BRATTLEBORO—Town Meeting Members quizzed the Selectboard and town staff on the municipality’s big budget items on March 14 at the Academy School.
The members will vote on a total of 30 articles — school and municipal — at the annual Representative Town Meeting on March 24 in the multipurpose room at Brattleboro Area Middle School.
Board members have presented a $17.5 million municipal budget for fiscal year 2019. If passed as is, the fiscal year 2019 budget carries a 3.6 cent increase in property taxes. That translates into an additional $36 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
After the informational meeting, Town Manager Peter Elwell explained that, in total, the FY19 budget increased less than 0.5 percent.
“This year’s budget uses less fund balance and has fewer capital expenses in it than last year. So, the impact of that is a tax increase that is proposed to be a 3.6 cent increase. Or a 2.9 percent increase,” Elwell said.
But, he noted, the 2.9 percent “tax increase is larger than the overall budget increase just because of the distribution of the different sources of revenue and the different expenditures.”
During the two-hour informational meeting, questions by Town Meeting Members focused mostly on the purchase of a new ladder truck for the Fire Department.
The Selectboard proposes to buy the $950,000 fire truck with a combination of cash and borrowing.
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor said the board felt the truck was important enough to purchase in FY19 rather than wait a year.
The board proposed purchasing the fire truck with a mix of cash and borrowing to keep the tax rate down. Paying for the truck with cash might have created an 8 cent tax increase.
Questions such as “How can the town avoid using debt to buy the truck?”; “Could the town pay for the truck in cash if it waited one more year?”; and “How many useful years does the department’s second-hand ladder truck have?” echoed the discussions that played out at Selectboard meetings during the board’s budget-building process.
“I can’t stand here and tell you today if the aerial truck we have will last one year, one week, or one day,” Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said.
The department’s current ladder truck was picked up second-hand from the Sharon, Mass., Fire Department, and is more than 20 years old.
Town Meeting member Spoon Agave told the audience, “I feel like the Selectboard is misconstruing what saves people money.”
Over the next 10 years, the debt taken out on the truck would end up raising taxes, Agave said.
Instead, he recommended that the board and Meeting Members pay for the truck with cash. Raise taxes by the 3 or 4 cents it would take to pay for the truck, he said.
“We refuse to save money by paying for things in cash or charging ourselves,” Agave said. “We’re just trying to con ourselves” that borrowing is cheaper.
Town Meeting Member Nancy Anderson said she trusted the town staff to judge when to replace equipment.
“I don’t believe any of us are comfortable taking the risk,” she said.
Meeting Members will vote twice on the aerial ladder truck. First, Meeting Members will vote on the $500,000 bond portion through Australian ballot. If approved, interest on the 10-year bond wouldn’t exceed 5 percent. Vermont law requires bonds to be voted on via Australian Ballot.
Second, Meeting Members will vote to transfer the $450,000 cash portion of the truck’s cost from the unassigned fund to the capital fund.
Town Meeting Members might also approve the additional purchase of a $140,000 sidewalk snowplow. The Department of Public Works has one working sidewalk plow. The town’s Traffic Safety Committee recommended the purchase of a second.
The board decided not to include the sidewalk plow in the FY19 budget. Instead Meeting Members will vote on the item separately.
If approved, Elwell said the purchase would add money to the budget’s bottom line.
“If the sidewalk plow is authorized,” Elwell said. “It would add an additional 1.2 cents to the budget.”
“So, instead of a 3.6 cent increase, it would be a 4.8 cent increase,” he said. “Per $100,000 of property value, it would be a $48 increase.”
Meeting Member Terry Carter said the sidewalk plow was “essential for safety.”
Director of Public Works Steve Barrett said a second plow would make clearing the sidewalks more efficient. Still he surprised some in the audience by adding that the aerial fire truck was a higher priority.
New to the FY19 budget is $60,000 for a staff position: a human resources professional.
Other municipal budget items of note include $10,000 for training in diversity, inclusion, and equity. Board members highlighted the need for training after a series of community conversations last year.
The board also proposed $20,000 towards the construction of the skatepark at Living Memorial Park.
Meeting Member Elizabeth McLoughlin also serves on the skatepark committee. She said that the park is closer to construction if the town’s $20,000, fundraising, and a potential matching grant from the Tarrant Foundation all come together.
A total of $300,000 for capital projects will also come before Meeting Members. These monies would fund repairs to the Gibson-Aiken Center’s roof. Monies also will purchase an excavator and a 1/2-ton pickup truck.
The Human Services committee asks Meeting Members to approve $146,000 to support 26 organizations that serve Brattleboro residents.
If Members approve all the budget items, the town will end up dipping into its 10 percent reserve fund, said Board Chair Kate O’Connor. In practice, the town tries to maintain 10 percent of operating costs in savings. This “rainy day fund” has helped the town during emergencies such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
Representative Town Meeting must decide if it’s comfortable with the remaining 9.6 percent as an emergency fund, O’Connor said.
Today, March 21, Meeting Members will gather at 6:30 p.m., at Oak Grove School for the school-related informational meeting. There will also be another caucus of the three voting districts to fill vacant Town Meeting Member positions.