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Representatives prepare for Annual Town Meeting

BRATTLEBORO—In preparation for Brattleboro’s annual Representative Town Meeting on March 19, Town Meeting members met last Thursday night to discuss articles they will vote on with the Selectboard and municipal department heads.

At an informational meeting at the Academy School, Town Meeting members asked for clarification on issues that range from establishing a reserve fund for post-employment benefits to authorizing the purchase of a new fire truck.

Finance Director/Treasurer John Leisenring presented the first issue of the evening, establishing a reserve fund for post-employment benefits.

The town must create the fund to comply with an accounting requirement from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB). The standard obliges municipalities to report the liabilities associated with post-employment benefits. In Brattleboro’s case, these benefits consist of health insurance for sworn police officers and professional firefighters.

The GASB is an independent agency that sets the accounting standards for municipal governments. Brattleboro’s post-employment health insurance benefit liability is $3,947,749, based on its $14,377,294 budget.

Until another insurance, such as Medicare, kicks in, the benefit covers retired officers who have worked for the town for at least 20 years.

Although the GASB only requires that the town report the liability amount and not actually sock any money away, municipalities are trying to pay into their post-employment funds against future expenses, said Leisenring.

Leisenring told meeting members that the town would also ask them on March 19 to approve moving $30,000 of “seed money” from the town’s unreserved, undesignated fund to the new post-employment account.

District 1 representative Billie Stark asked where the money would come from if someone retired next year before the reserve fund had a chance to build up.

Leisenring told her that the town would pay the benefits as-you-go from the operating budget.

District 3 representative Spoon Agave said that the town’s request “underscored a lack of financial planning.” The town should have fed money into an account as employees were hired. Instead, he said, the town wants to deplete its rainy-day fund with ongoing expenses.

Agave said that the town should have a policy regarding withdrawing money from the unreserved, undesignated fund.

Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray said that he agreed with Agave, for once, and that the town should not use surplus funds for daily expenses. But he also noted that the $30,000 would be a “one-time” expense.

Town Attorney Robert Fisher of Fisher & Fisher responded to a concern from Stark about the Selectboard’s control over the reserve fund: What if the board wanted to use the money elsewhere?

Fisher answered that the Selectboard would need an affirmative vote from the Town Meeting members to spend the money on anything other than the post-employment benefit.

Town budget

DeGray said the fiscal year 2012 budget of $14,377,294 reflects a 3.1 percent increase over last year.

The budget includes funding for an assistant town manager position. It has been a budget line item for a few years, but the town has not funded the item since Town Manager Barbara Sondag vacated the post in 2007, DeGray said.

“As the chair of the board, in interviewing all the department heads, it has been a unanimous request for the last two years to get in an Assistant Town Manger,” said DeGray.

Stark asked whether the town had exhausted the ways to cut costs, such as spending $410,000 to lease vehicles, or seeing whether Rescue, Inc., the fire department, and the police department were duplicating services.

DeGray said that last year’s board discussed every line item in the budget. The Selectboard elected March 1 did not develop the 2012 budget.

DeGray said a 1-percent sales tax represented an untapped revenue stream for the town. He has often touted a local sales tax.

“You can’t keep cutting your way out of a paper bag,” said DeGray about the lack of revenue feeding into the Town budget.

Bob “Woody” Woodworth, of Burrows Specialized Sports, on behalf of Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB), told members that the organization had requested that $76,000 be raised through a special assessment on downtown properties.

In the past, BaBB had asked for $80,000 but had lowered the request to reflect the economic climate, Woodworth said.

Woodworth also reported that BaBB will concentrate in the coming year on following through on suggestions from Arnett Muldrow & Associates, a South Carolina urban planning firm specializing in small communities, that performed a marketing survey for the downtown last fall.

The River Garden is close to breaking even and becoming financially self-sufficient, a long-time goal of BaBB, said Woodworth.

The town will also ask Town Meeting members to approve raising $223,276.47 through a special assessment on property taxes on the Mountain Home and Deepwood mobile home parks as part of a loan repayment for improvements made to water and sewer lines on the property.

Members will also consider granting exemptions on municipal and education property taxes for Holton Home and Hilltop House, Inc. (both residential care homes), along with Rescue, Inc. The exemptions would last for five years and are based on assessed property values.

Holton Home’s municipal exemption would total $50,000, and its educational exemption $500,000, said DeGray.

Fisher told the meeting members that Hilltop House would receive a $6,934.41 exemption on the municipal portion of its taxes and a $9,282.00 exemption on the educational portion. Rescue, Inc.’s municipal exemption would total $2,951.88, and its educational exemption would total $3,951.22.

Fisher said that, in the past, the town has exempted both the municipal and educational portions of the property tax for Holton Home.

DeGray counseled members that if they voted to exempt the educational portion of the organizations’ taxes, the state would still expect the Town to cough up the education money per Act 60.

Representatives Ann Darling, of District 2, and Elizabeth Tannenbaum, of District 3, presented the human services budget from the Human Services Review Committee. The $131,860 would support 26 organizations.

Darling said that the Human Services seven-member committee met weekly throughout the fall, evaluating funding requests by a number of different organizations. The committee prioritized the requests by first funding organizations that provide immediate human needs like shelter, clothing, or emergency response.

Next, the committee looked at the organizations’ overall financial health. Finally, they studied the organizations’ fundraising efforts outside of Brattleboro.

District 2 representative Mary Cain spoke out against the committee’s decision not to fund organizations supporting the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community in southern Vermont.

One member of the community who wanted to attend that night’s meeting had to go home, said Cain, because there was no American Sign Language interpreter at the meeting.

She said that the lack of funding effectively said to the estimated 1,500 Deaf and hard-of-hearing community members in the area that, “we’re not agreeing to help these people be independent and to stay here in Brattleboro.”

Tannenbaum said that the committee would have prefer to fund all agencies, but that the requests had increased by 1.2 percent over last year, and the committee wanted to keep expenses down.

Paul Cameron of Brattleboro Climate Protection said that the agency was requesting $10,000 for 2012.

Raising $400,000 to replace the Fire Department’s 1971 Maxim fire truck was the next issue.

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi reported the truck has over 73,000 miles on it, has had the motor replaced and body work done, and “is truly starting to show its age.” He doubted it would pass inspection.

The new fire truck would go to the West Brattleboro station, and the fire department would sell the 1971 engine.

DeGray said that he planned to make a motion at Representative Town Meeting to pay for the new truck with cash by taking $400,000 from the reserve fund, rather than sign a 20-year bond with an interest rate of 3 to 6 percent.

The interest on a 20-year bond, with 6 percent interest, would come to $290,000, DeGray said.

According to DeGray, the town has $1,298,000 in the reserve fund.

The town would still have $868,000, after funding the fire truck and the $30,000 for the post-employment fund, said DeGray.

Agave said that using surplus funds to pay for the fire truck was a good example of depleting the Town’s reserves by paying for a daily expense. The truck expense should be part of the capital budget instead.

“We have no policy on the [surplus] fund and how much money we can take out,” Agave said.

Recycling Coordinator Moss Kahler capped off the meeting with a request to extend the recycling coordinators’ year-long contract with the town by seven months.

Cindy Sterling shares the position with Kahler. Sterling and Kahler are requesting $23,333 for the seven months. Kahler said that they based the number on the $40,000 they received for their one-year contract.

Town Meeting Members approved $40,000 to fund a one-year recycling coordinator contract as part of the compromise for shifting to a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) trash disposal system. PAYT was later defeated in a town-wide vote.

Kahler said that he and Sterling anticipated needing the extra seven months to complete projects and hand over the program to town staff.

The Town provides curbside recycling pick-up, but residents can also drop items off at the Windham Solid Waste Management District’s Old Ferry Road and Fairground Road locations. A recent survey conducted by Kahler and Sterling revealed that Brattleboro’s combined recycling rate is 23 to 25 percent.

Kahler said that he and Sterling believe that Brattleboro could achieve a 40 percent recycling rate.

Representative Town Meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. on March 19 at the Brattleboro Union High School. Districts 1 and 2 are still looking for residents to fill vacant seats. District 1 is short two members, and District 2 needs four.

Residents interested in representing either district should attend the district caucuses at the Academy School on March 17 at 6 p.m.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #92 (Wednesday, March 16, 2011).

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