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Brattleboro sets policy for dependent care

With new reimbursements for dependent care, a large raise in stipends, and a more regular pay schedule, the Selectboard advances a goal set at Annual Representative Town Meeting: to make it possible for people to attend board meetings with much less financial stress

BRATTLEBORO—In an effort to make serving on the Selectboard easier and to break some of the financial barriers to town government leadership, the town will begin reimbursing its members for child care and elder care.

In the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, board members will be able to claim dependent care expenses accrued during official board meetings.

The reimbursement can be used to pay a babysitter, a home health aide, a family member, or anyone who provides care.

The board also approved distributing the board stipends and dependent care reimbursements monthly, a measure that would keep cash flowing more smoothly for members with tight budgets.

Board members took these votes in the aftermath of a discussion at Annual Representative Town Meeting (ARTM) in March.

There, conversation around board compensation centered on how to diversify the cross-section of voters who step into the role of elected town officials.

Along with reimbursing dependent care, members raised the chair’s stipend from $5,000 to a maximum of $10,000 and the other four members’ from $3,000 to a maximum of $8,000, with the provision that board members can choose to take less than the maximum.

Increasing the stipend and including dependent care, those in favor argued, would make it easier for single parents and people from low-income households to serve on the board.

Meeting Member George Carvill, District 1, made the compensation amendment.

“My goal here is to try to open the potential field of Selectboard candidates, to include some folks who are often underrepresented,” he said in March.

“I’m not suggesting that money is the primary motivation for a candidate, but economic adversity can be the primary obstacle for a person [who otherwise has] a real passion for serving the town,” he added.

On May 18, Town Manager Peter Elwell said that while meeting members voted on a specific lump sum for the stipends, but they left the decisions for how to structure the details of dependent care to the board and town staff to figure out.

“It was very intentionally called ‘dependent care expenses’ with the intention that it might most often be used for child-care expenses but could also be used for other types of dependents,” Elwell said.

“And it was important in terms of achieving the accessibility goal — that was the main motivation for this, to make it possible for people who might have been discouraged by the financial implications of running for, and serving on, the Selectboard to have [fewer] reasons to be discouraged,” he added.

Elwell said that he felt comfortable suggesting a process. He did not feel comfortable recommending a dollar amount. The Selectboard also needed to define the boundaries of the reimbursement program, he said.

“I’m seeking your direction — I’m wanting to know your sensibilities around that,” he said.

“If the group of you feels we just need to try this for a bit and experience it and then make boundary-related decisions or not, I think that’s OK,” Elwell advised the board members. “I just think it needs to be a conscious decision you should make rather than one where it just fails to be addressed.”

He said he felt less interested in seeing the board directing what type of expenses were covered. Instead, he hoped for guidance such as a specified yearly ceiling per board member, or policies that would clearly articulate what would constitute valid board business for which the care would be reimbursed.

For instance, would care be reimbursed only for time spent in board meetings? Would the town reimburse the cost of a babysitter for a board member to have lunch with a consultant discussing town business?

Elwell proposed a process that board members ultimately approved, but only after a long discussion where they also considered a proposal from board member Tim Wessel.

Under Elwell’s proposal, board members will submit a monthly log of dependent care expenses to the Town Manager’s office; receipts would be helpful but not required. The town manager would review and approve the logged request before sending the paperwork through the town’s accounts payable process.

“That’s a way to make this possible without our being burdensome, so that makes sense to me,” he said. “And so it’s an honor system.”

The log will be a matter of public record, Elwell told the board.

Wessel, who opposed the stipend increase at ARTM, designed his proposal around three principles: that a system be easy for staff to manage, that it not be a financial burden on taxpayers, and that it honor the will of the Representative Town Meeting body.

Under his proposal, board members would have declared that they had dependent care needs and receive $150 a month, or $1,800 annually.

He based that flat fee on paying $15 an hour while attending two meetings a month, each lasting five hours.

“I never thought it would be this complicated actionably; I always thought it would be reimbursed for babysitting services rendered,” Board Chair Liz McLoughlin said.

Elwell said that Wessel’s suggestion did keep the process simple.

“That’s what makes this tricky is we’re creating something new, with limited guidance and it’s going to have to be a gut-level decision for the five of you as much as an informed decision,” he said.

Board member Daniel Quipp acknowledged that one of the aims of Wessel’s proposal was to help the town predict some the reimbursement’s expenses.

“We wouldn’t do the General Fund budget on a well- let’s-see-how-it-goes kind of basis — that would be bad,” he said.

Yet, Quipp said that being able to collect some data for at least the first year would help the town plan going forward.

“People will submit for what they need, and I’m going to trust them to ask just for what they need,” he said.

In the end, Quipp felt that he could trust his fellow board members to access their reimbursement honestly and not try to take advantage of the taxpayers.

Only two of the five board members — Wessel and Gelter — would likely claim child-care expenses, the board acknowledged.

Quipp was “really against” Wessel’s proposal, saying that if a situation arises where something awful happened, he wouldn’t want to cap that.

“I think it would be interesting to be as free as possible with this,” he said.

Quipp added that he liked a point that Wessel made: that this reimbursement could support work in the home of another spouse who normally goes uncompensated.

McLoughlin said, “I think they call that women’s work.”

Elwell suggested that the eligible hours pertain only to Selectboard meetings. Services provided by a member of the household could be compensated at a rate that individual board members felt comfortable with, as long as they are willing to document the expense.

The board agreed and voted 4–1 to use an honor system. The policy does not cap claims, but does limit reimbursement to board meetings.

Wessel voted against the proposal, saying that he couldn’t support the motion because there was not a cap on hourly rates paid to caregivers.

Later, on his Selectboard Facebook page, Wessel wrote, “As one of the only two Selectboard members who might use this reimbursement this coming fiscal year, I’m disappointed that my fellow members decided to keep these payments vague and undefined.”

“Taxpayers deserve clarity on how much Selectboard members might receive, regardless of the importance and amount of that reimbursement,” he wrote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #614 (Wednesday, May 26, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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