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Brattleboro voters torpedo town budget

Budget approved at Representative Town Meeting is reverse by townwide vote, 771-478

BRATTLEBORO—Town Clerk Annette Cappy scanned the ticker-tape spit out from the electronic voting machine minutes after the polls closed on the special budget referendum.

“The budget is a ‘no,’” Cappy said to the crowd of reporters scribbling down numbers. “Back to the drawing board.”

Overturning the prior Representative Town Meeting approval, Brattleboro voters overwhelmingly defeated the $16 million municipal budget for the 2015 fiscal year by Australian ballot on April 17.

According to numbers from Cappy, 15 percent of the registered voters cast ballots on the budget’s fate. Of the 1,249 ballots cast, 771 voted against the budget and 478 voted in favor.

Cappy said 554 of the votes were cast in early voting.

The large number of early ballots led one observer to comment that many people had long ago made up their minds.

Town Meeting members had overwhelmingly approved the fiscal 2015 budget as presented by the Selectboard last month during Annual Representative Town Meeting. Ten days later, on April 1, Cappy received a petition from 56 Town Meeting members calling for a special town-wide referendum to reconsider the budget.

Little certainty yet

Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland entered the polling room, heard the results, and quickly excused himself to make phone calls.

The only certainty as of that moment was that the budget had been rejected, said Moreland when he returned. A new second budget might include layoffs or cuts in services, Moreland said — or it might not.

At Town Meeting, the Selectboard can draw direction from meeting members’ concerns and debate, he said. But because the town-wide vote took place in the voting booth, the board has little voter direction or feedback to consider when building a new budget.

It’s not clear that the vote will have any ramification for the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project, he added.

The $14 million rehabilitation of the town’s two fire stations and police station had been characterized as too costly for taxpayers by some speakers during budget discussions.

The town has taken a $5 million bond in fiscal year 2014. The town has anticipated taking out a second $9 million bond in fiscal year 2015 to complete the upgrades.

It’s up to the Selectboard now to consider other options for a second budget, said Moreland. The board will then present it to members at a Special Representative Town Meeting.

The board began these budget discussions at an April 22 meeting.

Time crunch

In preparing a new budget, the town might find itself in a time crunch as the new fiscal year approaches.

Neither state statute nor the town charter prescribes a timeline for voting on a new budget after defeat of a first budget. State statute does, however, dictate a time frame of at least 30 days and no more than 40 days for warning town meetings.

But, even if Town Meeting members approve a second budget, voters can still petition for another special budget referendum and reject the budget again.

If the town does not have a budget in place before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, it will need to borrow money to pay its expenses. A delayed budget would mean delayed tax revenues.

As a result, the town could find itself going into debt as a result of the process.

Paraphrasing Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein, Moreland said that the board had done its best and presented “the leanest responsible budget we could prepare.”

Former Selectboard member Martha O’Connor, who could not recall voters ever having given the town budget the boot, said she had faith that the board would rally to the challenge of building a new budget.

When asked what was different about Brattleboro’s tax level now, given the number of years the town has had some of the highest taxes in the state, O’Connor said, “People have just reached their limit.”

O’Connor said that during her two stints on the Selectboard — the first in the 1990s and the second from 2008 to 2012 — the board conducted studies related to reducing town expenses. The board asked residents which services they would willingly lose to save money.

“And everyone wants every service we have,” she said.

Going forward, O’Connor added, “People will just have to accept lower services.”

Current Selectboard Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor said she wasn’t ready to make a comment because she had a lot to consider.

In a phone interview, Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein said that he was pleased by the large voter turnout and wanted to thank everyone who participated.

“It’s certainly an indication of positive public involvement,” he said.

Gartenstein continued, “The vote certainly represents a statement by the voters at large that they’re not in favor of the substantial tax increase that was approved by Representative Town Meeting.”

In Brattleboro, the Selectboard builds the budget while Town Meeting members authorize the town’s spending.

In his closing remarks at Brattleboro’s pre-information Town Meeting in March, Gartenstein told members worried about the cost of the police-fire project that they could amend the budget down, or that they had the power to defeat the budget altogether if they wished.

He also said at the time that if meeting members either cut or defeated the budget at the March 22 Annual Town Meeting, he would take that as a sign that they no longer wanted the police-fire project.

During Annual Representative Town Meeting, some meeting members and Selectboard members pointed fingers at one another over town spending.

During the phone interview after the April 17 vote, Gartenstein said it is “difficult to draw a specific message from this vote beyond the fact that people don’t want their taxes to go up.”

The Selectboard will proceed and develop a second responsible budget, Gartenstein continued, predicting that residents will possibly see cuts in services and projects.

Gartenstein wouldn’t speculate on whether the town board would ask for layoffs.

Since the police-fire project first went before Representative Town Meeting in 2012, he said, the Selectboard has made it clear that embarking on construction without a new revenue stream would increase taxes.

Twice, the board presented the 1-percent local option sales tax, said Gartenstein. Twice, Representative Town Meeting members voted it down.

Voters indicated their approval for the tax in a non-binding vote in early March.

Gartenstein said he anticipated healthy budget discussions between the board and the public during open meetings. The board and town staff will always listen to concerns from members of the public, who can also contact them through email or by phone.

The board will continue working to ensure that town government supports a healthy and vibrant community, he said.

‘An opportunity’

Town Meeting Member Spoon Agave received the news of the budget vote as he walked down Elliot Street in the early twilight.

Agave, a longtime member of the Finance Committee, has vocally opposed the town’s spending level. At Annual Representative Town Meeting, he made an amendment to decrease the budget by $600,000, the amount he estimated the police-fire project would cost the town in fiscal year 2015. He signed the petition requesting the special budget referendum.

“I’m pleased,” he said.

He paused and added that he would have preferred Brattleboro had lowered the budget while avoiding the negativity and stress of recent debates.

But “it’s an opportunity,” said Agave of building a second budget.

The town has a chance to take a new approach to its spending, he said.

Back at the Municipal Center, Cappy gathered her things and prepared to leave for the night.

“I couldn’t have pegged it,” she said when asked if the result of the vote surprised her.

According to Cappy, earlier that day a voter had said, “So, if I like my taxes I vote ‘yes,’ and if I don’t like my taxes, I should vote ‘no.’”

Cappy sighed.

“If only the world was that black and white,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #251 (Wednesday, April 23, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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