments online or by mail.
Elwell stressed again that he wants as many comments as possible.
“It has to be everybody’s [comprehensive review],” he said.