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Petition filed to reconsider municipal budget through a town-wide vote

BRATTLEBORO—It might have been April Fool’s Day, but some Representative Town Meeting members weren’t joking around.

As a result of a petition circulated among the body by three of its members, the $16 million municipal budget is headed for a town-wide vote by Australian ballot.

Town Clerk Annette Cappy received the petition with 56 signatures on April 1, requesting the Selectboard schedule the vote to reconsider the municipal budget that Annual Representative Town Meeting approved overwhelmingly on March 22.

Cappy said the petition needed 50 signatures from meeting members to go before the Selectboard, which now has 14 days to act.

Town Meeting Member Ben “Spoon” Agave stood outside Cappy’s office and shared his views.

After the Annual Representative Town Meeting, he said, three meeting members — Michael Bosworth, Lynn Russell, and Julia Grover — separately circulated petitions to reconsider the budget. Later, they merged the petitions.

In Agave’s opinion, the petition was needed because “the administration does not fully appreciate that too many people in this town are skating on thin ice on the edge of financial disaster.”

Additionally, he asserted that Town Meeting members are more affluent than most of the residents they represent.

Agave said that the Finance Committee, of which he is a member, has not considered the issue of the impact of taxation on residents.

He said his biggest concerns for the town budget were its overall size and the relative magnitude of the $14 million police-fire facilities upgrade project.

He added that the cost of that project would represent either the largest line item in the budget for the next 20 years or at least compare to the wastewater treatment plant, which had a bottom line of about $30 million.

When asked about the contradiction between town meeting members filing a petition to reconsider the budget and the fact that the budget passed overwhelmingly at Annual Town Meeting in March, Agave said that the process of Town Meeting is inadequate.

According to Agave, while some 15 meeting members opposed the final budget vote at Annual Town Meeting, the 56 meeting members who quickly filed the petition hope that the town vote will overturn that decision.

Agave said this suggests that Brattleboro does not have a way “to reach satisfying decisions” and added that in his view the town needs to restructure its governance. Some Town Meeting members have called for a mayoral system of government.

Noting that dissatisfaction with the budget is “not a freak event,” Agave called Representative Town Meeting “a system that’s no longer adequate for satisfactorily solving community problems.”

Another petition organizer, Lynn Russell, joined Agave at the Municipal Center.

When asked what prompted her to organize the petition, Russell and Agave shared a smile.

“Spoon tells me I’m not supposed to talk about God,” she said, “but I felt spiritually motivated because I care about this town’s people and the town itself. [] We’re losing some of what made Brattleboro special.”

She explained that when she arrived here 10 years ago, Brattleboro struck her as possessing a spirit of open-heartedness, creativity, and inclusiveness. Neighbors ensured that they met one another’s needs. No one went hungry, she said; no houses went unheated.

She said that spirit is fading, replaced slowly by “fear, selfishness, or greed.”

She called the Selectboard’s level-serviced budget — crafted at a time when it knows finances are a critical concern to many — “shortsighted.”

She warned that Brattleboro “could be the next Detroit” if it stays on what she said was a path of overspending.

When asked why meeting members approved the budget only to promptly pull for its defeat, Russell said, “They’re smarter now than they were before.”

Still, Russell said she hopes that the town will regain what she characterized as a core of generosity and community inclusiveness.

“I’m hoping for the best for Brattleboro,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #248 (Wednesday, April 2, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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