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Big crowd forces Selectboard to postpone budget meeting

Meeting rescheduled to Thursday at 6:30 p.m. in BAMS gym

BRATTLEBORO—Assistant Fire Chief Pete Lynch counted people standing five abreast as he descended the stairs from the Municipal Center’s second floor on Tuesday night.

Attendance at the special Selectboard budget meeting had exceeded safe occupancy numbers. People waiting to speak on the town budget jockeyed for space in the hallway, the Hanna Cosman Room, and the Selectboard Meeting Room, which is certified for only 100 people.

Twice that many had streamed to the meeting to speak on the town’s budget, which voters defeated a special referendum by Australian ballot on April 17, 771–478, overturning a previous approval at the Annual Representative Town Meeting in March.

To remain in code, the board had to either ask people to leave or postpone the meeting and move it to another location.

The board chose the latter option, as Brattleboro’s fiscal year 2015 budget process broke a second record. Approximately 200 people tried to attend the meeting, the most in recent memory.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein told the crowd that under Vermont Open Meeting Law, the board could not bar people from attending.

The board voted to adjourn the meeting to another date and time. It will be resumed on Thursday, May 1, at 6:30 p.m., at the Brattleboro Area Middle School gymnasium.

The meeting took about 15 minutes, perhaps setting another record as the shortest Selectboard meeting.

The scissors are out and the timeline is short for the Selectboard as it tries to reduce the budget to the voters’ liking before the fiscal year ends June 30.

After June 30, the town will have to borrow money to pay its expenses unless it has a new budget in place.

“The budget is too high,” was the only message the Selectboard said it could interpret from the vote.

Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein said at a special meeting on April 22 that the town needed to consider cutting $1 million from the budget to keep property taxes level.

But what would $1 million in cuts look like?

“I don’t think there’s anything we can easily do without,” he said.

By the end of that meeting, Gartenstein relented a little from his previous call to cut $1 million.

Instead, the board will first consider a number of specific cuts to services and personnel. The board also asked the town departments to present budgets with 5-percent cut from the bottom line.

Audience members at the April 22 meeting argued for protecting services and instead ditching the $14.1 million Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade project.

Audience member Steve Minkin told the board that the town-wide budget veto would not have happened except for the Police-Fire Project and said the voters shouldn’t be punished now with additional cuts.

Gartenstein responded that axing the second bond on the Police-Fire project would save only a few pennies on the proposed 8.5-cent property tax increase.

This small change was not enough to respond to the town-wide budget defeat, he said.

Board Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor said that no matter what area of the budget is cut, someone will wish for a different outcome.

“I think we’re being responsible by looking at this in a bigger context,” O’Connor said, referring to the board’s consideration of widespread changes.

By the numbers

In a 26-page memo to the Selectboard, Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland outlined both the specific cuts requested by the board and included memos from all the departments on implications of across-the-board 5 percent reductions.

Some of the board’s requested reductions included $357,400 of non-staff-related changes like eliminating sidewalk plowing in the winter.

Moreland’s memo also outlined the reductions including a $235,767.51 cut resulting from layoffs.

Combined, these cuts would save the town $593,167.51 and leave the town with a tax increase for fiscal year 2015 of 2.98 percent, compared to the proposed 7.48 percent.

But these cuts would not quite reach to the Gartenstein’s goal of not raising property taxes.

Cutting $1 million from the fiscal year 2015 budget might mean taxes won’t rise, but it doesn’t mean that they will go down.

The proposed tax increase for fiscal year 2015 was 8.5 cents, said Town Finance Director John O’Connor. For a house worth $100,000, that would be an increase of about $87 for the year. On a house valued at $200,000, the tax increase would be about $174.

If the town cuts $1 million from the fiscal year 2015 budget, property taxes from fiscal year 2014 and fiscal year 2015 will stay the same.

Staff cuts?

For town departments and services, reducing the budget will likely mean staff cuts and cuts to services.

The six salaries the board has proposed cutting range between $27,000 to $40,000, with the majority at the lower end of that range.

Once benefits, insurance, and taxes are added in and then about $78,000 in unemployment insurance the town will have to pay is removed, the town will realize less than $300,000 in savings.

Library Director Jerry Carbone issued an email to library patrons outlining the Selectboard’s suggested budget cuts and what those cuts would mean for the library.

Carbone, who has worked at Brooks for 35 years, called the Selectboard’s proposed cutting of two full-time staff members “historic.”

“The 5 percent cuts still eats into stuff but [at least] gives us more flexibility in regards to resources,” said Carbone of the second proposed option of reducing the budget.

Budget cuts in 2011 reduced the number of hours the library could remain open from 56 to 50 hours a week. Cutting two full-time staff will likely reduce library hours to 40 a week, he said.

Reducing the staff or reducing the budget by 5 percent could translate into eliminating or reducing children’s literacy programs like the Summer Reading Program.

According to Carbone, the children’s room last year hosted 359 programs, attended by more than 7,000 children and adults.

Carbone said property taxes fund about 85 percent of budget for the library. The tax portion has remained fairly flat since 2004.

The town portion covers core line items like staff salaries, capital needs, communications like phone and Internet, and books, periodicals, and other media for the collection.

If the proposed cuts for 2015 go through, Carbone said resources for acquisitions of print, non-print, and database content would decrease by 15 percent.

According to Carbone, over the past year, patrons have checked out 170,000 items and conducted more than 28,000 searches of the electronic databases.

The library makes up extra costs for additional services through fundraising and contributions organized through its Friends of the Library group.

The irony of cutting the library budget, said Carbone, is that the library is also a revenue generator.

Brooks charges a $58 fee for non-residents seeking a library card, a fee equivalent to what a resident pays through taxes. Brooks collects about $21,000 a year in user fees, the second highest for the state, he said.

The Recreation and Parks Department is also due to lose one or two staff, whose costs account for 5 percent of its budget.

The department offers a number of classes and activities, including children’s programs, after-school programs, and youth sports leagues. It also manages facilities like the swimming pool and ice rink at Living Memorial Park.

Like the library, Recreation and Parks charges user fees for non-residents.

“There would be a revenue impact of cutting,” said Director Carol Lolatte.

Reducing the nine-member staff by two would have “significant impacts” on services and programs, Lolatte said during a phone interview.

The department would lack the people need to cover its programs, she said.

In a memo to Moreland, Lolatte wrote that losing the two staff members “would be devastating to both the Department’s operations as well as to the community.”

Lolatte further wrote that the department struggles to staff the programs it has and often resorts to using overtime and comp time to ensure programs’ coverage.

Even if the department cut 5 percent from non-staff expenses, that would mean about $39,000. Programs would have to go, and facility maintenance would suffer, said Lolatte.

With a tight economy, families are traveling less and need local recreational opportunities to stay active and healthy, Lolatte said on the phone.

“We live and work in a wonderful community,” wrote Lolatte in her town memo. “We have quality services and programs that adds to the quality of life of our citizens.”

Decades-long conversation

Fire Chief Michael Bucossi said that the Fire Department might have to cut 5 percent, or $91,557, from its budget.

Reductions will translate into cutting two career firefighters and eliminating the stipend for the 13 members of the call staff, he said.

According to Bucossi, the department has received level funding and undergone other cuts over the past few years to control costs.

The chief said he can no longer reduce the budget without reducing staff.

Laying off two full-time firefighters will mean that two of the department’s three platoons will be short one person, he said.

Bucossi isn’t sure at this early stage what two fewer firefighters will mean for safety. For example, he said, firefighters are trained to work in pairs.

He expects about 16 hours of overtime when each of the two short shifts are working.

In the meantime, his budget has remained flat but the demand on his department has increased substantially.

In 2004, the 21-firefighter department responded to 1,850 emergency calls. Now, the department averages about 2,500 calls a year with the same number of staff.

This won’t save the town money in the long run, Bucossi said.

Bucossi also wrote to Moreland that the two newest firefighters left other jobs to come and work for the town with the assumption that the town would be a long-term employer.

Residents have suggested closing the West Brattleboro station to save money, but Bucossi disagrees.

The BFD divides the town into five districts, with the West Brattleboro district ranking second in number of calls.

The West Brattleboro district is also primarily residential, he said. It is where people live and sleep and where they are the most vulnerable during a fire.

Closing the West Brattleboro Station would increase the department’s response time by six minutes, he said, adding extra time that can make all the difference where fire is concerned.

Bucossi added that, contrary to assertions that people have been making in the letters to the editor, the new West Brattleboro station is smaller than the current station.

In response to community calls for stopping the Police-Fire project, the town has also asked the project manager and architect to scope out addressing immediate health and safety needs using only the approximately $4 million remaining from the $5 million bond the town has taken out on the project.

“To be quite honest with you, I have no idea how far that money will go,” said Bucossi.

The department has deferred two years worth of maintenance issues, like the leaking roof at Central Station, because fixing the issues would be solved as part of the larger Police-Fire project.

“These buildings are literally crumbling down around us,” said Bucossi.

The conversation about the fire stations’ declining health has circulated in the town and Representative Town Meeting for decades.

Bucossi notes that the conversation about the need to plan for adequate fire department infrastructure began as long ago as 1968.

In a memo that year, then-Chief T. Howard Mattison noted that the department would soon outgrow the stations. According to a timeline constructed by Bucossi based on departmental memos and other documents, discussion began in earnest about the stations in the early 1980s.

Two decades later, the town came close to building a combined police and fire facility on Western Avenue, said Bucossi. Town Meeting members eventually vetoed the plan because the community wanted to keep the stations in their current locations.

Bucossi does not know of any money set aside for the project over the past 40 years; doing so would have let the town avoid bonding the entire project.

In the early 2000s, said Bucossi, the upgrade project was scoped out at less than $10 million. Its most recent incarnation first scoped out at $20 million.

That was too expensive, said Bucossi, so the town redesigned the project and reduced costs to $14.1 million.

Outside the meeting

As audience members left the adjourned meeting, members of the Vermont Workers’ Center (VWC) chanted “Put people first!”

Community organizer Shela Linton said the VWC members in attendance wanted to speak to the cost of the Police-Fire Project.

Many in the community struggle to pay bills, and the food shelves need food, she said.

The community cannot afford the “excessive amount of money” needed to fund the facilities upgrades and need to give it a more critical look, she said.

VWC member Ellen Schwartz echoed Linton, saying that she wanted the town to preserve its services and reduce the scale of the police-fire project.

Schwartz added that people would like to see services like the swimming pool open more, not less.

When asked how the proposed staffing cuts, and town staff becoming unemployed, meshed with reducing the level of financial struggle in the town, Linton said community members should not have to face off.

When people forget how interconnected they are, it leads to a them-versus-us dialogue, she said.

In the Municipal Center parking lot, Selectboard member Donna Macomber spoke with Bucossi.

Macomber said she hoped to avoid cutting staff and supports reducing departments’ hours of operation instead.

Hopefully, the town can find creative ways to reduce costs, she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #252 (Wednesday, April 30, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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