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An unpopular stance?

Town Meeting rejected the 1-percent local-option tax, which would have offset the police/fire project costs. We still have buyers remorse and need to address this outsized project.

Arlene Distler serves as a member of Representative Town Meeting in Brattleboro, representing District 2.


This year, we Representative Town Meeting representatives had to choose between the rock that is the seemingly unyielding, outsized town budget and the hard place of adding a tax or other unsavory options to accommodate the spending.

We didn’t stay overnight, and we didn’t even miss dinnertime. That was a good thing. The weather was crummy, for once, as morning slid into afternoon and then into evening. That, too, was a good thing.

For the rest of it, I don’t think anyone came out completely happy.

I am writing to explain my votes, which were not popular ones and did not prevail.

* * *

I do almost all my shopping in Brattleboro. Since I live just up South Main Street and love to not use my car, I walk to town almost daily. Nine times out of ten, I can, and do, purchase whatever I need from local merchants. I love our downtown, and I love supporting it.

However, last autumn, taking around a petition to bring the message to the Selectboard that the police/fire station project needed to be significantly cut, I heard a lot of very distressed folks. I had no problem getting signatures.

Thanks to the oversight committee for the project, $500,000 might have been saved. However, the conversation never approached a rethink of the project’s scope.

So, the town still projects taking out $14 million worth of bonds. We can always hope bids will come in lower than that. But then there’s always the unexpected construction glitches along the way.

I voted for a 1-percent local-option sales tax to add to the 6 percent we already pay because I didn’t feel it would make a crucial difference and because essential items would not have been affected. It would have made a huge difference in paying for the project.

When that effort failed, a motion was made to vote down the budget in its entirety as a kind of last-ditch measure. It would have given the Selectboard the charge to come back to the representatives with a lower budget. An earlier motion to lower the budget by the amount equal to FY2015’s interest payment on the bond failed because there is no assurance it would not come from other expenses.

The idea was to make the general sentiment crystal clear: We cannot afford the project as now conceived.

* * *

I do trust the Selectboard when it describes the budget as lean and says that nothing else could be cut (besides the Brooks Memorial Library and the Recreation and Parks Department budgets, a time-worn threat). Which makes the outsized police/fire project that much more reprehensible. Our entire budget is handcuffed to it.

I have enormous respect for the police officers and firefighters in this town, as well as for Police Chief Eugene Wrinn and Fire Chief Michael Bucossi. But do we really want a state-of-the-art police station, yet not have enough money in the town coffers to hire the number of police officers we should have (the number we have had in the past) to use it?

Yes, Town Meeting representatives did vote for the bond. Yes, many of us do have buyer’s remorse. Human beings are supposed to be able to learn from their mistakes.

This decision shouldn’t be something we have to apologize for — only something to correct.

* * *

Suze Orman is considered an expert on financial matters. One of the things she always says is, “People first. Then money. Then things.”

We are doing the opposite. We already have a citizenry that is demoralized by the expenses we face living in a town we love — a town that we feel should reflect our values but where, instead, our finances are being squeezed until many feel pushed out, or at least pushed aside.

I am truly hoping for some sort of miracle, something that will bring extra revenue in for this project. It’s a sorry situation. There might be some relief if the town is successful in getting Montpelier to look at the “hub town” situation, or if the state addresses the needs of towns that border New Hampshire, perhaps in the form of sending back a portion of sales tax.

But to spend more money than we can afford to borrow, to set our finances for years to come in such an unbalanced way and hope for the best?

That is a poor way to face the future.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page D1.

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