BRATTLEBORO—Representative Town Meeting Member Billie Stark of District 1, holding the 2012 Annual Town Report, approached the microphone.
Stark joked that once again, here she was with her town report marked with yellow highlighter.
The audience filling the gym of Academy School in West Brattleboro laughed.
Stark proceeded to pepper town officials and staff with questions about the fiscal year 2014 budget.
With Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting coming up on March 23, the elected Town Meeting Members prepared on March 13 by asking questions of the selectboard, town manager, and members of the board of Building a Better Brattleboro.
Topping the list were the $14,923,357 budget, costs related to the $14.1 million police and fire facilities upgrade project, and saving the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.
Selectboard vice-chair David Gartenstein stood in for Chair Dick DeGray, who was out of town.
Gartenstein provided meeting members with an overview of the fiscal year 2014 budget that he characterized as “essentially” level-funded.
Most of the budget increases stemmed from factors out of the town’s control, such as health insurance premiums and wages dictated by union contracts, he said.
The $14.9 million budget represented a 1.9 percent increase, or $278,233, over fiscal year 2013, said Gartenstein.
About 65 percent of the budget could be attributed to the $9.7 million that the town will pay in wages, benefits, and insurance, he said.
Insurance rates across the board had increased, according to Gartenstein. Health insurance rates increased by $100,000 over the past year; liability insurance had increased by $43,000; and workers’ compensation increased by $50,000. Retirement benefits had increased by $35,000.
The first payment for interest on the police and fire facilities project bond, $328,000, will also be paid in 2014.
The town will also ask the meeting members if they will approve using $765,000 from the unassigned surplus fund balance for capital improvements, such as repairs to sidewalks.
Gartenstein said that the surplus funds had accrued over five years and were in excess of the 10 percent contingency fund of $1.5 million the town keeps in reserve for emergencies such as Tropical Storm Irene.
According to Town Manager Barbara Sondag, the town did not create any new staff positions for fiscal year 2014. Changes in line items for staff salaries came from changes in hours, increases through collective bargaining, and a reassignment of duties.
Coping with police, fire project costs
Some Representative Town Meeting members expressed concern about the cost of the police and fire facilities project, and questioned the prudence of the project despite Town Meeting approval of the project in October 2012.
Members voted 99 to 34 by Australian ballot to approve bonding the upgrades. Of the 145 Town Meeting members, 133 cast votes.
District 2 member Arlene Distler asked if the town was only delaying the real effects of the project’s costs.
Gartenstein responded saying the project came with “significant” costs. The board will have to start planning immediately after Town Meeting how to budget for next year because there will be “a big gap we have to fill,” he said.
The 20-year bond for the police-fire upgrade project is anticipated to add 10 cents to the tax rate.
Sondag said the town was “open and up-front with the costs of the project.”
Outgoing Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis, who voted against the project, agreed with Distler’s concerns.
“People should expect cuts in services they enjoy right now,” said Bouboulis, adding that she felt it was not responsible of the Selectboard to allow such a high tax increase.
Speaking on behalf of the Town Finance Committee, District 3 member Spoon Agave said that the town had to plan for capital improvement projects. The capital plan looks out six years, he said, yet most bonds stretch over 20 years.
“We felt that had there been master planning in place for the town infrastructure, the police-fire project could have cost less,” he said.
Sondag countered saying that the town had put the project before meeting members in 2000. The motion failed, she said.
Every year since, the town put the project into the capital plan, and every year it was postponed.
“What we need, in addition to planning, is stick-to-itiveness,” Sondag said.
Most of the department heads live and own property in town, she said, and they understand how debt hits the tax rate. She added the town is living with a budget “balanced on the back” of capital projects such as sidewalk repairs.
River Garden amendment?
District 3 members Judy Davidson and Bob Oeser discussed proposing an amendment to Article 21, authorizing a special tax assessment of $78,000 for the Downtown Improvement District, to help fund the River Garden.
Ultimately, the amendment supporters felt the River Garden should remain a public space.
Oeser argued that due to the public funds that went into purchasing the building, Building a Better Brattleboro could not sell.
Oeser also questioned the process by which BaBB decided to sell the River Garden.
District 3 member, and Selectboard member-elect, Kate O’Connor is also vice-president of the BaBB board of directors. She said the downtown property owners who pay the assessment did not want any of their money supporting the River Garden.
O’Connor explained that BaBB had “two legs.” BaBB stood as the designated downtown organization the state requires for a town to have a downtown program which entitles it to tax credits and other funding.
The other leg owns the River Garden, she said. The building is not owned by the town. BaBB does not need to own the building to be the designated downtown organization.
Each leg has its own budget, she said.
The tax assessment monies benefit the downtown as part of BaBB’s work as a downtown organization.
“We don’t know what ‘divest’ means right now,” said O’Connor. adding that what happens to the River Garden will depend on the RFPs the organization receives. The members had voted three years ago to give the River Garden, which has operated at a deficit, three years to break even. It has not.
“We’re not dumping the River Garden,” she said.
Voting down Article 19
The Selectboard requested that Town Meeting Members vote down Article 19, a measure to fund repairs to the Withington Skating Rink’s compressors.
According to town staff, new information about the compressors became available after the motion had been placed on town meeting warning. Once on the meeting warning, the article could be voted up or down, but not removed, said officials.
According to Sondag, town staff and the board felt that the new information raised questions about the best route forward. If the body voted down the article, then the town could schedule a special town meeting once it had vetted the options for replacing the rink’s compressors.
Original estimates for replacing the two compressors stood at $172,000, said Sondag. After the meeting warning was finalized, Carol Lolatte, recreation and parks director, obtained three additional options from a consultant, ranging from $362,000 to $721,000.
Replacing the compressors with the same model, proved complicated, said Sondag. The equipment would have a 30-year lifespan but would use R22 refrigerant, she said. This refrigerant is on a federal list to be banned by 2020.