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In Brattleboro, a marathon meeting focuses on the fiscal

Town Meeting reps approve town, school budgets despite attempts to rein in spending

BRATTLEBORO—Town Meeting Members hashed out town and school budgetary business during the long-day-into-night Annual Representative Town Meeting, a marathon that inspired one meeting observer to note that it was the most cantankerous he had witnessed.

Underpinning many of the questions meeting members posed were fears over fiscal prudence. Discussion on the school budget question took six hours. Discussion on the municipal budget boiled down to debate on the police/fire upgrade project, marked by voters’ remorse.

The meeting, held at the Brattleboro Union High School gym on March 23, opened with District 1 Representative Lynn Russell protesting Town Manager Barbara Sondag, and Town Attorney Robert Fisher, of Fisher & Fisher, sitting in the section reserved for Town Meeting Members. She argued that the meeting was the people’s time.

Members then repeatedly challenged town and school officials for the next 13 hours. Town Clerk Annette Cappy later said the meeting, which started at 8:30 a.m. and adjourned at 9:50 p.m., was the longest in her more than 20 years on the job.

During debate on the school and town budgets, meeting members stacked budget amendment upon budget amendment before coming full circle to approve the original warned totals.

Members defeated an amendment to fund the River Garden and preserve the building as a public space. They also debated the validity and cost of the police and fire stations upgrade project previously approved at a Special Town Meeting in October 2012.

Educational worries

District 2 member Patricia DeAngelo proposed cutting the $15,306,416 town school budget by $1 million.

Town Finance Committee member Ben “Spoon” Agave, representing District 3, followed DeAngelo’s amendment with a motion to cut the school budget by 2 percent, or roughly $300,000. The finance committee issued a report recommending meeting members vote to lower the school budget earlier this month.

“If we take the school budget off the table, we’re essentially taking spending off the table,” said Agave.

“This is a responsible plan for the school district that we feel maintains quality programs and is an overall benefit to the town,” countered School Board Chair Margaret Atkinson.

District 3 member Judith Davidson followed Agave’s amendment by moving to cut the budget by 1.49 percent, the amount the Finance Committee suggested in its report.

Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) Superintendent of Schools Ron Stahley pointed out that cutting the budget would eliminate 4½ jobs.

“You would be significantly changing the character of these schools,” he said.

Most of the costs in the budget were fixed, or they were mandated by the state or federal government, Stahley said. Cutting staff in the areas of music, art, and foreign languages was where the administration had wiggle room, though those areas also provided student enrichment, he added.

After a six-hour debate, meeting members approved the school budget as originally presented by the School Board.

Members grilled the town School Board and WSESU administration about taking on $275,000 in debt, rather than paying from surplus funds for capital improvements to the floors, kitchen, and parking lot at Academy School, and upgrades to the heating system at Oak Grove School.

Atkinson said that bonding for the work kept the district below the state’s per-pupil spending cap.

Stahley said that the Department of Health has dinged the Academy School’s kitchen as not meeting health codes. The floor repairs are required due to both normal wear and tear and asbestos abatement.

Members approved appropriating $246,754 from the undesignated fund balance to defray taxes in fiscal year 2014. According to Business Administrator James Kane, state statute requires budgetary surplus be returned to taxpayers, who would effectively see their education taxes reduced.

The sole order of business members defeated pertained to authorizing town school board directors to send a statement to the Legislature about preserving local governance of school districts.

According to school representatives, the state supports school consolidation and has suggested reducing the number of school districts to as few as 12 — a move that would combine Brattleboro with districts such as Twin Valley or Dover.

Members said educational needs of the different schools wouldn’t match and could harm Brattleboro in the long run.

That said, members were reluctant to be seen as trying to dictate school governance to Montpelier, citing the potential for unintended consequences.

Municipal matters

On town-related budget questions, members approved the $14,350,735 municipal budget after more than two hours of debate.

The cost of upgrading the police and fire facilities dominated the discussion.

Despite approving the $14.1 million project last fall, many members on Saturday changed their tune, saying they hadn’t fully realized how the project would affect property taxes.

Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis said that she voted against the municipal budget. She said that the police/fire upgrades would strap the town, leaving the next board no choice but to cut payroll or services such as library hours.

DeAngelo moved to decrease the municipal budget by $335,962. This amount mirrors the interest payment on the project’s bond, due in fiscal year 2014.

“You’re proposing to hold the operations budget hostage,” said Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray.

Vermont law allows voters to amend the overall budget amount but not dictate line items, said Town Attorney Robert Fisher.

Gartenstein chided the body for voting down the 1 percent option sales tax to help pay for the police/fire project in October. But, he added, if the body voted to reduce the budget then he would take the vote as an intention to re-evaluate the police/fire project.

District 3 Member Thomas Finnell said that the body’s awareness of the nation’s and community’s economic health had changed since October.

“These things trickle down, and we’re faced with an awareness we didn’t have six months ago,” he said.

“So it’s a dangerous world out there,” said District 3 member Stephen Phillips. “There’s not really enough money to pay for this [project].”

Sondag said the upgrades represented keeping town staff safe and healthy.

After debate devolved into frustration, the body answered DeAngelo’s amendment to cut the budget with a rare poll vote.

The amendment was defeated, 74 to 44.

The more-than-$14-million budget passed.

By the end of the night, meeting members had approved all municipal budget items as originally presented, with the exception of funding repairs to the ice rink at Memorial Living Park.

Members voted to replace two compressors at the Nelson Withington Skating Facility. raising the funds from $178,000 to $362,000. Facility user fees will reimburse the town for the cost of repairs, said Recreation and Parks Director Carol Lolatte.

What had been widely anticipated to be a knock-down-drag-out debate over the Robert H. Gibson River Garden turned into a quick defeat to an amendment to provide funding for the River Garden through the special assessment tax levied on downtown property owners.

The amendment also called for the Town Meeting moderator to appoint a committee to work with the building’s owner, Building a Better Brattleboro, to find a manager or organization to preserve the building as a public space.

This town meeting marked the first year of the newly elected Selectboard waiting until after Representative Town Meeting to take their seats. The new Selectboard was sworn in March 25.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #196 (Wednesday, March 27, 2013).

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