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‘Some significant work to do’

Selectboard see tight budget cycle ahead

BRATTLEBORO—The town may require belt tightening in fiscal year 2015, warns Selectboard chair David Gartenstein.

During the board’s Nov. 5 meeting, in the Municipal Center, Gartenstein told the audience that selectmen might consider cutting services or propose a 15-cent per $100 of valuation increase in residential property tax in fiscal year 2015.

Also on the agenda: whether to discharge the town’s mortgage against the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, and a potentially life-saving DPW proposal to calm town traffic.

Facing 2015 and beyond, the Selectboard’s goal is to create a budget with a more manageable tax increase, said Gartenstein, adding that anticipated increases include those for insurance, wages, and health care.

Should the town level-fund services, the budget for fiscal year 2015 could jump over $16 million.

Gartenstein said the town will also start paying on the police-fire facilities upgrade bond in fiscal year 2015. He estimated the annual payment to run $400,000. The project will be paid through property taxes unless supplemented by grants.

“So we’ve got some significant work to do going forward” if the town didn’t want to overburden property-tax payers, Gartenstein said.

In addition to trimming or cutting services, revisiting the 1 percent local option tax, a sales tax on consumer items, is on the table. This tax does not pertain to essential items such as food, clothing, agricultural equipment, residential fuel, or computers. According to the town finance office, the 1 percent tax could generate approximately $663,797 in additional revenue for the town.

Last year, Town Meeting Members voted down instituting the tax. Gartenstein said the board will at least consider sending the option tax to a town-wide vote in 2014.

Potentially good news, he said: the town may not need to spend all of the $360,000 approved by Town Meeting Members to fix the ice skating rink at Memorial Living Park. Any surplus monies from that project would go to reducing taxes in fiscal year 2015.

The town will hold preliminary budget meetings in the coming weeks. Meetings will be open to the public and aired on BCTV, said Gartenstein, who added he would like to see the widest-possible public coverage of the budget process.

After that, the Board of Selectmen will present the budget to Town Meeting Members for approval at Representative Town Meeting in March.

Last year, members approved $14.9 million in operating costs and $765,000 in capital costs, said Gartenstein.

Town discharges lien on River Garden

Also Nov. 5, the Selectboard voted to discharge its mortgage against the Robert H. Gibson River Garden.

In that action, Vice Chair Kate O’Connor, also a member of the board of Building a Better Brattleboro, recused herself from discussion and voting.

The prominent downtown River Garden has housed the BaBB office, served as a visitor center, and hosted public events. In 2012 BaBB announced it would sell the building, as it found it was unable to make a go of it.

Discharging the lien allows the building’s new owner, the non-profit Strolling of the Heifers, to receive a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As Gartenstein explained, the USDA would not approve the funds because the town’s lien brought the River Garden’s ratio of total debt to building value above 80 percent.

Gartenstein said that the town performed its due diligence, investigating whether it could maintain the lien — and recoup the money — should the future owners be a for-profit company. The USDA, however, said that it would not extend Strolling of the Heifers a loan with this lien in place.

Possible future gains do not merit blocking Strolling of the Heifers taking over the River Garden in the present, the town decided.

The town’s $150,000 lien on the building was designed so the town could recoup the money should the building’s owner, BaBB, later have sold the River Garden to a for-profit entity.

BaBB purchased the former Rite Aid building in 1999 and converted it into the River Garden in 2001. The Legislature at the time approved $150,000 for BaBB to purchase the structure. The state monies flowed through the town to BaBB, and the town established the lien. A stipulation of the state monies was that BaBB should reimburse the state the $150,000 should it sell the River Garden to a for-profit business.

The state voted to release BaBB from its repayment obligation in 2012.

Traffic-calming plan in place

Also on Nov. 5, the Selectboard approved a Department of Public Works traffic-calming plan as presented by Hannah O’Connell, the town’s highway and utilities superintendent.

The plan, more than a year in the making, standardizes how the town responds to traffic, bike, and pedestrian concerns, O’Connell said.

A number of road accidents, some which proved fatal to pedestrians, spurred the the department and Traffic Safety and Control Committee to overhaul the town’s traffic-calming plan.

A traffic-calming plan outlines the procedures and techniques the town uses to manage and influence traffic behavior in ways that promote pedestrian safety.

O’Connell said the plan includes a safety action request form that citizens can complete and submit to the DPW detailing a traffic-related concern and location.

The DPW or the Traffic Safety and Control Committee will respond to action requests within 30 days of receiving a completed form. Issues requiring increased enforcement fall to the Brattleboro Police Department, which has 60 days from receipt of an action request to address the issue.

People who submit a concern will be invited to bring their concerns to a Traffic Safety and Control Committee meeting.

As part of the plan, the Traffic Committee will also provide the Windham Regional Commission with an annual list of locations in town needing studies.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #229 (Wednesday, November 13, 2013). This story appeared on page A3.

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