Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
News

When ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ equal the same thing?

Town Meeting members debate fire truck, BaBB, recycling

No bio or coattail.

BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Fire Department can replace its 1970s-era fire truck, but residents will have to get their recycling act together on their own by December.

Town Meeting members gathered for the annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, and out of the 140 members, 122 gathered to vote on 29 articles ranging from approving the school and municipal budgets, to extending the town recycling coordinators’ contract by seven months.

Most of the warned articles passed with an overwhelming majority and some with little discussion.

The fire truck

Members voted to authorize the Selectboard to purchase a new fire truck by using $400,000 from the town’s undesignated, unreserved fund.

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said that the 1971 Maxim pumper truck had 73,600 miles and would turn 40 years old this summer.

“The truck is showing its age with severe rusting issues,” said Bucossi.

The engine had a upgrade in the 1980s, with some body work repair and a new motor. Still, the fenders need replacing, there’s a hole in one of the floor boards, the driver’s door won’t open or shut properly, and the frame shows signs of deterioration, said Bucossi.

A recent estimate to repair the truck’s surface issues came to $4,000.

“I want to make it clear. At the end of the day, the goal is to have a fire truck. The issue is, which way do we want to pay for it?” said Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray.

Members had two choices for funding. The first, as written in the meeting warning, was to authorize the Selectboard to seek a $400,000 bond. DeGray suggested the second funding option: authorize the board to take $400,000 from the unreserved, undesignated fund and pay for the truck in cash.

Using surplus funds to purchase the fire truck would save the town thousands in interest, said DeGray.

District 3 Representative Spoon Agave said that he supported paying for the truck with surplus cash, rather than a bond, but felt the vote needed a caveat.

“This [truck] is a normal op expense, and should just be coming out of the town budget and be paid for in taxes each year rather than a loan. We could save a lot of money with rainyday funds, with the caveat that the money be replaced in that fund on a regular schedule over time,” said Agave, who recommended the $400,000 be replaced over eight years.

Although members later in the meeting approved the purchase of the truck using $400,000 from the undesignated, unreserved fund, they expressed confusion about how to vote on the Australian ballot question.

DeGray said that if members wanted to fund the truck with a bond, they should vote “yes.” If they preferred to use surplus funds, they should vote “no.” But, he added, if the result of the Australian ballot were “yes,” then the board would understand that the body’s true intent was to buy the truck with surplus cash.

According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, members defeated the bond vote 71 to 30.

‘We never deal with cents’

Members approved a municipal budget totalling $14,777,294, including the $400,000 for the new fire truck.

“The financial health of the municipality is really strong. We finished fiscal year 2010 in the black, and this fiscal year, we’re on target to finish in the black,” Town Manager Barbara Sondag said.

“We do have many obstacles, known as snow flakes, causing problems,” she added, referring to the Public Works Department’s exhausted salt and snowremoval budget.

DeGray got an unintended laugh when he corrected Moderator Tim O’Connor’s reading of the total budget.

“There’s no cents. We never deal with cents,” said DeGray.

Sondag said the budget represented a 3.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year.

Although town department budgets remained flat, most of the increases resulted from capital expenses, such as the fire truck.

Other increases came from higher health insurance premiums.

“[The Selectboard] constantly struggled with keeping the operating budget level, and sometimes that happens on the back of the capital budget. This year, the Selectboard looked at capital first, because it knew we couldn’t continue to ignore capital structure,” Sondag said.

Another increase, she said, came from adding $60,000 for the Assistant Town Manager position back into the budget.

In Sondag’s assessment, the Selectboard and town meeting members are better educated and more savvy about the budget than in past years. This situation leads to great conversations, but also means that the budget decisions become harder.

Sondag said that the town needs to continue to look at services, figure out how to increase its revenue, find new revenue sources, and grow the grand list.

Selectboard Clerk Dora Bouboulis said that she wanted the members to know the budget’s back story. The budget passed by a 3-2 vote, with Bouboulis and former Selectboard member Jesse Corum opposed.

Both of them, said Bouboulis, felt strongly that now is not the time to add the Assistant Town manager Position.

“These things always end up costing you more... and once it’s in, it’s harder to take out,” Bouboulis said.

DeGray identified the addition of the Assistant Town Manager as his idea, and as Corum’s the year before. For two years, town department heads have said that the position is essential for the town.

DeGray said that the town is wearing out its Town Manager, and that no current staff member could step into the role. It was shortsighted of the town not to fill the position years ago.

Adding $60,000 to the budget to accommodate an Assistant Town Manager position met with less discussion than extending the contracts for the two recycling coordinators.

Recycling

Members defeated an amendment put forward by District 1 representative Peter Cooper, 59 to 47, to extend Moss Kahler and Cindy Sterling’s recycling coordinator contract to June 30, 2012 for the amount of $23,333, pending the offset of savings on tipping fees due to increased recycling.

The contract’s termination date is November 2011.

At last year’s Representative Town Meeting, members approved $40,000 to fund a one-year Recycling Coordinator position, with the aim of helping residents increase their recycling rates as the town transitioned to a Pay-As-You-Throw (PAYT) trashdisposal system. PAYT failed at the polls, but the coordinator position remained.

Cooper told the meeting members that he proposed the amendment in the “spirit of discussion” in response to a March 10 letter from Kahler and Sterling.

DeGray took immediate issue with the Cooper amendment, saying that the body has limited authority in this area. The members could vote to extend the contract, but not tell the board who to hire.

“We have a contract with them [Kahler and Sterling] for a year. The body does not have authority on who the town enters into a contract with,” said DeGary.

During a fiveminute break in the meeting, lawyers and District 1 representatives Lawrin Crispe and Charles Cummings huddled with Brattleboro Town Attorney Robert Fisher and confirmed that, indeed, the meeting members couldn’t instruct the Selectboard on hiring or firing.

Addressing the members, Sterling said that extending the contract would bring the position in line with the town’s fiscal calendar.

“The idea is that, if town is to buy into the recycling program it’s invested in so far, then it’s best to get it on track with town decisions,” Sterling said.

She added that she and Kahler’s enthusiasm had led to overextending on projects. The seven extra months could allow them to complete projects before walking away, leaving the town better set up to fold the recycling duties into an existing staff position.

Finally, said Sterling, the town had charged the coordinators with compiling data on Brattleboro’s recycling habits that the volunteer Solid Waste Committee could use for future initiatives.

The coordinators’ recent recycling survey revealed that Brattleboro’s recycling rate stands near 25 percent, rather than the previous 18 percent that was based solely on curbside recycling pickup.

Some towns in the United States are at 70 percent, said Kahler. In time, Brattleboro could reach 40 or 50 percent, he said.

Kahler and Sterling’s data show that a recycling rate of 40 percent would save the Town $56,000 annually in tipping fees. A 50percent recycling rate would raise the savings to $95,400 annually.

Kahler added that they realized four to six weeks ago that there’s almost no way to thoroughly address all of their work plan.

Some of the initiatives the coordinators want to meet, said Kahler, include establishing a West Brattleboro recycling drop-off location and setting up a second Project COW (Commercial Organic Waste) container in town to increase composting. The coordinators are also planning a survey of businesses to try and address commercial waste.

The deadline for enforcing the mandatory recycling ordinance is approaching, said Kahler, and this will be a labor-intensive, shaky transition. Through education, they will need to “smooth out people’s emotions.”

Goals and the support of some members aside, the majority of the body couldn’t support extending funding for a one-year contract only four months into it.

“I understand the job gets bigger the more you talk about it. I also have no doubt that, next March, it will also be bigger. I think this is important, but don’t believe we should be adding it on for seven more months,” said Sondag.

Sondag reminded the members that last year, the town made cuts to the police, public works, and library on the condition that the town would live with the decreases. Every line item in the budget represents an important program and could use more money, she said.

District 1 representative Billie Stark said she couldn’t support the amendment. “If you can’t do the job, why sign the contract? We can’t give another round of money when the coordinators have only worked four months,” she said.

Supporting downtown

The members approved a $76,000 special assessment on properties within the Downtown Improvement District (DID). The money supports Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB) economic development initiatives and projects in the downtown.

Executive Director Andrea Livermore told the members that, this year, BaBB will focus on promoting the downtown and getting “more feet on the street.”

Based on a market assessment conducted last fall by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, Livermore said, “Brattleboro is a worldclass downtown, and we just need to start acting like it.”

DeGray said that BaBB’s recent decision to seek tax- exempt status for the Robert H. Gibson River Garden disappointed him. He felt that BaBB should have shared this decision with the Selectboard, and that the decision showed a lack of communication and transparency.

BaBB manages the River Garden as part of its duties.

DeGray said that he wanted a better relationship with BaBB, and told the members they should ask themselves whether the DID was working when downtown property owners can’t opt out of paying the assessment.

He added that, in order to reflect the loss of property taxes due to BaBB’s exempt status, he had considered making a motion to reduce BaBB’s assessment by $6,357.24.

Bouboulis said that she “took issue” with DeGray’s statements. She said that BaBB had asked for tax- exempt status for the River Garden for years.

In a separate interview, Livermore said BaBB has asked that the River Garden taxes be waived because the property serves the entire community.

BaBB’s decision to apply for property tax relief was no secret, said Livermore.

Through research last year, BaBB member Larry Bloch uncovered state statute 32 V.S.A. 3802(4), whose provisions, in effect, wiped the River Garden from the state’s tax rolls. The statute also exempts the education portion of the River Garden’s property taxes.

In contrast, if a town grants an organization a property tax waiver, the state still expects the town to fork over the eduction taxes, said Livermore.

Montpelier granted BaBB the property tax exemption on Jan. 14.

Livermore said that BaBB’s end goal for the River Garden is to make it financially self-sufficient. It is almost there, but not quite, she said.

The property tax exemption means that the organization can put less into fundraising to support the River Garden, and more effort into projects that will directly benefit the DID.

Post-employment fund

The creation of a new reserve fund for post-employment benefits passed.

The town provides health insurance for its retired police and firefighters, along with their spouses, so long as the employees have worked for the Town at least 20 years. The coverage ends when their Medicaid benefits kick in at age 65, said Finance Director/Treasurer John Leisenring.

Leisenring said creating the account reflected a new accounting regulation. The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), an independent board that monitors and creates accounting standards for municipalities and local governments, requires that the town report its cost for the police and firefighters’ health care benefits.

Leisenring said that the town’s benefit for current and retired employees totalled $3,947,749. Under GASB’s rules, the town’s liability portion was $418, 228. Leisenring said that this amount should eventually be in the new reserve fund.

Members approved taking $30,000 from the town’s undesignated, unreserved fund as seed money for the post-employment fund.

As he did at the Representative Town Meeting informational meeting, Agave expressed concern about using surplus funds for normal operating expenses like post-employment benefits.

In response to a question from Cooper, DeGray said the members had the ability to dissolve the account if Vermont moves to a universal health care system.

Leisenring, responding to a question from District 3 representative John Wilmerding, said that the $30,000 was only a starting point for setting money aside. Currently, the town pays the post-employment benefits on an as-you-go basis. Eventually, the money won’t come from the general operating fund.

School funds

Town Meeting members passed all the articles pertaining to the school district, including the $14,633,616 budget. The 2012 budget reflects a 1.3 percent increase over last year, said School Board Chair Margaret Atkinson.

Atkinson said that the school district had made modifications to the budget, like staffing changes, to keep costs down.

“Overall, we’ve done an outstanding job trying to offer services that continue to give students a broad curriculum and build success,” she said.

The creation of a reserve fund, and what money the district will put toward its debt, passed after much discussion.

School Board Vice-Chair Russell Janis said that state statutes requires a school’s surplus funds to be carried over into the next year’s budget as revenue, unless the school has a reserve fund.

Janis said that, in the past, the district has carried over its surplus as revenue, which helped lower the town’s education tax burden. But the district wanted to create the reserve fund, under the control of the School Board, for the purposes of funding daily operations.

According to Janis and WSESU Business Administrator James Kane, the money would help “smooth out” the district’s cash flow. Sometimes, the school bills and tax payments from the town or state don’t arrive at the same time, leading the school district to borrow money until funding arrives.

Fisher, in response to a question from DeGray, said that the School Board can only use the fund to pay for what the fund was created for - in this case, operating the school. Meeting members would have to approve other purchases, like a new roof.

Kane said that the board’s intent was to seek the members’ approval for spending money in the fund.

Some meeting members took issue with the School Board having control over the fund.

Fagelson said that he was confused and “a little bit disturbed” by the suggestion. The Town can’t tap its funds without approval from Town Meeting Members, but the School Board can tap into this reserve fund whenever it wants.

District 3 representative Dart Everett agreed, challenging Kane and Fisher’s interpretation of the situation. He said that the Representative Town Meeting authorized spending, and just because the school district has money in a reserve fund, doesn’t mean it can spend the money at will.

Crispe made an amendment that the reserve funds may be used by the School Board in lieu of borrowing money, but that Town Meeting members had to approve any other uses.

DeGray said the School Board should use the surplus to pay off debts.

The creation of the reserve fund and the Crispe amendment passed. Members also voted to put a portion of the town school district’s surplus, $148,846, into the new reserve fund.

Committee to consider assessors

O’Connor reminded members they needed to revisit a proposal tabled at the February 5 Special Town Meeting on the Brattleboro Town Charter at the Academy School.

District 2 representative Leo Barile had proposed a charter amendment to establish a department of assessors. Members had decided to set up a committee to study property appraisals and review the Barile amendment.

Members approved the creation of the committee. Later, when questioned by District 1 representative Katherine Dowd, regarding assigning committee members, O’Connor said that the committee had been chosen during a separate discussion by “those involved.”

Dowd said that she had wanted to be on the committee and thought nominations had to come from the floor.

O’Connor gave Dowd his slot on the committee. She will serve with Cummings, Everett, District 2 representative Marshall Wheelock, Barile, and Selectboard member and District 1 representative Chris Chapman. Lister Albert Jerard, Fisher, and Sondag will serve as non-voting members.

After the Representative Town Meeting adjourned, an angry Bouboulis said that the way the committee had been formed was “inappropriate.”

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

Add Comment

* Required information
1000
Type the word for the number 9.
Captcha Image
Powered by Commentics

Comments (0)

No comments yet. Be the first!
Photo 2

Originally published in The Commons issue #93 (Wednesday, March 23, 2011).

Related stories

More by Olga Peters