BRATTLEBORO—Town Meeting Representatives voted on October 20 to approve upgrades to the police and fire stations, and to reject a new 1 percent sales tax to offset the $14.1 million construction project.
Town Meeting Members hold the fiduciary authority to decide whether to bond projects and approve taxes.
By secret ballot, they voted 99-34 to approve bonding the police and fire upgrades. Of the 145 Town Meeting Members, 133 cast votes.
According to Town Finance Director John O’Connor, the estimated total cost for the 20-year municipal bond, at 3.188 percent interest, will be $20 million.
The bond will be paid through property taxes. O’Connor said taxes on a house valued at $100,000 will rise about $97 over the 20 years. Taxes on houses valued at $250,000 will rise about $240.
In an effort to alleviate a rise in property taxes, the Selectboard had placed a 1 percent local option sales tax before the Town Meeting Members.
Members overwhelmingly voted down the tax in a floor vote.
This was not the first time that Town Meeting Representatives turned down the tax. Members also voted “no” to the 1 percent option at the 2009 and 2011 annual Town Meetings.
The 1 percent tax, one of three optional sales taxes allowed by the state, would apply to “discretionary purchases” like furniture. Brattleboro has already enacted the state’s two other optional taxes on rooms and meals, and alcohol.
The local option taxes are on top of the statewide taxes of 6 percent on merchandise, 9 percent on rooms and meals, and 10 percent on alcohol purchased in restaurants.
According to O’Connor, based on recent sales, the 1 percent option sales tax would have raised $660,000 for the town. This amount represents the 67.5 percent of the revenue it would receive after the state takes its 30 percent handling fee plus about $5 for every tax return filed.
Enacting the tax, said O’Connor, would not have completely paid for the stations’ upgrades. It would, however, have meant saving property owners with property valued at $100,000 about $33 and a property valued at $250,000 about $143 in taxes.
Early in the meeting, members asked questions about the upgrades to the police and fire stations.
The more heated discussions pertained to the 1 percent option tax.
Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray has supported enacting the optional tax multiple times. Selectboard Vice-Chair David Gartenstein also championed the option tax.
Discussions turned personal with meeting members and town officials taking opposite sides of the argument.
Both DeGray and Gartenstein took aim at the “transient” members of Brattleboro’s community, or those who come to town to work or shop, but don’t pay taxes here.
This has led to a tax rate for property-owners that’s unusually high, according to Gartenstein. Of the 266 local tax rates monitored by the Vermont Department of Taxes, seven have a municipal rate above $1 per $100 of assessed value, he said. Only 14 towns have a municipal rate above 80 cents.
Brattleboro’s municipal tax rate is $1.12. It is the third highest rate in the state, he said.
Property owners are taxed more, because the town needs to provide services as the commercial economic hub, Gartenstein said.
He said the Legislature has not given the town other options to capture more money from commuters, like a wage tax or a fuel tax.
According to DeGray, stores go out of business because no one wants their products, not because of higher taxes.
DeGray’s statement covered the many reasons he felt Brattleboro’s economy is suffering. He talked about the cost of doing business, the fact that Brattleboro suffers economically because it’s a commercial center, and soaring property taxes.
“This is a true tax relief issue,” he said, adding that the business community doesn’t pay extra when nonresidents use infrastructure.
“Hey, they [nonresidents] use our roads,” DeGray said.
“It [the 1 percent tax] may lose today, but it’s not going away,” said DeGray. “We can’t turn away from $660,000.”
The back rows of chairs reserved for the public were occupied by mostly by downtown merchants. A few of them held signs reading “$20 million,” the amount of the $14 million bond over 20 years when interest is included.
During floor discussions, the merchants present reacted, often with frustration, to mention of the option tax.
“I do have a pony in this race,” said Donna Simons, who owns the furniture store Candle in the Night on Main Street. Simons does not live in Brattleboro, but said all she does depends on Brattleboro’s having a healthy economy.
Meeting member Kate O’Connor yielded her time to Simons, who is not a meeting member.
According to Simons, she pays $14,000 annually in property tax to Brattleboro.
She said that studies she has read tracking economies in Connecticut River towns show sales taxes have caused these towns to lose revenue to New Hampshire.
“We’re across the river from a tax-free state,” Simons said.
Between sales tax-free New Hampshire, the recession, and people shopping on the Internet, her business is down 40 percent, she said.
According to Simons, when Vermont held its last tax-free holiday, Brown & Roberts Hardware store had its best weekend in its history.
Not even offering a 10 percent discount can compete with zero sales tax, she said.
Explaining the need
The meeting opened at 8:30 a.m. with Town Manager Barbra Sondag, Police Chief Eugene Wrinn, and Fire Chief Michael Bucossi presenting details on the projects.
The town took a multi-pronged approach to impressing on the public the need for renovations at the three stations. The police and fire departments held open houses. Sondag, along with representatives from police and fire, held a press conference for local media.
The town also held two informational meetings for town meeting members before Saturday’s Special Representative Town Meeting.
The three facilities require extensive health and safety upgrades.
The police station, located in the Municipal Center, has poor air quality throughout the basement and first-floor offices. The basement, where records and evidence are stored, is moist and moldy.
“There’s black growing stuff on the walls,” said Wrinn.
The station also requires people in custody to climb and descend a series of narrow staircases during the booking process. According to Wrinn, the stairs pose a hazard on a good day. If the person in custody is intoxicated, he said, the stairs pose a danger.
Detectives working in the first-floor evidence room dust for fingerprints in an unventilated room.
The police station is bisected by a public hallway. This presents privacy issues for victims who often have to wait in the hallway.
The Central Fire Station, built in 1949 and located on Elliot Street, is coming apart at the seams. Firefighters must squeeze the modern fire engines that hold 1,000 gallons of water through bay doors built when engines held about 250 gallons. The firefighters have run out of storage room for equipment.
“We have our own little version of Keystone Cops, when we have a water emergency,” said Bucossi, as he explained how firefighters must rearrange equipment to access the boat used in water rescues.
The West Brattleboro Fire Station, located on Route 9, is also too small for modern-day use.
Both stations are too small to accommodate engines from neighboring fire houses whose crews cover the Brattleboro stations as back up during a fire. The mutual aid trucks must be parked outside the stations. This poses problems in the winter, said Bucossi.
Neither station is adequately handicapped accessible or has designated facilities for female firefighters, said Bucossi.
Questions from the floor focused mostly on how to save the town money. Comments ranged from why should the town continue to operate the West Brattleboro station, asked by Robert Fagelson of District 1, to why the town is seeking money for one big project instead of breaking it into three parts, asked by Billie Stark of District 1.
Many of the town meeting members who spoke urged the body to vote against the project until the town administration could make it more affordable.
“We need to prioritize,” said Stark, who urged the body to vote “no” until the town could return to the members with two or three smaller projects.
The members who spoke in favor of the project did so saying the town could no longer wait.
District 1 Representative Stanley “Pal” Borofsky, owner of Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters at the corner of Main and Flat streets, read a multiple-paged letter about how sales taxes harm merchants bordering New Hampshire.
The sales tax has created “an erosion of business to Keene (N.H.),” he said. “Sometimes, towns are penny wise and pound foolish.”
John Wilmerding, a District 3 rep who also serves on the town Finance Committee, said, “I want to thank you for your skepticism.”
He continued, saying that he felt the projects were the result of putting off repairs. He also thought the upgrades before the members represented the town’s due diligence.
“[The body needs] to act now because it needs to be done now and it’s needed to be done for some time,” said Wilmerding. “We need [public servants] to be there for us without any unnecessary constraints.”
Back to a vote?
After the meeting, audience and Selectboard members gave their views on the day’s events.
Bucossi and Wrinn expressed gratitude that the meeting members approved funding the upgrades.
However DeGray expressed disappointment on the failure of the local option tax to pass.
“The town of Brattleboro taxpayers lost today,” he said.
The town needs more revenue, he said. A town can’t relieve a tax burden by level-funding a municipal budget and without cutting services.
“Relief has to come from somewhere,” he said. The surrounding towns benefit from a lower tax rate, while having the “luxury” of utilizing Brattleboro’s services.
DeGray thought the 1 percent tax should go to a town-wide vote.
The police and fire project may go to a town-wide vote even after passing town meeting members.
District 2 Representative Kurt Daims said he was collecting signatures to petition for sending the police and fire upgrades project to a town-wide vote.
“It ought to be put to the people,” he said.