BRATTLEBORO—On March 23, Representative Town Meeting members will consider almost $18 million of expenses for the town’s next financial year, as well as take key votes on a 1-percent local-option sales tax, funding a request for a marketing effort, and instituting a new program for inspecting rental properties.
In the 25 articles that will face the body on Saturday, members will also weigh in on a nonbinding article on energy efficiency in town buildings, and they will decide whether to voice support for a pilot program that supporters hope would give municipalities in the state more autonomy in areas like code enforcement, raising funds, and transportation issues.
At a March 13 informational meeting for members, the Selectboard provided an overview of the articles that will be voted upon.
In its annual report on the proposed budget, the Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee said the overall budget “represents a reasonable and acceptable approach to meeting Brattleboro’s needs for the coming year.”
The finance committee also issued reports on the Town School District’s and BUHS #6’s respective proposed budgets.
In both cases, the committee noted the uncertainty hovering over the budget process created by the Act 46 mergers and pending litigation.
Uncertainty aside, the committee found both school budgets “reasonable and in keeping with the goal of providing excellent learning opportunities for all students.”
Before the informational meeting, caucuses in each of the three voting districts appointed members to one-year terms to fill numerous vacancies ahead of the annual meeting, which will take place in the Brattleboro Union High School gym on Saturday, March 23 at 8:30 a.m.
The informational meeting started with a round of applause from the audience in the Academy School gym for the large number of first-time Town Meeting members.
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor then walked the audience through the town budget.
The board has proposed a fiscal year 2020 general fund budget of $17,914,897, a 0.9-percent increase of $34.40 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
O’Connor noted that property taxes fund approximately 85 percent of the municipality’s expenses and are the main source of revenue for the general fund.
The board anticipates $420,000 in revenue from taxes on rooms, meals, and alcohol. The municipality will also receive an estimated $160,000 in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) from nonprofits that own property in town. PILOT payment amounts are configured by the state.
For FY20, the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance — funded by a special assessment tax on properties in the Downtown Improvement District — increased its request for the special assessment to $80,000, a $2,000 increase.
• The Selectboard also included anticipated expenses and income from the proposed expansions to the rental housing inspection program. It takes approximately a decade for the Fire Department to inspect all the town’s rental properties. The new program would shorten that cycle to four years.
The rental inspection program is expected to cost $50,000. It is also expected to generate $56,250 in annual revenue.
Elwell noted that the current board approved the program’s concept earlier this year. Once Meeting Members vote on the budget on Saturday, then the incoming board will move forward with creating an ordinance.
The expanded inspection program would require landlords register their rental properties and pay $75 per inspected unit, in the year it is scheduled to be inspected. Inspections will run on a four-year cycle.
• The board added a new budget item of $137,997 for facilities maintenance.
Historically, each department has funded its maintenance costs or the town has contracted services. Starting in the new fiscal year, O’Connor said the maintenance staff will work as their own department.
• Health insurance contributed to one of the biggest increases in the budget, O’Connor and Town Manager Peter Elwell explained.
According to Elwell, the town changed approximately seven years ago to a high-deductible plan. In the intervening years, the town has also implemented benefits such as a health savings account. Three years ago, the town also took on more risk and self-insured a portion of its employees’ health insurance.
For three years, these actions worked “really well” and saved the town and its employees money, Elwell said.
Unfortunately, the town has reached the end of what it can save, he said, and the town faces a 12.9-percent increase. It could have been worse, though: Initial quotes the town received included a cost increase of 17 percent, Elwell continued.
Elwell said he is looking for new options and creative solutions for next year, “but, for this year, we need to provide the benefits we promised.”
• O’Connor said the board is asking meeting members to approve using $337,119 from the unassigned fund balance — also called surplus funds — for capital projects and marketing.
Most of the money, $295,000, would fund capital projects such as new windows in the children’s room at Brooks Memorial Library or replace the swimming pool deck at Living Memorial Park.
A request for $42,119 from the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance would support a joint marketing program for the town.
As a rule, the town maintains at least 10 percent of its operating expenses in a rainy-day fund for emergencies. This reserve fund helped the town get a head start on repairs after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.
If the transfer is approved, the fund will leave a balance that will represent approximately 9.7 percent of operating expenses, just short of the 10-percent level.
But O’Connor described this year’s proposed expenses as “the things worth going under 10 percent for.”
• Members will also vote on whether to approve enacting a 1-percent local-option sales tax — the seventh time the town has considered this question.
• They will also decide how to use funds remaining from the Police-Fire Facility Upgrade project. The board has proposed funding a carport at the police station, communications equipment, and replacing the “high roof area” at the Police Station.
• This year, the RTM Human Services committee is asking members to approve $147,300 to support 25 local organizations. KidsPLAYce ($4,000) and Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire ($12,200) missed the committee’s deadline, so their requests will appear as separate articles.
• For energy efficiency and sustainability projects, the board is requesting $10,000.
• The board has also agreed to ask Town Meeting members to approve $25,000 from program income for the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS).
Town Meeting to consider support of home-rule pilot program
The Selectboard is also asking members to approve an article showing support for a Vermont League of Cities and Towns’ proposal to the Legislature. The organization, which serves local municipalities statewide, provides technical and legal support, and lobbies for their interests in state and federal government, wants the Legislature to create a 10-town pilot program to study the effects of granting towns more self-governance.
O’Connor and Elwell explained that municipalities have little control over their own destinies. As a “Dillon Rule” state, Vermont permits its towns to raise funds only as explicitly permitted by the state constitution.
Under the same legal precedent, the constitutions of 10 “home rule” states unambiguously afford their municipalities the power to raise funds at the local level. A handful of Dillon states have some elements of home rule.
For several years, Brattleboro has sought additional ways to raise revenue but has bumped against the Dillon Rule power of Montpelier. During the last year, the town has gathered with other self-described “hub towns” — municipalities that provide services and incur additional expenses — to discuss the issue.
“There are structural inefficiencies built into what the state requires municipalities to do,” Elwell said. He noted that along with restrictions to raising revenue, the state also oversees issues such as transportation, parking, and code enforcement.
Brattleboro’s three House Representatives — Mollie Burke, Emilie Kornheiser, and Tristan Toleno — have sponsored legislation to establish a municipal self-governance program. The bill has been referred to the Committee on Government Operations.
Finance Committee proposes amendments
The Finance Committee has recommended that meeting members approve all the financial articles. It also urged members to approve showing support for the self-governance pilot program.
The committee also recommended the body approve three articles with amendments:
• Article 14 would fund a joint marketing program by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Business Alliance. The committee recommended amending the article to authorize the Selectboard to release the funding after a clear marketing plan and measures to document its effectiveness are adopted.
• For both Articles 18 and 19, the committee recommended reducing funding for nonprofits by 20 percent. This would reduce the amount awarded to KidsPLAYce to $3,200 and Visiting Nurses to $9,600.
Reducing energy consumption
RTM members will also consider a non-binding resolution on reducing energy consumption. The resolution asks the town to institute practices such as “lowering the thermostat setting to a significant degree, and wearing long-johns, sweaters, and other warm clothing.”
It also urges that the Energy Coordinator position be filled and that the board adopt an ordinance requiring conservation measures be taken by businesses and residents.