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Consensus: Town is fiscally strong, but with too small a Grand List

Brattleboro town employees provide budget overview to business community

BRATTLEBORO—Members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce received a side of finance with their scrambled eggs at the chamber’s monthly breakfast series.

Town Finance Director John O’Connor gave an overview of the proposed $16.3 million fiscal year 2015 budget and the proposed 8.5-cent increase to the property tax increase.

Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland followed O’Connor’s presentation with an outline of the services and infrastructure the town budget supports.

“If we want to preserve the life that we have here, we’ve got to grow our Grand List,” Moreland said.

Moreland said that to reduce property taxes the town needs to find new revenue streams. He touched on enacting a 1-percent local-option sales tax.

At the prompting of Chamber Executive Director and Selectboard Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor, Moreland also discussed the town’s push for recognition as a regional economic hub.

The chamber held its breakfast series in the Education Conference Room at the Brattleboro Retreat on Feb. 11.

For fiscal year 2015, the town has a balanced budget with $16.3 million in revenue and $16.3 million in planned expenses, O’Connor said.

She added that property taxes will comprise 87 percent of the upcoming budget.

The municipal property tax rate will increase by 8.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. A property worth $100,000 will pay an additional $85 in property taxes in fiscal year 2015, said O’Connor.

The increase in taxes is due to increases in business costs, such as insurance and special projects like the wastewater treatment plant, in its final stages, and the police-fire facilities upgrade project, which is in the planning phase.

Also last year the town used a portion of a surplus to offset property tax increase for fiscal year 2014. The town will not do so this year, said O’Connor.

She also provided highlights from fiscal year 2013, which ended in June, describing it as “a solid year for the town of Brattleboro.”

Of the $15.5 million in revenue, the town expended $14.6 million, O’Connor said. Most of the budget funded employee salaries and benefits.

Property taxes funded over half of the town’s fiscal year 2013 budget, she said.

Starting the year strong

On a positive note, said O’Connor, the town is slated to close out fiscal year 2013 on strong financial footing. For example, the town exceeded its goal of maintaining a minimum surplus of unassigned funds of at least 10 percent of the town’s overall expenses.

Surplus funds, called the unassigned fund balance, can prove crucial during emergencies. After Tropical Storm Irene blew through the state in 2011, Brattleboro’s unassigned balance provided bridge funds until federal aid kicked in.

Last summer’s washout on Elm Street, the sudden repairs needed to the Strand Avenue retaining wall, and Tropical Storm Irene-related expenses were some of the town’s fiscal year 2013 unplanned expenses.

Moreland said the town budget translates into services, programs, and infrastructure that benefits residents.

“A budget is an abstraction of a plan expressed in numbers,” he said.

In fiscal year 2015, between the daily governmental activities of running the town to revenue activities like the parking fund, the town’s total activities will value around $22.9 million, said Moreland.

“That’s a heck of an operation,” he added.

Most of the budget goes toward staff, he said.

The town is analogous to a service-oriented business rather than a manufacturer that produces widgets. It takes staff to provide services, he added.

According to Moreland, these services encompass ordinary daily operations such as maintaining records; community enrichment such as arranging youth hockey leagues; and the extraordinary, such as extinguishing structure fires.

For example, in 2013, the police department responded to 9,950 calls and made 5,960 motor vehicle stops. The department of public works maintained 82 miles of roads as well as 1,500 storm drains, and served 3,500 water and wastewater customers. Brooks Memorial Library staff answered 15,373 reference questions. Parking Enforcement issued 15,311 citations.

The town will undertake numerous special projects in the coming year, including upgrades to its police department and two fire stations, and rewriting its zoning ordinances for the first time in 30 years.

The Police-Fire Project Oversight Committee will hold a public presentation on plans for the police and fire stations on Thursday, Feb. 27 at 5:30 p.m. in the Selectboard Meeting Room, second floor of the Municipal Center.

Grand List not keeping pace

According to Moreland, the estimated fiscal year 2015 Grand List is $1.15 billion, from 6,200 separate parcels. Although a substantial number, the Grand List has not kept pace with expenses.

Moreland said, in the long term, the town needed new revenue sources that relieve some of the burden on taxpayers.

The 1-percent option tax is one revenue stream the town has sought to enact. According to O’Connor, the town could potentially net $650,000 from the sales tax.

Town Meeting Members voted against the tax in 2012. Selectboard members attempted to use the tax as a method to pay for a portion of the $14.1 million Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project.

The 1-percent option tax is a tariff on consumer items, and does not pertain to “essential” items such as food, clothing, agricultural equipment, residential fuel, or computers.

A non-binding ballot question will appear on the March 4, town ballot asking voters whether they supported establishing the 1-percent tax. The same question will go to Town Meeting Members at the March 22 Representative Town Meeting.

What it means to be a regional economic hub

Kate O’Connor asked Moreland to discuss Brattleboro’s role as a economic regional hub.

She added that property taxes in Brattleboro are higher than neighboring towns and that some people felt the tax rate reflects services that the town provides to the entire county.

Moreland said that Brattleboro is a regional hub for jobs and economic activities. The town provides services and infrastructure, like Brooks Memorial LIbrary or downtown shopping, that benefit residents and non-residents alike.

But the cost of these services and other benefits are borne solely by Brattleboro property owners, said Moreland. Although others benefit, they don’t pay in.

Other towns in Vermont also experience economic challenges from being hubs. Moreland pointed to the cities of Barre and Rutland as comparable to Brattleboro’s situation.

The Brattleboro Selectboard has met with members of the Legislature to see if changes can be made at the state level to resolve the issue, Moreland said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #241 (Wednesday, February 12, 2014). This story appeared on page A3.

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