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Brattleboro Selectboard asks departments to find more budget cuts

BRATTLEBORO—The Selectboard has asked town department heads to review their proposed budgets once again and find more ways to cut the town’s fiscal year 2012 budget.

The draft budget discussed at Monday’s special meeting shows a 4.6 percent increase over last year’s level-funded budget.

Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray said he preferred to see only a 3 percent increase for FY 2012.

During the meeting, Town Manager Barbara Sondag and department heads suggested saving money by cutting funds for road paving and a trackless tractor used to clear snow from sidewalks. If made, these cuts would only reduce the budget by 1-2 percent.

DeGray urged them to find more places to cut expenses.

Selectboard members Martha O’Connor and Daryl Pillsbury said they felt comfortable with a 4.6 percent increase for FY 2012.

DeGray and Selectboard members Dora Bouboulis and Jesse Corum wanted expenses lowered.

“I cannot see reducing what we’ve got,” said O’Connor.

O’Connor said she felt comfortable with the increase because cutting the budget meant cutting services.

“Every dollar has an advocate,” said DeGray.

“Every dollar represents a service and any [dollar] change represents a change in services,” said Sondag in an earlier interview.

According to Sondag, the Selectboard has seen all the proposed operating expenses and revenue projections. They’re reviewing the capital plan and debt services schedule, a document detailing what old debt the town is paying off and what new debt it is taking on.

Sondag said decisions at this stage of the budgeting process mark “where the rubber hits the road.”

She said capital expenses for FY2012 will be higher because the town had decided to defer some maintenance in past years. Capital expenses are purchases of over $10,000 for equipment with long lifespans, like vehicles, or long-term infrastructure improvements.

“Projects are not cheaper if they have to be done on an emergency basis,” Sondag said, adding the town prefers to take proactive actions.

The town is considering replacing a 1971 Maxim fire engine. The floorboards are rusted through, and the doors won’t close properly.

“If we ask, should we replace the vehicle it’s a simple ‘yes’ answer,” said Sondag. “But the answers become harder when the town asks, ‘Do we need the fire engine?’”

Sondag said the Selectboard isn’t insisting on level-funded budgets as it did for FY 2011. According to Sondag, the board witnessed how hard level-funding became, and this year, increases in capital expenses and health insurance would make level funding nearly impossible.

Last year saw no increases in health insurance, but rates will jump 25 percent for FY 2012.

 Changes in the federal health care requirements are contributing to the rate change, as is the fact that Brattleboro’s workforce is in a high-risk pool, said Sondag.

“My goal is always get as close to level-funding as we can,” said DeGray in an earlier interview.

But it is probably not realistic for this fiscal year without terminating services, he said. Last year, for example, the town chose not to plow all the sidewalks to save money, but residents complained.

DeGray said there are some big-ticket items for the town to consider, like a $400,000 fire truck, a $150,000 highway department truck, two police cruisers and a Parks and Recreation Department vehicle.

In addition, the town is considering $400,000 in street paving, as well as about $50,000 in repairs for the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center — a building the town owns and leases to the museum for $1 — as well as repairs to buildings inhabited by the Women’s Crisis Center programs.

“Start adding all those things up, and it become almost overwhelming,” said DeGray.

During Monday’s meeting, DeGray made his pitch for a 1 percent sales tax to capture some of the revenue spent by visitors. The current 1 percent room-and-meals tax brings in about $300,000 a year.

DeGray said the town must try “to garner another form of income” from an outside source.

Sondag informed the Selectboard that the $300,000 that the 1 percent meals and rooms tax brings in does not cover all expenses. She said the town needed about $800,000 in cash just to stay current with services.

“We do a lot of transient business,” said DeGray. “People come to Brattleboro because it is unique, and we need to take advantage of that.”

According to 2009 data, the most recent numbers on record, a 1 percent sales tax would have accumulated $673,069 in revenue for Brattleboro.

“At the end of the day, it would be a huge benefit for Brattleboro taxpayers,” said DeGray.

Selectboard Clerk Jesse Corum said he could not support the current proposed budget.

Corum said that to sell DeGray’s sales tax to Town Meeting Representatives, the Selectboard would need to earmark the money for something tangible, like paving or sidewalk repair. Selectboard Member Dora Bouboulis agreed.

DeGray said he would be open to making the sales tax temporary.

O’Connor said she couldn’t support the new tax. Brattleboro’s proximity to Massachusetts and tax-free New Hampshire made it too easy for people go elsewhere.

Bouboulis said she wished Windham County had a countywide tax charged to the surrounding towns, calling Brattleboro a hub town that “bears the burden and [from which] other towns benefit.”

“I’m not angry with department heads [for increases], but at some point we can’t keep raising taxes,” said DeGray.

The budget process began in September and will continue until January. Town Meeting Representatives will vote on the budget in March. The town will set the tax rate based on the budget and Grand List in July.

Sondag described passing a budget as the hardest and most important thing that the Selectboard does.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #79 (Wednesday, December 8, 2010).

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