BRATTLEBORO—Approving the town’s $16 million fiscal year 2015 municipal budget has become a word problem to boggle the best high school algebra teacher.
And, luckily for said hypothetical high school algebra teacher, neither the District #6 nor the town school district budget is up for revote.
But the question for Brattleboro voters: If the majority of Town Meeting Members approved the municipal budget last month at Representative Town Meeting — and then nine days later, 56 meeting members submit a petition to hold a special referendum on the budget citing that town property taxes are too high — then on April 9, another 46 residents (about 10 of whom were Town Meeting Members) attend a special informational meeting at Oak Grove School, how many voters will turn out April 17 to approve or reject the fiscal year 2015 budget that affects the entire town?
Solve for the unknown.
In a presidential election year, voting in Brattleboro’s town-wide elections tends to the low side of 18 percent. In the election last month, 880 voted, or about 11 percent of registered voters.
Selectboard chair David Gartenstein provided an overview of the municipal budget for the residents who sat on folding chairs in the gym of Oak Grove Elementary School on a chilly April evening.
The board took general questions about the budget. A portion of the meeting was devoted to questions on the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project, which some meeting members and voters point to as the cause of skyrocketing property taxes.
The proposed property tax increase is 8.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. Last year, the tax increase was near zero, because the town used a portion of a budget surplus to offset a potential increase of 3.5 cents. Much of the tax increase in fiscal year 2015 stems from bond payments due on the Police-Fire Project and other town projects such as the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“I’m not aware of any waste in the budget,” said Gartenstein.
The Selectboard started the budget process last September, said Gartenstein. They asked Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland to develop three budgets for review: a level-service budget, a level-funded budget, and one with 5 percent cut from each department.
Between October 2013 and January of this year, the board held multiple meetings and reviewed the various budgets, he said.
Gartenstein rattled off the cuts or changes considered by the board, which included cutting sidewalk plowing, outsourcing park maintenance, abandoning some roads, cutting money for road line striping, eliminating trash pickup, shortening the Municipal Center’s hours of operation, no longer paying a volunteer firefighter stipend, cutting staff, and instituting a 1-percent sales tax.
Most of the cuts, however, would bring the town’s basic core services below an acceptable level, he said.
“The town is, in many ways, a service organization,” said Gartenstein.
Gartenstein told the audience that more than half, or $11.5 million, of the of the General Fund budget is related to wages and staff benefits.
Union contracts govern most of the wage and benefit levels, he said.
About $646,000 in the budget goes toward insurance; $1 million goes toward trash and recycling; the town’s debt service is about $1.6 million; and the capital improvement line item is about $551,000, Gartenstein said.
The capital improvement budget should be larger but the town has deferred some projects and purchases to save money, he added.
A call to defeat the budget
Outside the school, someone slipped folded pieces of paper under the windshield wipers of cars parked nearby.
The flyer — no one claimed credit — listed a number of assertions attributed to the Town Plan 2010, MIT Professor Amy K. Glasmeier, and Living Wage Research.
According to the flyer, 61 percent of Brattleboro households earn less than $50,000 and none of those 61 percent earns a living wage.
The number of Brattleboro households earning $49,000 or less per year amounts to 61 percent, according to 2013 Town Plan, which cites the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
Glasmier’s research includes a website that calculates a living wage based on regional economic realities.
According to her website, a living wage for one Windham County resident with one child is $19.18 per hour. Contrary to the flier, the site calculates the living wage for a one-adult household at $9.32 per hour.
The flyer went on to read, “To continue with the current budget and proposed F-P [Fire-Police facilities upgrade project] plan is egregiously offensive to any sense of moral decency, justice, equity or sustainability.”
The flyer continued, “Perhaps the 1 percent of Brattleboro households with more than $200,000 per year and the next 11 percent of households with $100,000 to $200,000 per year should pay for the Fire-Police project if they are so determined that it must proceed as planned.”
The flyer captured the emotional tone struck by some of the voters who stood inside the school at the microphone.
Helen Egan, a petite elder, tilted the microphone down. Then she spoke.
The people of Brattleboro want the best for their police and firefighters, she said, but the town has lost sight of the financial squeeze the project will have on its taxpayers. The townspeople are generous but sometimes their generosity outpaces their wallets, she added.
“The high taxes are really prohibitive,” said Egan, asking if the town could provide the same level of services with less money.
Gartenstein answered that the board attempted to enact a 1-percent local-option sales tax to help fund construction. Town Meeting Members defeated it.
Moss Kahler suggested closing the West Brattleboro fire station.
Brattleboro Firefighter Rusty Sage asked whether town employees will lose their jobs should voters defeat the budget.
“With the loss of jobs, we could lose services in town,” said Sage.
Gartenstein said that yes, cuts could mean the loss of jobs but that the board couldn’t speculate on how a reworked budget would shake out.
The procedure, Gartenstein said, is that the board recommends a budget and Town Meeting Members approve what money is spent. Meeting members would also have the final say on any reworked budget.
According to Gartenstein, neither state law nor the Town Charter specifies a timeline for turning around a new budget. State statute does prescribe a timeline for warning special town meetings. Should voters defeat the budget, the board would have to work quickly, as the new fiscal year begins in less than three months.
Anne Senni asked whether the board had considered cutting the wages of the town’s top wage earners.
That way, everyone shares the pain, she said.
Gartenstein replied that no town employee is overpaid. Many employees have served the town for decades in dangerous jobs, work long hours, and work outside in bad weather. Meanwhile, they are also developing expertise that also serves the town, he said.
Gartenstein said that the board members pay taxes, too, and always keep an eye on costs. The board had very few options to raise revenues other than property taxes.
“So we are in that bind,” he said. “There is no waste in this budget. The next cuts we make to services are going to be police officers, firefighters, librarians, or your parks and recreation.”
As the meeting ended, audience members and town employees faded back into the night.
By the light of a small flashlight, Brattleboro Fire Chief Michael Bucossi read the flyer left on the windshield of his vehicle.
Referring to the second $9 million bond scheduled for use in fiscal year 2015, the flyer’s text read that the town should delay action.
“The first bond monies can be used to make necessary repairs for the health and safety of first responders while waiting until another time to pursue their optional additional planned upgrades,” read the flyer.
The floor of Central Station can’t maintain the weight of modern fire engines, and there is no fix to that, Bucossi said. The doors are too small for the modern-sized engines and that can’t be changed at either station due to construction type and room limitations, and the West Brattleboro Station is beyond a hammer and a few nails.
“What people don’t understand or aren’t hearing,” said Bucossi, “is that many of these things can’t just be fixed without the additions.”