BRATTLEBORO—Town Meeting members passed the $14.6 million municipal budget and the $14.8 million town school district budget at the Representative Town Meeting on March 24.
Members also approved funds for the town’s share of repairs from Tropical Storm Irene and discussed issues ranging from a 1-percent option tax to pedestrian safety.
After a long discussion, the members also voted to increase compensation awarded the Selectboard.
The original article asked the body to approve the customary yearly stipend of $2,000 for Selectboard members and $3,000 for the chair, funds intended to defray members’ expenses incurred while serving the town.
Meeting Member Dart Everett (District 3) asked to increase the compensation to $4,000 and $6,000, respectively. According to Everett, the Selectboard’s stipend has remained flat for 16 years. The board’s duties, however, have increased.
Members in favor of the Everett amendment cited the role’s escalating complexity as reason for increasing compensation. Spoon Agave (District 3), a former member of the Selectboard, said that the extra money might allow more people to run, especially those who couldn’t afford to take time from another job.
In response to a procedure question, Sondag responded that increasing the board’s compensation did not appear as an automatic budget item because the board did not feel comfortable increasing its own members’ salaries.
She added that the current chair’s $3,000 compensation did not cover Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray’s cell phone bill.
Meeting members opposed to the increase felt it inappropriate during tough economic times.
Meeting member Orion Barber (District 1) said that although the increased compensation would up the tax rate a minuscule amount, that minuscule amount was still an increase.
“There are people [in town] hurting beyond what we in this room can imagine,” he said.
DeGray and Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis supported the increase, while board members David Gartenstein and Christopher Chapman, although thankful, opposed it.
After a friendly amendment made by member Stanley Borofsky (District 1), the meeting members compromised and approved an increase to $3,000 for board members and $5,000 for the board chair.
1 percent option tax
During budget discussions, DeGray plugged the 1 percent option tax he has supported for years. The town’s Grand List has remained relatively flat while expenses continue to rise, he explained.
To keep expenses down, the town has put off capital improvement projects and equipment purchases like a grader for Public Works, said DeGray.
“So far we have been able to avoid a 4-5 percent tax increase,” said DeGray. “But it’s not a permanent solution.”
In DeGray’s opinion, either the town finds new revenue sources or residents should lobby Gov. Peter Shumlin to offer river towns more options for competing with “tax-free New Hampshire.”
Brattleboro already has a 1-percent meals, rooms, and alcohol tax that, according to Finance Director John O’Connor, garners the town an average of $300,000 in yearly revenue.
The 1 percent option tax would apply to some retail and service items.
Member Dr. Robert Fagelson (District 1) said to DeGray that in a previous year, DeGray “foist[ed]” the meals and room tax on the town after the body voted down the 1-percent option tax.
“Increasing our taxes is insane,” said Fagelson.
Discussion on the tax was deemed out of order for the budget discussions and instead more appropriate for a later Special Town Meeting.
No to pedestrian safety funds
Meeting members also voted down an amendment by Kevin Maloney (District 3) for $75,000 toward pedestrian safety improvements. Maloney’s amendment comes after pedestrian deaths.
Maloney questioned the town’s appreciation for pedestrian safety. He viewed the town’s priority as moving traffic efficiently through town rather than non-drivers’ safety.
He also questioned why the town pushed road projects in the capital improvement plan decades into the future. He said a project for the Union Hill neighborhood approved in 2005 wasn’t in the plan until 2019.
Meeting members and the board highlighted experiences of near-misses as both pedestrians and drivers. Overall, the body pointed to the need for a culture shift towards pedestrian safety that would take time, education, and outreach.
Money for Irene
Town Meeting Members approved $170,000 from the undesignated fund (commonly called the “slush fund”) to help defray costs associated with Tropical Storm Irene.
Sondag said the town has spent over $1 million on local projects and estimates $1.75 million for local costs.
But, after the state and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) have kicked in their portion of reimbursements to Irene-affected communities, Sondag estimated the town’s actual cost for Irene at $129,000.
Repairs to the Cook Road Bridge might push the $129,000 even higher, to $170,000.
Any unused portion of the $170,000, however, would return to the undesignated fund, said Sondag.
On a separate article, Members approved $10,000 for Brattleboro Climate Protection for energy efficiency and environmental-related projects in town.
In response to a question regarding what in the school budget came from state versus local taxes, O’Connor said that after adoption of Act 68, the education funding law, the line between the two blurred.
“It’s all considered state tax,” he said.
The town does collect about $10 million in state education taxes from residents, said O’Connor.
The Town School District also requested and received approval from meeting members to move $300,000 from the District’s unreserved fund to help lower education taxes.
Town Meeting members approved $131,860 for 28 local organizations as allocated by the Human Services Committee.
The American Legion Little League Field, Family Garden, Inc., and Camp Waubanong received municipal property tax exemptions.
Meeting members voted to reduce the American Legion’s exemption period from the standard four years to two, because some members felt the privately-held property should remain open all year to everyone in the town, not just the Little League.
The Family Garden also received an exception for the nonprofit’s educational portion of taxes.
Many of the day’s articles passed without discussion. Of municipal items, this included the auditors’ report, election of library trustees, and appointing Fisher & Fisher as town attorneys.
The municipal budget this year was level-funded. The town will figure the additional approved funding into the budget and set the tax rate this summer.
After the conclusion of warned articles, Meeting Members brought advisory items to the floor.
Members approved George Harvey’s (District 3) suggestion that the Selectboard initiate a study on the success that communities in Europe have had with converting to renewable energy and seeing if any of these technologies can work in Brattleboro.
The members voted against a resolution from Kurt Daims (District 2) to require the town to start divesting itself from nuclear power and buy into CVPS’s Cow Power electricity plan. Daims estimated the program would carry a yearly cost of about $12 per person.
The final vote of the day approved another resolution by Daims, which asked the Selectboard to expedite public safety by adding a sidewalk along Putney Road north of the Vermont Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Passing the gavel; celebrating a birthday
Saturday’s meeting began with Moderator Tim O’Connor informing members that he needed to sit out this year’s meeting due to a medical problem affecting his eyesight, causing double vision. Meeting members voted in fellow member Lawrin Crispe (District 1) as moderator pro tempore.
O’Connor, who sat with meeting members after descending the podium, said he was receiving good physician care.
Town Meeting Member and State Rep. Mollie Burke (P/D-Brattleboro) opened the meeting with a resolution passed in the Legislature to commemorate longtime lawmaker and Town Meeting Member Robert T. Gannett’s 95th birthday.
Burke said Gannett’s political service spanned more than six decades, with four terms in the House (1953-1960) and 10 terms in the Senate (1973-1992).
Gannett served as a meeting member until last year and helped usher in Brattleboro’s representative town meeting in 1959.
Everyone in the gym joined rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”