BRATTLEBORO—Few increases — and no surprises — have shown up in the proposed budgets for the town’s Public Works and Recreation & Parks departments.
The Selectboard, Town Manager staff, and municipal department heads are engaged in the budget process for fiscal year 2020, meeting nearly every week to hammer out the projected expenses and revenues.
Once the hearings are complete, the board will approve the budget, then send it over to Representative Town Meeting for members’ final adjustments, if any, and their approval.
At the Nov. 27 special Selectboard meeting, Department of Public Works Director Steve Barrett and Recreation & Parks Department Director Carol Lolatte presented their respective numbers.
Recreation & Parks anticipates a 2.6-percent rise in revenues, bringing in $251,700 in FY20. The proposed expenses are $794,614, a $14,359 decrease from the current year.
The DPW’s proposed expenses are $1,746,917, reflecting an increase of $7,476. The DPW anticipates no revenue.
Level funding, mostly
As Lolatte and Barrett went through the details of their respective budgets, a theme emerged: their numbers haven’t changed much since FY19, many items are level-funded, and most of the increases come in the form of employee-related expenses and some utilities.
Other utilities costs will go down, however, because of improved insulation and other efficiency measures.
Barrett noted some of his department’s salary increases are beyond his control and are set through the Town Manager’s office.
Lolatte added that the increase of the Vermont minimum wage from $10.50 to $11 per hour on Jan. 1 will affect many of the young, seasonal employees for Recreation & Park’s functions, thus also affecting her budget.
Lolatte’s proposed budget reflects an increase in department revenues during the next fiscal year, thanks to a few new local organizations paying to rent town facilities.
Some level-funded items in her proposed budget: cemetery maintenance, office supplies, and building repairs at the town’s parks, the pool, the skating rink, and the Gibson-Aiken Center.
The Gibson-Aiken Center’s budget is down by $37,000, the salary for the building’s maintenance person. The town will still fund that position, but the cost will now be classified as part of the town-wide maintenance budget.
Taming the invasive species
Maintenance of the riverbank near the Creamery Bridge, a collaborative effort among the DPW, Parks & Recreation, and local contractors, will cost the town $4,000 more in FY20.
Lolatte explained that the increase covers the annual management of the overgrowth of invasive species, “rather than just when things have gotten out of control.”
Town Manager Peter B. Elwell noted that the area had become overgrown, mostly with Japanese knotweed.
Selectboard member David Schoales pointed out the plant could cause harm to nearby property owners because of its ability to travel and rapidly propagate, and it has already damaged the perennials the garden club planted there.
“The plan is to go in and plant some flowers in there to enhance the whole area,” said Lolatte, and “get rid of the invasives and put in some locals.”
Elwell noted the area isn’t high-use, but is very visible to the many visitors to the Creamery Bridge. “And now it’s on the list of things to take care of,” he said.
No major DPW projects on the horizon
The public works proposed budget remains fairly stable because there are no major upcoming projects, but Barrett pointed out a few higher expenses.
Drainage will cost the town more in FY20 and beyond, because of the state’s recent storm water run-off laws.
Barrett pointed out this legislation, intended “to protect our waterways,” creates stricter guidelines for how towns manage storm drains and ditches along roads. Brattleboro has to buy new pipes this year to comply with the rules.
Elwell warned the Selectboard that “in future years, we’ll see much more of an increase,” for this expense, mostly in the capital budget. He explained the state is “kind of ramping up [to] the stricter regulations,” as the years progress.
Public Works workers need some small tools, so that line item is going up, said Barrett. This new expense is the result of a slight policy change — staff will soon work on their own equipment to remove some of that responsibility from the mechanics.
Mechanics have their own tool boxes, but the other workers don’t. This fund will purchase a central tool supply.
The sections of the DPW’s expenses budget that are either level-funded, or very close to it, are summer roads, bridges, gas and oil, sidewalk repairs, winter roads, and streets — with one notable exception.
Retaining walls are part of the streets budget, and this year the town will repair the wall on the corner of Beech Street and Elliot Terrace for an estimated cost of $4,000.
Although this winter season the town has seen snowfalls that are earlier and heavier than anticipated, Barrett is keeping next year’s winter roads budget level-funded.
It’s hard to tell how much the sand, salt, and plowing needs will fluctuate, he said, explaining that he uses a five-year average when composing his budget.
“But, it may be that the five-year average could change,” said Barrett.
“We use the minimum amount of salt that’s needed to do the job” on slippery winter roads, said Barrett. This is “about half of the recommended salt per ton per mile,” he said, which means the town can keep the roads clear, “but there may be times there’s snow on the roads.”
The DPW’s trucks can measure salt dispersion, he said, “so we’re not wasting the salt.”
The Public Works building will come up again at a future meeting, said Barrett. For now, it’s “in good condition, it’s stable, and it’s safe for the employees, so we’re going to hold off putting a steady diet of money into the building until we look at the big picture,” he said.
Barrett noted the electricity line item is lower for FY20 because the town made energy and insulation improvements on the building.
Other savings reflected in the his budget are in the line item for traffic lights.
The traffic-light system “pretty much works okay the way it is,” said Barrett. He noted some recent improvements to the timing, controllers, and pedestrian-crossing buttons.
Taking the long view on sidewalks
Selectboard member Tim Wessel asked about the overall status of the town’s sidewalks, and if the DPW needed more funding for repairing and maintaining them.
“I think we’re doing really well with that,” said Barrett.
That wasn’t always the case, he added.
The budget for sidewalk maintenance has increased in the last few years, he said, and pointed out it costs $100 per foot for a new sidewalk and granite curb. Sometimes, Barrett noted, DPW staff supplements contractors’ efforts to save money on this work.
When asked how he determines where to send his staff and contractors, Barrett said, “We take input from the public. We also go out and walk on the sidewalks.”
Additionally, the DPW worked with engineers on a survey of the town’s sidewalks. Using this information, the DPW prioritizes projects according to usage. Sometimes the DPW will decide to greatly improve one sidewalk on a small side street and abandon another one in that location, said Barrett.
The town is using different materials and methods in its sidewalk construction, Barrett said. The sidewalk on the south side of High Street is made of asphalt for better winter maintenance — “you put a little salt, it clears,” he said — and to prevent cracks from forming.
This construction decision makes it easier for the town to keep that difficult, often icy, section of sidewalk accessible to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices.
This section and the sidewalk across from the DPW building on Fairground Road, are the test cases, said Barrett. The Fairground Road walk has been paved for about 30 years, he said, “and it has done really well.”
The Whetstone Pathway is also paved, Barrett said, but some pedestrians might not realize that because it’s textured and painted. Using asphalt for tricky or high-traffic walks is most cost-effective, Barrett said, but the plan is to keep nearly all of downtown’s sidewalks in their current concrete form.
The benefit of pavement, he said, is that when it develops a crack, workers can saw-cut the area around it and fill the damaged spot with hot-mix. “It’s back in service that day,” Barrett noted.
Selectboard Vice-Chair Brandie Starr thanked Barrett for the “sidewalk insight.”
“That was good,” she added.