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Feeling left out of the process

Voters submit petition on Police/Fire facilities upgrade project

BRATTLEBORO—As the town prepares to bond for the estimated $14.1 million police/fire facilities upgrade project, some citizens are calling for fiscal temperance.

District 2 Representative Town Meeting Member Arlene Distler submitted a petition during the public participation portion of the May 7 Selectboard meeting urging the Selectboard to “scrutinize” the police/fire project budget, its impact on the “burdened” residential tax rate, and to cut costs wherever possible.

Distler said the petition’s signers wanted to make clear their voice regarding the project bond that will “significantly” impact property taxes; that the Charter calls for a fair, town-wide vote on the budget; that they want to make sure residents are educated about the $14.1 million bond; and that they are strongly calling for the Selectboard to cut costs.

Town Clerk Annette Cappy said the petition contained 162 valid signatures.

This is the second petition organized by a dozen citizens involved with CommonSense, said Distler. Town Meeting Member Kurt Daims started the group.

CommonsSense estimates the Police/Fire facilities project will “cost $1,600 per person over the life of the bond, approximately $4,000 per taxed property."

The group’s first petition, started after the October Special Town Meeting approving the project, missed the deadline for submitting petitions outlined in the Town Charter, said Distler.

CommonSense’s ultimate goal, she said, is to change the Town Charter to require that bonds over a certain amount should automatically go to a town-wide vote.

Wording for the petition came from a resolution submitted by District 3 Town Meeting Member and attorney Stephen Phillips during the annual Representative Town Meeting on March 23, said Distler.

During the March 23 meeting, Town Meeting Members debated reducing the municipal budget by an amount equal to the bond’s first year interest payment.

Town officials reminded the body that although it could reduce the budget, only the Selectboard decided how to allocate budget items. If it chose, the Selectbaord could take money from another town department, like the library, to pay the interest.

Distler said that while collecting signatures, the most oft-heard concern centered on people’s ability to afford living in Brattleboro.

Another audience member and petition supporter said that many people felt left out of the project approval process.

Distler stressed that those who signed the petition were “law-abiding citizens” who respect the police and fire departments, but worry the facilities project costs outpace what residents can afford.

The Selectboard passed the petition on to Town Clerk Annette Cappy and Town Attorney Bob Fisher for review.

“It’s been a real struggle how to figure out how to make it [financing the bond] a fair process,” said Distler in a separate interview.

Many have commented that the Town Meeting Members’ accepted as higher economic status does not fully represent the economic reality of the town.

When asked if the petition and and some Town Meeting Members’ flip flopping on their original decision to approve the project represented voters’ remorse, Distler said, no.

The petition represents the voice of the population at large, she said.

Regarding Town Meeting Members, Distler added, “We’re all busy."

And then she said, yes, “this is remorse."

The meeting members feel they weren’t given a full picture of how the project would impact property taxes.

The town anticipates starting construction on the three facilities in spring of 2014, said Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

The buildings 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 suffers from moisture and mold issues. Records and evidence are stored throughout the basement.

The station also requires people in custody to navigate a series of narrow staircases during the booking process. According to Police Chief Eugene Wrinn, the stairs prove hazardous even on a good day. The stairs are dangerous for anyone who is intoxicated or has special needs.

Detectives working in the first-floor evidence room must dust for fingerprints in an unventilated room.

The Central Fire Station, built in 1949 and located on Elliot Street, is cracking at the seams. Firefighters squeeze modern fire engines that hold 1,000 gallons of water through bay doors built for much smaller fire trucks that held 250 gallons.

Firefighters must rearrange equipment to access the boat they use for water rescues.

“We have our own little version of Keystone Cops when we have a water emergency,” said Fire Chief Michael Bucossi.

The West Brattleboro Fire Station, located on Route 9, is also too small for modern-day use.

Neither station is adequately handicapped accessible nor has designated facilities for female firefighters, said Bucossi.

Upgrades to the facilities are estimated to cost $14.1 million.

Construction on the three emergency services facilities had its detractors prior to approval by Town Meeting Members. Since approval in October, however, those concerned with cost have raised their voices.

At a Special Representative Town Meeting last October, meeting members voted by Australian ballot 99-34 to approve bonding the facilities upgrades. Of the 145 Town Meeting Members, 133 cast votes.

During the special meeting, Town Finance Director John O’Connor told meeting members the estimated total cost for the 20-year municipal bond, at an interest rate of 3.188 percent, would be $20 million.

Property taxes would finance the bond. O’Connor said taxes on a house valued at $100,000 would rise about $97 over the 20 years. Taxes on houses valued at $250,000 wouldl rise about $240.

He estimated the bond would require a 10 percent hike in property taxes.

In an effort to alleviate property taxes, the Selectboard, under former Chair Dick DeGray, placed a 1 percent option sales tax before the Town Meeting Members.

According to O’Connor, based on recent sales, the 1 percent option 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.

Meeting members overwhelmingly defeated the proposed tax in a floor vote at the October special meeting.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #203 (Wednesday, May 15, 2013).

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