BRATTLEBORO—For the first time in several years, Town Meeting Members had no controversial items on the agenda.
Representative Town Meeting wrapped after approximately seven hours on March 25. The gathering ended on a note of gratitude for the service of retired Town Clerk Annette Cappy, outgoing Superintendent of Schools Ron Stahley, and School and Town board members who decided to step down: Mark Truhan, Todd Roach, Dick DeGray, and David Gartenstein.
Meeting Members approved all 22 warned articles. The $14.5 million town school budget passed as presented. Members added $10,000 to the town budget to support the work of the energy committee and a potential energy coordinator. This brings the municipal fiscal year 2018 budget to $17,281,841.
Town school taxes will drop slightly in fiscal year 2018 compared to the current year. Municipal taxes will increase 3.5 cents or the equivalent of $35 for each $100,000 in assessed property value.
Meeting Members unanimously approved advising the Selectboard to “proclaim the second Monday of October as Indigenous People’s Day” supplanting Columbus Day.
Meeting Member Margaret Atkinson (District-2) urged the audience to find additional ways to help indigenous groups.
“Just because we recognize history this way does not mean the issues are solved,” she said.
Along with the two major budget articles, Meeting Members also voted on a number of smaller financial items.
Meeting Members overwhelmingly authorized the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union to borrow up to $350,000 to improve the heating system at Green Street School. This vote took place via Australian ballot and passed 114 to 6.
Both school and municipal board members will receive stipends of $3,000 each, with the board chairs receiving $5,000.
Kurt Daims (District-2) reprised his efforts from previous years to raise the board stipends to $20,000 a year and $25,000 for the board chairs. Meeting Members overwhelmingly defeated this motion.
Gartenstein said the Selectboard acts as a form of citizen oversight. It should stay away from “micro management.” It’s not a “day job” to ensure the town delivers services, he said. Professional employees carry out that work, Gartenstein added.
Last year, Meeting Members charged the Representative Town Meeting’s finance committee with investigating raising the stipends with an eye toward diversifying the board. Finance committee members noted that their research among Town Meeting Members pointed to people’s running for office for reasons other than money.
Many members did note that providing child care or elder care during meeting times would relieve pressure on potential candidates with families. Finally, however, the committee members said more data should be collected from people outside Representative Town Meeting before drawing any strong conclusions.
Meeting Members approved the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s $75,000 budget to be raised through a special assessment tax on properties within the Downtown Improvement District.
According to Gartenstein, the tax is levied on 88 buildings in the downtown area. The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and Downtown Improvement District are all part of Brattleboro’s participation in the state’s Downtown Improvement Program.
The $120,000 in human-services funding passed. This money will be spread across 22 organizations. Over the course of the year, a human-services committee vetted applications from organizations and investigated their funding requests and level of need.
Meeting Members and some Selectboard members debated whether to grant the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies a funding request for $24,000 from Program Income as “a contribution to the operation” of SeVEDS.
The town’s seed money for the program income comes from a Community Development Block Grant, not municipal taxes. When it came time to vote, Meeting Members overwhelmingly voted in favor of the contribution.
After some discussion, the Meeting Members overwhelmingly approved rolling $1,099,975 from the Unassigned Fund Balance into the operating budget. These funds will offset operating expenses and fund capital investments.
The Unassigned Fund is monies left over from previous years, sometimes called surplus or “rainy day” funds. The Selectboard tries to keep 10 percent of operating costs in the fund at all times to cover emergencies, such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
The nearly $1.1 million authorized by Meeting Members on Saturday leaves the fund still meeting that 10 percent target.
Town Manager Peter Elwell told Meeting Members that it was “an awful lot of fund balance to use in one year.”
“But,” he continued. “The town had a greater surplus than normal and also increases in real-time revenues that it had committed to capital [investment and equipment].”
This money makes the town’s commitment to catching up on delayed maintenance and capital investment “sustainable,” he said.
And more investment in capital infrastructure and equipment is the hallmark of the fiscal year 2018 budget.
Gartenstein noted that the town has historically cut capital funding to save money.
Unfortunately, this policy hasn’t served the town well on all fronts. Selectboard and Town Meeting Members have noted in the past that the town has only one sidewalk snowplow when it really needs three, for instance, and that the town decided to purchase a fire truck with a (cheaper) commercial chassis when it would have been better served by a truck with an industrial one.
“The Selectboard has concluded that we’ve cut just about as much as we can and it’s time to start making reinvestments,” Gartenstein said.
Gartenstein said the $17.2 million operational budget contains approximately $3.4 million in capital investment — supported in part by the $1 million from the Unassigned Fund balance.
The fiscal year 2018 budget includes investments like a new pumper-rescue truck for the fire department, safety improvements at the Municipal Center, a new street sweeper, body cameras for the police department, and a thermal-imaging camera for the fire department.
The budget approved on March 25 increased 7.3 percent compared with the current year. But because of the Unassigned Funds, taxes won’t increase as much. Taxes will increase 3.5 cents compared with the current year, Gartenstein said.
“Our goal [with this budget] is to try to make sure in the long-term our capital investment and our operating expenses are appropriately calibrated so that we’re providing services expected by people here in town,” he said.
Act 46 discussion
The town School Board provided an update on the WSESU Act 46 process. Essentially, said chair Jill Stahl-Tyler, the process stalled.
At the beginning of the process, it seemed the five member-towns of the Brattleboro Union High School District would merge. But Vernon decided to leave BUHS District #6 in order to preserve school choice. While the other member-towns agreed, Dummerston twice voted “no.” This left the process at an impasse and the schools unmerged.
Mid-month, the Act 46 study committee voted to request help from the state Agency of Education.
To add a wrinkle to the unknown that the school district faces, under the timeline in Act 46, the Agency will decide the fates of any unmerged schools starting Nov. 1.
Handing the process over to the state and losing local control made many Meeting Members squeamish.
Meeting Members approved a motion by George Carvill (District-1) aimed at circumventing the Agency of Education’s power to dictate how schools merge after November.
The Carvill motion said that no merger would take place in the WSESU without affirmative votes from all the towns. The county’s legislative delegation would work with the Agency of Education on behalf of the supervisory union.
Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, cautioned Meeting Members about making the motion.
It’s very unlikely the state will consider a local solution to solve Act 46, he said.
Reminding everyone that the Agency of Education is compelled under Act 46 to have the final say on mergers, Toleno said, “Ultimately the state is committed to having a failsafe in place.”
Despite Toleno’s warnings, the motion passed 72 to 34.
The uncertain future
As noted many times during the meeting, next year may look different at the federal, state, and therefore, local levels.
On both the municipal and school sides, funding for the fiscal year 2018 budget and programs is secure.
But uncertainty looms, with the Trump Administration expressing the desire to cut many of the programs and funding that states, municipalities, and programs rely on.
Elwell focused on the coming budget.
“So, yes, there is great reason to pay close attention to what’s happening in Washington and what will be happening in Montpelier,” Elwell said. “But, I don’t think there’s anything we know well enough right now — nor any area where we are so obviously vulnerable right now — that it would warrant changing how we’re approaching this particular year’s budget.”