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The newest members of the Brattleboro Selectboard, Tim Wessel and Brandie Starr, were in attendance at the March 15 informational meeting at Academy School for this year’s Representative Town Meeting.

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Will Brattleboro reinvest in infrastructure?

Members prepare for Annual Representative Town Meeting, with a budget that puts the accent on buildings and equipment

BRATTLEBORO—The pre-Town Meeting Informational Meeting started on a positive note. Many new residents had joined the ranks of Representative Town Meeting Members last week, with only a handful of seats left vacant.

Members gathered at Academy School on March 15 to hear the Selectboard’s budget overview in preparation for annual Representative Town Meeting.

The theme for the fiscal year 2018 budget: reinvestment in town infrastructure.

“One of the real traits of this year’s budget is a renewed commitment to capital investment,” Board Chair David Gartenstein said in his opening remarks.

The town wants to make sure “that we have the capital investments to make sure that we have the infrastructure — the buildings and equipment — we need to provide the services that our tax dollars pay for,” he continued.

Gartenstein explained that after decades of trying to keep the town’s operating expenses down and taxes lower, Selectboard and Meeting Members had opted for cuts, mostly on purchases of equipment and building maintenance.

Despite the good intentions the efforts — at times — left the town a day late and a dollar short.

For example, Gartenstein said, it could take as many as two days to clear the sidewalks after more than 12 inches of snow fell on the town the day before the meeting.

The town once had three sidewalk plows, but “budget cuts resulted in one sidewalk plow, and that one broke down,” Gartenstein said.

Budget details

Gartenstein outlined a number of cost savings the town had made in recent years, like going to twice-monthly trash pick up. But he also offered thanks to Town Manager Peter Elwell.

In the two years since he joined the town, Elwell has conducted multiple studies into the municipality’s operations. These included two reports: a Comprehensive Review of Town Operations and the Long-Term Financial Plan. These two items looked at town services, staffing levels, and capital investment.

The $17,483,841 fiscal year 2018 operating budget increased 7.3 percent compared with the current year, Gartenstein said. But he said taxes will increase only 2.9 percent or the equivalent of $35 on $100,000 of assessed property value.

If approved by Meeting Members, the town wants to use a little more than $1 million in surplus funds towards the operating budget. This money would keep the tax increase to that 2.9 percent.

Gartenstein added that one of the largest increases in the fiscal year 2018 budget is approximately $406,000 toward the bond payment on the Police-Fire Project. 2018 is the highest repayment year. After that, the monthly payments begin to decrease.

Other increases in the upcoming budget include salary increases for town staff of 1 to 2 percent and more than $1 million toward capital improvements and equipment.

Capital improvement plans for the coming year include continued safety improvements at the Municipal Center; installing additional energy-efficient windows at the Gibson-Aiken Center; repaving parking lots; purchasing body cameras for police officers; and purchasing thermal-imaging equipment for the fire department.

Gartenstein noted that staffing costs such as wages and benefits constitute the largest portion of the budget — approximately 57 percent. Department operating costs and capital investments follow. Insurance, legal services, and solid waste make up the smallest part of the budget at about 10 percent.

Articles for consideration

On March 25, Meeting Members will vote on 22 municipal articles.

Members will consider appropriating the sum of $120,000 to support multiple human-services organizations like the AIDS Project of Southern Vermont, Brattleboro Area Hospice, and Youth Services-Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

Members will vote on the special downtown improvement district budget. This tax on downtown property owners funds the Brattleboro Downtown Business Alliance’s $75,000 budget. This is the town’s designated downtown organization, a necessary component of belonging to the state’s downtown revitalization program.

Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies has petitioned Representative Town Meeting to authorize contributing $24,000 for the operation of the regional economic development organization.

The penultimate meeting article will ask members to advise the Selectboard to proclaim the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This would replace “Columbus Day” on the town calendar.

Rich Holschuh, who led the petition drive, spoke on the article, noting that changing the holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a nationwide movement.

“Because its time has come,” he said. “Brattleboro can provide a great deal of leadership in the state because this is where colonization in the state began, in 1724 at Fort Dummer.”

According to Holschuh, Marlboro was the first town in Vermont to formally change the second Monday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Amherst, Mass., has also made the change.

In a report from the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee, the writers expressed support for the fiscal year 2018 budget.

“The town administration and the Selectboard have diligently pursued the creation of a rational and sustainable path for the town’s finances,” committee members wrote.

On the town’s previous habit of delaying capital needs, the committee members wrote: “The practice of identifying infrastructure needs, putting them into future budgets, and then postponing them repeatedly leads to management by crisis and higher expenses overall.”

“We support the creating of a realistic and appropriately funded long-term financial plan, as has been initiated this year,” the committee concluded.

The Town School Board will hold its informational pre-Town Meeting on Wednesday, March 22, starting at 6:30 p.m.

Representative Town Meeting is Saturday, March 25, at the Brattleboro Area Middle School’s multipurpose room. The meeting starts at 8:30 a.m. The public is welcome.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #400 (Wednesday, March 22, 2017).

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