BRATTLEBORO—A mix of long-serving and newbie Meeting Members gathered at the Brattleboro Area Middle School multipurpose room on March 24.
Throughout the approximately 11-hour annual Representative Town Meeting, members decided the financial fate of the Selectboard’s proposed budget.
Nothing new compared to previous RTMs.
Yet the March 24 meeting will stand out as different from many of its predecessors.
An atmosphere of optimism, problem solving, and generosity filled the room.
All 29 warned articles passed on Saturday.
After all votes and amendments, the Fiscal Year 2019 budget passed higher than initially proposed by the Selectboard.
According to Town Manager Peter Elwell, RTM approved a budget of $17,755,915.00, with a property tax rate increase of 5.15 cents for fiscal year 2019. That translates into a $51.50 increase per $100,000 of assessed property value.
Moving forward with projects new and old
The surprise vote of the day was additional funding for the skatepark slated for Living Memorial Park.
The Selectboard had proposed taking $20,000 from the town’s unassigned fund balance — often called a “surplus” or “rainy day fund” — for the skatepark project.
Meeting Members had other plans. They wanted to finish the skatepark.
According to BASIC Committee Chair Jeff Clark, after factoring in grants and other fundraising, the committee still needed $60,000 to complete the $230,000 project. BASIC is the committee behind the approximately 5,000 square-foot park.
Meeting Members voted an additional $40,000 for a total of $60,000 for the project.
Meeting Member Shela Linton made the first amendment to raise the amount to $30,000.
Investing in our children “always pays off” and is “way, way more profitable” than the initial cost, Linton said.
Member Rusty Sage followed with a secondary amendment. He said that in 2016, the town gave $20,000 to the project.
“How long will the town sit here and every two years put $20,000 into the park?” Sage asked.
Instead, Sage advocated giving BASIC enough money to close its funding gap. Linton accepted this as a friendly amendment.
Some members wanted to avoid dipping too far into the unassigned fund balance. Later in the meeting, members approved an amendment to increase the Fiscal Year 2019 budget by $40,000.
This move raised the tax increase for the coming fiscal year. But members felt preserving the town’s emergency fund was equally as important as keeping taxes low.
A new fire truck
After considerable debate, Meeting Members also approved $950,000 to purchase a new aerial ladder truck for the Fire Department.
The department’s current aerial truck is 24 years old. The town purchased it second-hand from Sharon, Mass., and, according to town staff, it has already started to malfunction.
Elwell noted that the town normally purchases equipment with cash. The aerial ladder truck is an exception. The town urgently needs to replace its current truck, he said. Also, fire trucks are more expensive than most of the equipment the town buys.
No one questioned the need to replace the department’s aging, second-hand truck, itself a stop-gap for a truck of similar vintage that was no longer safe to use and had to be taken out of service. Debate centered on the best method to pay for it. All cash? A combination of cash and debt? Waiting a year?
Calling on her banking experience, Selectboard Chair Brandie Starr said, “This is the time to borrow.”
“I don’t believe it is fiscally responsible to pay cash,” Starr added.
New Meeting Member Bethany Ranquist said she never appreciated what the fire department does until her family’s home caught fire.
Without the ladder truck, two of her family members probably would have died, Ranquist said.
Meeting Member Spoon Agave asked that the debate leave the “realm of emotions.”
The town needs the fire truck, Agave said. “Is it a good thing to be in debt?”
In the end, the reps overwhelmingly approved the Selectboard’s plan: $450,000 cash and $500,000 in borrowing.
In a floor vote on spending $450,000 in cash, the result tipped heavily to yes. In the Australian Ballot vote — required by law when borrowing — the measure also passed overwhelmingly 113 to 10.
Later in the day, Meeting Member Spoon Agave championed an amendment to raise the general budget by $500,000. He argued that the extra four cents it would cost taxpayers to pay for the vehicle completely in cash would lessen the town’s debt burden. This would save money in the long run.
Meeting Members disagreed. They defeated the Agave amendment.
After the vote, Fire Chief Michael Bucossi described the Meeting Members’ support as, “very humbling.”
Meeting Members wrestled with the best way to support local human service programs.
The RTM’s human service committee had proposed spending $146,000. This sum would be divided between 26 organizations.
The committee based its decisions on an application and vetting process. Criteria included how many Brattleboro residents the organizations served. Not every organization that applied received funds. Not every organization received what it asked for.
Member Alex Fischer proposed an amendment to increase the total by $7,000. The extra money would go to the Women’s Freedom Center and Green Mountain Crossroads. Neither organization received its full ask.
Some Meeting Members questioned circumventing the human service committee’s process and favoring some organizations above others. Others argued that there was no favoring, since any organization could attend RTM and advocate for additional funds.
Human Services Committee member Margaret Atkinson said every organization on the list could speak to urgent needs and good work. The committee existed to dig into the organizations on behalf of the full body.
“Every request does something great for someone in this town,” Atkinson said.
Member Jane Southworth said, “I’m loath to go against the committee’s process.”
Fellow Meeting Member Abigail Mnookin disagreed. Everyone in this room is elected to question and debate, Mnookin said.
Mnookin added, “It’s not our job to rubber stamp everything.”
Debate led to a second amendment and then a friendly amendment. These proposals would have funded all 26 organizations’ full requests, which would have totaled $183,200.
In the end, Meeting Members approved the initial $146,000.
In the interest of pedestrian safety, Meeting Members also approved money for a new sidewalk snow plow.
The $140,000 authorized will buy a second plow to help clear the approximately 14 miles of sidewalk the Department of Public Works maintains. The Selectboard had decided to put the item before Meeting Members rather than include it in the capital budget.
As a result, the new plow will contribute approximately 1.2 cents to the property tax rate.
Other municipal money items
Meeting Members also approved the following spending:
• Moving $300,000 from the unassigned fund balance to the Capital Fund. This money will purchase a new excavator, fund roofing and insulation improvements at the Gibson-Aiken Center, and replace a half-ton pickup truck.
• Retroactively authorize the Selectboard to spend $118,339.17 from the Capital Fund to make emergency repairs to the Harris Place embankment.
• To raise $78,000 through a special tax on properties in the Downtown Improvement District. This tax funds the town’s designated downtown organization, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance.
• To raise $223,276.48 through another special tax on properties within the Mountain Home Park and Deepwood special tax district. This money will help pay debt from improvements to the park’s water and sewer lines.
• Contributions to Green Up Day ($300), the Southern Vermont Watershed Alliance ($1,000), and Brattleboro Sustainable Energy Coalition ($10,000).
• Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) received $24,000.
• Meeting Members also approved a one-year exemption from the education portion of Bradley House’s property taxes.
School and other business
The town school portion of the evening went quickly and with little to no debate.
Meeting Members unanimously approved the school district’s $14,659,600 fiscal year 2019 budget.
The spending per equalized student is 3.1 percent lower than the current year, said members of the town school board. Spending is expected to be $16,356 per equalized pupil.
Under Vermont’s education funding formula, the state weights spending depending on students’s education or socialization needs.
Brattleboro’s Town Schools include Academy, Green Street, Oak Grove, and Early Education Services.
Meeting Members sang “Danny Boy” to remember former Town Moderator and Speaker of the House Tim O’Connor, who died in January.
A nonbinding resolution from Member Kurt Daims to advise the Selectboard to purchase its electricity from renewable sources passed.
Town School Board member Robin Morgan spoke as a community member when she proposed the Selectboard fund childcare at the 2019 RTM. This nonbinding resolution also passed.
Many parents spoke to the need for childcare and hoped the town would also provide it for Selectboard meetings.