BRATTLEBORO—Human-services funding, body cameras for police, Project CARE, and port-a-potties were four of the items reviewed by the Selectboard on Jan. 7 as the board prepares the fiscal year 2021 municipal budget.
The board started building and reviewing the FY21 budget in November. While the bulk of work has been completed, board members had asked for additional explanations on a few requests for funding increases.
Some of these increases comprise parts of departments’ annual operating budgets. Some will appear as separate article items at Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM) on Saturday, March 21.
According to a memo from Town Manager Peter Elwell, the town staff’s proposed budget of $15,095,827 went to the board on Nov. 5. Over the course of seven meetings, town departments presented their budgets, and the board heard public comment.
“Many line items are unchanged from FY20 and incremental changes in many other line items have been explained and accepted,” wrote Elwell. “However, several matters remain undecided at this time.”
That proposed budget alone represents an increase of 3.26 cents (or 2.5 percent) in the property tax rate. Additional proposed spending of $22,139 would boost that increase to 3.45-cent (2.7 percent).
The board anticipates wrapping up the budget process at its Jan. 21 regular meeting and formally approving the board’s FY21 budget on Jan. 28.
At that same meeting, the board also plans to approve the warnings for both ARTM and the Australian ballot town-wide election on Town Meeting Day, Tuesday, March 3.
A new rubric for human services funding
Human services funding — disbursements of town monies to support nonprofits that provide services for residents — is one example of a budget items that is voted on as a separate article at ARTM.
According to Co-chair Ann Fielder, the Human Services Review Committee received applications from 32 agencies and granted funding to all but four. The committee received $70,000 more in funding requests over the previous year’s total.
The committee is a five-member standing committee of Representative Town Meeting has adopted a new scoring rubric to help evaluate a surge in requests for annual charitable aid from the town coffers.
Organizations apply annually to the committee with funding requests. The committee then vets those applications and accepts or rejects the application. The board might award a portion of the funding request.
The committee then presents its funding decision to fellow Town Meeting members at ARTM.
This year, the committee’s total request rose $4,510 over the previous year’s spending.
Board Chair Brandie Starr told committee members that the night’s meeting would be an opportunity for them to explain their process.
“We really felt the pressure,” Fielder said. The agencies that request funding all provide “fundamental and important” services to people in Brattleboro, she added.
“We kept cutting, but felt as some point where we couldn’t cut any more,” Fielder said.
Sue Graff introduced a scoring rubric that committee members said helped with the vetting.
Graff, who used to work with the United Way of Windham County and now works as field director at the state Agency of Human Services, explained that the rubric asked application readers to consider what results the applicants achieved with their programming, whether people are better off, to enumerate some of the long-term results of the services provided, and to quantify how many people in town benefit from the programs.
The committee members said that they appreciated working with the rubric, noting that it helped their process.
At last year’s ARTM, members held a lengthy discussion about human services funding and whether the town provides enough to local agencies. That discussion yielded the idea of the committee keeping to a funding target equal to 1 percent of the town budget.
Committee members said that the 1 percent guideline could be helpful. Fielder said that last year, Town Meeting Members awarded more money than the committee requested.
Therefore, this year’s committee took that as a sign that the body wanted to see more, rather than less, funding to go toward these organizations.
As a result, Fielder said, the committee used last year’s amount as a starting point.
More storage for body camera footage
Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald appeared before the board to explain an increase in his equipment budget of $3,000, including $1,600 for additional digital storage.
According to Fitzgerald, the department wants to purchase 2 terabytes of additional capacity from Axon, which manufactures the department’s body cameras.
“The bottom line is I didn’t buy enough at the start,” Fitzgerald said.
The cameras record whenever an officer engages in any law enforcement action, criminal or non-criminal, said Fitzgerald.
The footage from incidents involving either use of force or criminal actions is stored in digital form for seven years, he said.
Non-criminal, per departmental policy, is stored in the service of public accountability and transparency for 90 days before being deleted.
The department has more than 20 cameras in use and fills up its storage quickly, Fitzgerald explained.
The chief added that as an alternative to purchasing more capacity, the department could adjust its policy and store footage from non-criminal cases for less than 90 days.
With the added storage space comes added services, Fitzgerald told the board. For example, the department will have the ability to identify individual subjects on the footage and easily redact their faces if necessary. One example of such use would be the faces of children.
The services should also save the department’s clerks time. The employees will have the ability to send specific footage to members of the court, for example, or the State’s Attorney.
In the past, Fitzgerald said, clerks had to download the footage and hand-deliver it.
The remaining $1,400 of the request would purchase two more body cameras and associated user licenses for three new officers the department is in the process of hiring, he said.
Fitzgerald said he’s a “big fan” of officers wearing body cameras, calling the technology a positive thing for both the officers and the public.
New funding for Project CARE
Fitzgerald also asked for $16,000 to support the Project CARE initiative. The initiative is a joint program between the department and multiple health-care and human-services agencies to help reduce opioid use and deaths in the community.
According to Fitzgerald, opioid-related overdoses in the country have increased, especially with the infiltration of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic narcotic, into the community.
In Brattleboro last year, emergency service personnel were called to 116 overdoses with 10 of those calls ending in a death. Fitzgerald added that 2019 had 15 more calls than 2018.
Under Project CARE, volunteers follow up with someone after a non-fatal overdose within 24 to 48 hours. These volunteers offer support unconditionally, helping the person access treatment if they want.
A working group also meets biweekly to review case studies to identify at-risk areas and coordinate a response, Fitzgerald said.
Since the program started, volunteers have helped 37 people who survived an overdose. Out of that number, 32 have sought treatment, he said.
Providing transportation has proved critical, Fitzgerald said. Volunteers have driven participants to programs in Bradford, which is more than 90 miles from Brattleboro. Police officers provide in-town rides to people in the prison system — 11 in all — who are also enrolled in medication-assisted treatment programs such as Habit OPCO or the Brattleboro Retreat.
So far, the program has run unfunded through the work of volunteers, Fitzgerald said.
A $16,000 request from the town would pay for recovery coaches and transportation reimbursements, and $11,700 would help pay a recovery coach to work with the department at $15 per hour, he said.
The remaining funds would provide transportation reimbursement to out-of-town facilities using the federal guideline of 55 cents per mile.
Board members praised the police department for its work on Project CARE.
“I will accept all the compliments you want to give the police department,” he said. “But let’s be perfect honest, this was a community effort.”
One more summer of port-a-potties as town eyes permanent solution
The town has allocated $10,000 toward funding three port-a-potties in the downtown for the summer months, and the board received information they requested regarding more-permanent options.
The board had decided last summer to fund temporary port-a-potties, one each at the Town Common, High Grove parking lot, and Preston lot on Flat Street. The decision came after Recreation and Parks staff encountered human waste downtown.
According to Elwell, while he has no concrete data, he did receive reports from staff that the availability of the port-a-potties corresponded with a decrease in such staff encounters.
The port-a-potty located at the Town Common received the most use, likely because the park serves the widest cross-section of the community, he said. The next-most-popular was the Preston lot unit, followed by the one at High-Grove.
At the Jan. 7 meeting, Andrew Graminski, planning technician and E911 coordinator, outlined two options: the Portland Loo, a unit from a company in Portland, Ore., and Urben Blu, manufactured in Miracle, Quebec, Canada.
According to Graminski, the Portland Loo is made from stainless steel and has built-in crime-prevention measures in the form of vents at the floor and ceiling levels that allow law enforcement to detect if more than one person is present. It also has a mechanism that unlocks the door if someone has been in the loo for a long time.
The Urben Blu, he explained, is more expensive. The unit similarly has a time-out door lock, but it is also self-cleaning,and looked as if it could be customized to accommodate families.
It is also made by a company based in an area used to snow and freezing temperatures, Graminski added.
Either model could run from $150,000 or $200,000, he said. Both models comply with design standards proscribed by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
At this point, town staff are exploring grant options. Board members asked Graminski to also explore what it would cost for the town to build its own public restrooms.
Elwell said staff would investigate but that he wasn’t optimistic that the town could beat the two companies’ prices.