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Town Meeting members talk about Irene, budgets, and proposed 1 percent local option tax

BRATTLEBORO—With Brattleboro’s annual Representative Town Meeting fast approaching, Town Meeting members gathered for an informational session last week, where they heard an overview on the town’s $14.6 million budget and an update on the how the town is paying for repairs related to Tropical Storm Irene.

Newly minted Selectboard Vice-chair David Gartenstein presented the budget overview.

If approved, the fiscal year 2013 budget would reflect a 1-percent tax increase. This increase would raise the municipal property tax rate to about $1.31 per $100 of assessed value.

Meeting members also asked questions about the Finance Committee’s annual report, and Selectboard member Christopher Chapman spoke at length about the town’s unfunded liability.

The town’s fiscal year 2013 budget totalled $14,639,124. Gartenstein broke down the bottom line by individual departments:

• General government operations, such as the town manager’s office, the town attorney, the town clerk, risk services, and planning: 13 percent

• Police Department and dispatch: 16 percent

• Fire Department: 11.5 percent

• Public Works Department: 10 percent

• Recreation and Parks Department: 5 percent

• Brooks Memorial Library: 4 percent

Benefits and wages comprised a substantial amount of the budget, said Gartenstein, with benefits at $2,746,209 (18.8 percent) and wages at $6,250,000 (42.6 percent).

Gartenstein told meeting members that the town witnessed significant fixed increases for fiscal year 2013 in health care, insurance, bonds, and street lights.

“The fixed costs tied our hands in dealing with the rest of the budget,” he said.

The Selectboard also approved a wage increase of 1 percent.

To balance the budget, Public Works delayed a $250,000 purchase for a new grader, and the Police Department altered its vehicle replacement cycle, knocking the number of new cruisers from two to one.

The purchase of a ride-along lawn mower for the new West River park also hit the cutting room floor, and the Recreation and Parks Department postponed the construction of a new maintenance shed at Living Memorial Park.

These cuts helped reduce the town’s total expenditures by 0.9 percent over last year, said Gartenstein.

The 1-percent tax increase, he added, is due to budgeting for a new fire truck.

Last year, meeting members approved funds for a new truck from the town’s unreserved fund. According to Town Finance Director John O’Connor, the truck was not fully financed last year.

“Generally, this is a very level-funded budget,” he said.

Aftermath of Irene

Town Manager Barbara Sondag told representatives that the town meeting warning includes an article to approve up to $170,000 from the Unassigned Fund Balance to defray the town’s portion of costs associated with Tropical Storm Irene.

According to Sondag, the town may not spend the $170,000, depending on reimbursements from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“There [are] still a lot of balls in the air on this,” she said.

FEMA and the state have yet to give the final funding approval for Brattleboro’s storm repairs, she said. Congress also has to decide whether to award Vermont enhanced FEMA benefits.

Qualifying for enhanced benefits would reduce the state and Brattleboro’s portion of costs from 10 percent to 5 percent, she said.

Sondag said the town would ask meeting members to take a vote to return any unused portion of the $170,000 to the unassigned fund.

“If we don’t, I anticipate this body should have some questions for us,” she said.

Other articles

The meeting members had few questions for the other warned articles.

Gartenstein highlighted the Finance Committee’s annual report, saying he looked forward to reviewing it to see what recommendations the Selectboard could integrate.

In years past, the Finance Committee has scrutinized budget lines. This year, the committee took its report in a new direction by submitting 12 recommendations, focusing on the town’s long-term fiscal health [The Commons, March 14].

The recommendations will not appear on the town’s meeting warning; the committee submitted the report after the agenda’s deadline. Gartenstein said that the only actionable recommendation would be implementing a 1-percent option tax.

Town meeting members had rejected implementing the tax about six years ago, he said. The Selectboard had discussed the tax during this year’s budget deliberations as well.

But the tax comes with benefits and risks, Gartenstein said. Capturing more of the revenues generated from visitors and cycling them back into the town would be a benefit. The risk would come in the form of increased taxes during hard times that can put pressure on the same business climate the town is trying to encourage.

Selectboard member Christopher Chapman praised the Finance Committee’s report, saying he hoped it would spark further discussions.

Paul Cameron also spoke on behalf of Brattleboro Climate Protection. The organization has requested the meeting members approve up to $10,000 for fiscal year 2013.

Brattleboro’s Annual Representative Town Meeting will be held Saturday, March 24, starting at 8:30 a.m., in the gymnasium of the Brattleboro Union High School.

Districts 2 and 3 still have open seats. Residents interested in becoming a Town Meeting member should contact Town Clerk Annette Cappy at 802-251-8157.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #144 (Wednesday, March 21, 2012).

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