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Voices / Viewpoint

It is not too late

With residents and businesses at their financial breaking points, Brattleboro must find a way to pay for a sacred cow of a project: the police/fire station

Arlene Distler formerly represented District 2 in Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting.

Brattleboro

It is rather mind-blowing to hear about the recent wringing of hands on the part of the Selectboard over the coming year’s budget. Where, oh where, was this concern last fall, when Town Meeting representatives were asked to vote on the fire/police station bond?

Except for Selectboard member David Gartenstein’s asserting that he would not vote for the bond without an additional funding source and then-board member Dora Bouboulis’s nay vote, this project seemed to be a sacred cow we were all expected to bow before.

We taxpayers, on the other hand, have been milked dry –– we’re barely getting by. Now, we are told that we must somehow pay for this huge project solely with our property taxes, even though our tax rate is already among the highest in the state.

We’ve all noticed the proliferation of empty storefronts in town. Could it be that townspeople simply don’t have the disposable income to keep the businesses in town busy? To add significantly to homeowners’ tax burden is to risk the local economy’s implosion.

I realize most of the current board was not part of the Selectboard during the Special Town Meeting and vote, at which there was little to no guidance from the “seats of power.”

However, it is not too late to say, “Wait a minute...we need to find a way to fund these expansions without putting it all on the backs of property owners.” It is not too late to put the project on hold until an additional funding source can be found.

* * *

At the Oct. 20, 2012 Special Town Meeting, there were two votes that pertained to the bond. Some representatives unsuccessfully suggested that the vote on the bond be linked to the outcome of the proposal to raise a 1-percent local option sales tax.

So the local option tax was voted down after heartfelt testimony from local businesses, and at the same time the project was moved forward with a decisive “yes” vote.

Sadly, and perhaps strategically on the part of those who wished to see the bond pass, the votes, both Australian ballot, had to happen at the same time. As a result, the local option vote was not known until after the vote was over on the fire/police project.

And capital projects for next year totaling $2 million?

It is time that the town representatives take a good, hard look at new projects and purchases and realize that we don’t have to give any town department everything it asks for. Just as in our personal lives, you sometimes (lately, it seems lots of times!) have to back off the wish list. I was heartened to see a similar sentiment was expressed by the Selectboard.

A citizen’s committee oversees the police/fire station project, and one will be appointed to participate in the search for a new town manager. A citizen finance committee also exists.

I would like to suggest that either these committees come up with a few funding options, or that a separate committee be created whose charge will be to find a new revenue stream, a way to grow the grand list — or, even better, both.

* * *

An argument made at the Special Town Meeting to allay the fears of higher property taxes was to bring up income sensitivity and the Homestead Declaration and Property Tax Adjustment Claim.

However, that only takes care of the school tax portion of the tax bill. A higher municipal tax is a higher municipal tax.

And to make matters worse, the state, in the face of higher costs from towns on the school portion, voted to raise the base rate towns must pay, since the state could no longer afford to underwrite the extra expenses towns were incurring.

So one should expect the school portion of the tax bill to increase, no matter the rebate, town projects, or anything else.

There should be as much energy going into finding an additional funding source for the police/fire station project as into the mechanics of the project.

If the finance committee isn’t willing to take that on, I suggest a new committee be formed with that as their mission.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #222 (Wednesday, September 25, 2013).

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