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Town to face tough financial choices

Selectboard wrangles with building the budget for fiscal year 2015

BRATTLEBORO—Balancing the town budget is rarely a cake walk for any municipality.

And building Brattleboro’s budget for fiscal year 2015 may require the Selectboard to make tough decisions.

The board held an early-morning budget meeting with the interim town manager and department heads in the Hanna Cosman Meeting Room of the Municipal Center on Nov. 25 to begin to solve the puzzle of how to fund the municipal operating and capital budgets while keeping property taxes at a manageable level.

The board initiated the budget process in September. Town Meeting Members will vote on the budget in March 2014.

Selectboard chair David Gartenstein said that, in previous years, the department heads and town manager developed a budget that the board whittled down.

This year, he said, the board asked to see two budgets: The first showed a level service budget with a bottom line of $16.7 million and a tax increase of $0.14. The second budget, level-funded at $16 million, required a tax increase of $0.09.

“How do we go about identifying cuts?” Gartenstein asked.

The board faces a quandary.

Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said that level-funding the budget and even a 2 percent program cut would likely lead to laying off town employees. A consequence of cutting too many services: Brattleboro could lose what people love about living in the town.

“Budgets are always tough and this one will be extensively tough,” said board member John Allen.

Board vice-chair Kate O’Connor said she supported the level-funded budget.

In a preliminary discussion held during the Nov. 19 board meeting, Gartenstein outlined the financial issues facing the town of approximately 12,000.

According to Gartenstein, the draft budget for fiscal year 2015 showed an increase of $647,000 over the current fiscal year. The increase is due to conditions such as higher costs for insurance, materials, meeting contract obligations, and bond payments related to the Police-Fire Facilities upgrade project.

Gartenstein and other board members say they hope to avoid a high tax increase.

“We’re going to run out of taxing capacity at some point,” said O’Connor.

The board must “keep the taxes [at a level] so everyone can live here,” said Allen.

The board can discuss a limited tax increase in a vacuum all it wants but a “palpable” rate cannot be reached until the board gets deeper into the budget process, said Gartenstein.

Gartenstein suggested finding cuts in the operating and capital budgets while offsetting taxes using a surplus left from repairing the ice rink at Living Memorial Park.

Board member David Schoales asked department heads to investigate what projects or services they could outsource. Schoales said he realized that outsourcing could mean some town employees lose their jobs.

Moreland reminded the board that the tax increase for fiscal year 2015 would not be so great if the board and meeting members had not approved using a fund balance of $765,000 last year to offset taxes. This move kept taxes artificially low.

Moreland stressed he wasn’t saying the board made a mistake.

The board and town meeting members “properly returned [taxpayer’s money] to the taxpayers in the form of tax relief,” said Gartenstein.

Property taxes for fiscal year 2014 went up 1 cent per $100 of assessed value, instead of the 7 cents that would have occurred without using the fund balance.

Gartenstein noted the board should decide during the budget process whether to add a referendum to the town ballot to approve instituting a 1 percent option sales tax.

“A tax is a tax is how I look at it,” said Allen.

Gartenstein disagreed, saying that the 1 percent option tax hit a different population than the property tax.

“The state could give us other [taxing] alternatives but they haven’t,” Gartenstein said.

Moreland suggested using the fund balance to offset any service cuts.

Level-funding the fiscal year 2015 budget even if the board used the fund balance means the board still would need to consider layoffs.

Many services and programs can’t be cut because they’re mandated by the state, added Moreland.

Each year the town’s budget has felt the slow increases of rising costs and each year the town inches closer to its taxing capacity, said Moreland.

In the long run, the town’s way out isn’t to cut services, but rather to participate in regional economic development efforts that can increase the Grand List.

Without growth in the Grand List, Moreland said the town eventually will diminish the services and community institutions that make Brattleboro a town where people want to live.

Moreland also explained the capital budget to the board, saying that, traditionally, Brattleboro has managed its capital improvement program by deferring maintenance or the replacing of equipment.

Overtime, deferring maintenance can drive up costs. He called it a “pay as you go” plan.

Another way of managing a capital improvement account is to fund it regularly over many years so when the time comes to purchase a new fire truck or police cruiser, the money is there. Moreland would like to transition the town to this model of funding capital improvements.

The fiscal year 2015 capital improvement budget started at $2.8 million, said Moreland. Department heads agreed, however, to push planned improvements farther into the future. This brought the capital fund down to an estimated $786,616.

Gartenstein suggested cutting $38,000 to replace a passenger truck used by the fire department and instead spend about $5,000 to maintain the 2002 vehicle.

He also suggested paying for air packs used by firefighters through a small low interest loan, but only if a grant didn’t come through first.

Finally, he suggested decreasing monies for road paving and sidewalk repair by $75,000.

“I’d rather keep our staff and spend less on paving,” said Moreland.

According to the department heads, the last time the board made “serious layoffs” was almost 20 years ago.

Gartenstein asked the department heads to compile a list of layoffs over the past 20 years as well as any department increases.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #231 (Wednesday, November 27, 2013). This story appeared on page A5.

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