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Brattleboro budget in good shape despite COVID-19

Meeting members receive briefing on town finances and website ahead of Annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday

Meeting members will meet for the Annual Representative Town Meeting over Zoom starting at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, March 20. For instructions on participating, visit bit.ly/604-bratt-ratm. Articles not voted on by 5 p.m. will be moved to Sunday, March 21, at a time to be determined.

BRATTLEBORO—The season of Representative Annual Town Meeting (RATM) got underway with the first of two informational meetings designed to brief meeting members on the 28 articles they will consider later this week.

Town staff and the Selectboard provided updates on the proposed fiscal year 2022 municipal budget, on funding to update the municipal website (brattleboro.org), and on potential efforts to establish guidelines around human services funding.

Meeting members also received the unglamorous, but good, news that town finances were weathering the COVID-19 pandemic.

If passed as proposed, the FY22 budget will cause property taxes to increase 2.7 percent. This 3.6-cent increase would translate into an additional $36 for each $100,000 in assessed property value.

The proposed $19,658,991 budget is in better shape than initially expected given the upheaval from the pandemic. Town Manager Peter Elwell attributed much of the credit for this stability to long-term planning and additional revenue from the 1 percent local-option sales tax, which the state also applies to online purchases.

According to Elwell’s annual budget message, property taxes now make up a share of the overall budget that’s smaller than it was just a couple of years ago, thanks to the 1 percent local-option sales tax.

In 2019, meeting members approved establishing the tax. As a result, the proportion of the budget funded through property tax in FY22 will be 82.1 percent, down from 86.5 percent.

Elwell alerted meeting members that, on paper, this year’s proposed budget appears to have increased 6.6 percent. He explained, however, that the town has altered how it accounts for different expenses.

The shifting of department budgets and how the municipality organizes its solid waste funds make the budget appear higher, he said. For example, in previous budgets, the human resources department was included in the town manager’s portion of the budget. Going forward, HR will be broken out as a separate department.

This year the General Fund budget includes $307,000, which represents all the revenues and expenses related to the solid waste program. In previous years, the board has reconciled the program’s net deficit later in the fiscal year rather than including it all in the General Fund budget.

Also, the town will need to transfer money from the General Fund to the Parking Fund to fill a gap resulting from the pandemic. As an enterprise fund, parking relies on revenue from meters and tickets rather than property taxes. The fund is short $45,900 going into the new fiscal year, in part because of fewer people working and parking downtown during the day and because for the first several months of the pandemic, the town waived parking fees.

The board is proposing $75,000 to upgrade the municipal website. Board members and Elwell said they were waiting for the funding to be approved before they create a project outline. They said some portion of the funding would go toward community outreach.

Meeting Member Shela Linton (District 2) felt bothered by the lack of details regarding community engagement. Linton wanted guidelines included in an amendment outlining how the town would bring people to the table, especially the most marginalized community members.

Meeting members will vote on two articles related to human services funding. The first raises $276,400 for FY22; the second, if passed, will establish funding guidelines for the Selectboard and Human Services Committee.

The figure represents the Human Services Committee’s full request, recommended by the Selectboard. It represents 1.4 percent of the proposed FY22 budget. For FY21, meeting members approved using a figure equal to 1 percent of the budget.

The question of what level to fund the town’s human services requests has occupied meeting members over multiple years.

Historically, each organization that serves the community submits a funding request to the Human Services Committee, comprised of meeting members. This committee then determines whether to fill all or a portion of the request.

In years past, during the annual meeting, members have argued for various funding guidelines ranging from awarding each organization’s total request outright to providing the committee with stronger budget parameters — for example, an amount equal to 1 percent of the current fiscal year’s budget.

In past years, committee members have expressed frustration that meeting members have held floor debates about the committee’s funding recommendations — recommendations that the body had already charged it to make on its behalf.

In its annual report to RATM, the Finance Committee did not recommend a specific set of guidelines. It did, however, write, “It is worth noting that the RTM Human Services Committee is charged with assessing applications without any guidance that might help members prioritize and address systemic problems facing the Town.”

“The Finance Committee discussed this issue but did not find a solution to recommend,” the committee members continued. “We do believe, however, that the Human Services Committee is not the appropriate body to address these systemic problems.”

No new town staff positions are proposed for the coming fiscal year. The town does anticipate increasing the assistant assessor’s hours to a full-time position because of a jump in workload and preparation for the town-wide assessment happening in the next few years.

Overall, employee salaries and incentives are expected to increase by 2.9 percent in FY22. Benefits will increase 0.7 percent to reflect changes in Social Security and retirements. The town’s health insurance, other employee benefits, and workers’ compensation insurance are level funded.

Over the past several years, the town has endeavored to build its Capital Projects and Equipment reserves with the goal of funding future purchases with cash rather than through debt. Elwell said these monies have come through a combination of squirreling away savings from previous years and taxes raised in line with long-term budgeting.

If approved, in FY22 the town will spend $795,000 to purchase vehicles and large equipment. This year includes replacing a fire department utility truck, replacing the animal control officer’s vehicle, replacing two police patrol vehicles, and replacing three public works vehicles.

In keeping with the strategy, the plan also includes a $110,000 contribution to the future purchase of a fire truck.

The town also plans a variety of capital projects using a combination of real-time revenue and money from the town’s unassigned fund balance for a total of $785,000. Projects include street paving, sidewalk replacement, redesigning the intersection of High and Green streets, improvements to the swimming pool at Living Memorial Park, and upgrades at the Gibson-Aiken Center.

The Department of Public Works is seeking an approximately $12.5 million bond to fund a Water Treatment Plant Reconstruction Project. Meeting members will vote on this article via Australian ballot.

Staff will dive into the project details during a special informational meeting on Wednesday, March 17.

The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance is asking for $80,000 to fund its staff and programs in the new fiscal year. This funding comes through a special tax levied on property owners in the Downtown Improvement District, which was established as part of the town’s participation in the state’s Downtown Designation programs.

This year, the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) is asking for $36,147 to support its programming from the town’s Program Income Fund. Because the fund is federal funding, the economic development nonprofit’s funding request would not affect local taxation.

On the revenue side of the budget, Elwell said the town estimates that for FY22, the amount generated by the 1 percent local-option sales tax will increase 31 percent over the current fiscal year, from $630,000 to $825,000.

The rooms and meals tax includes monies generated from overnight stays, food, and beverages. According to Elwell’s budget message, taxes collected on these sales and services have increased “significantly for several years” until they sank during the pandemic.

For the proposed budget, town staff are predicting a dip of 12.5 percent, or $55,000, from the current fiscal year budget.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #604 (Wednesday, March 17, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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