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In Brattleboro, budget cuts still pending

Selectboard will hold additional budget meetings ahead of Special Representative Town Meeting on June 2

BRATTLEBORO—The known: Town Meeting members will vote on the town budget at a Special Representative Town Meeting on June 2.

The unknown: the fiscal year 2015 town budget.

The Selectboard heard comments from the public and town employees during a three-hour board meeting at Brattleboro Area Middle School on May 1.

The meeting was held at the school after about 200 people jammed into the municipal center for the Selectboard’s meeting on April 29, forcing the board to postpone the meeting and seek a bigger venue.

By meeting’s end on May 1, the board said it wanted more time to decide which line items of the municipal budget to cut. Annual Representative Town Meeting members will also vote on the budget in June.

“There are no good choices that we face,” said Selectboard Chair David Gartenstein.

Of the outpouring of public comment on the budget, Gartenstein said much boiled down to protecting Brattleboro’s quality of life.

Gartenstein said people have told him they will lose their homes should property taxes rise.

“There is no more quality of life issue than you can no longer afford your taxes and you may lose your home,” he said.

Meanwhile, he continued, the town’s firefighters and police officers work in “unhealthy buildings.”

At Central Station, firefighters breathe diesel exhaust fumes, the floor strains under weight of modern fire engines, and the roof is brittle. Mold grows on inadequately insulated walls of the West Brattleboro Station. The police station has a narrow stairwell that officers navigate while maneuvering a prisoner; the dampness in the basement is damaging evidence; and a public hallway bisects the police station, posing safety and privacy risks.

Safety for the public and emergency responders is a quality-of-life issue, as are unplowed winter sidewalks and the loss of programs at the library and parks and recreation department, said Gartenstein.

The board approved the budget earlier this year. Town Meeting members overwhelmingly approved the budget as presented at Annual Representative Town Meeting in March. In April, 56 Town Meeting members petitioned for a town-wide vote.

The relationship between services, taxes

During the May 1 meeting, board members presented their views on the budget.

Audience members addressed themselves to “acceptable” budget cuts, the sharing of financial struggles, ideas to raise revenue, and keeping the budget as-is.

The $16 million budget underwent a six-month approval process before its defeat, 771 to 478, in a town-wide special referendum on April 17.

The Selectboard started preparing the fiscal year 2015 budget in September 2013. Early in the process, the board asked town departments to present alternative budgets, including a level-funded plan and one with a 5-percent cut.

About 85 percent, or $11.5 million, of the budget relates to personnel; the remainder represents fixed costs, Gartenstein said.

To respond to the budget referendum result, he said, the town must make substantial cuts.

The personnel and capital cuts under consideration total $593,167.51. To avoid a tax increase, the town would have to cut $1 million from the budget.

“We could continue with business as usual,” said Gartenstein, then added, “Some structural changes are necessary.”

Gartenstein explained that three budgets influence the town’s property tax rate: the municipal budget, the budget for the three town elementary schools and early education, and Brattleboro’s district portion for the budgets of Brattleboro Union Middle and High School and the Windham County Career Center.

According to Gartenstein, if the town budget had not been defeated, the tax increase for the two school budgets and town budget stands at 17.5 cents per $100 of assessed value.

The town portion of that increase would have been 8.5 cents, including the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade Project. The school portion of the increase is 9 cents, said Gartenstein.

A long discussion

Much of the budget conversation has focused on the $14.1 million police-fire project. Some speakers at the public meetings and Representative Annual Town Meeting have pointed to the project as reason to defeat the budget.

The board agreed, for the most part, to reduce the project’s costs.

The town would save $261,473 in interest payments in the new fiscal year by not using a proposed $9 million bond.

The town has asked the design team to reconfigure the police-fire project using what remains of a $5 million bond taken out earlier this year.

The town has discussed fixing health and safety issues at the three stations for decades.

According to a timeline from Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, conversations about space and safety started in earnest in 1984.

The earliest memo on the topic dates from 1968, said Bucossi.

Board Vice-Chair Kate O’Connor agreed with Gartenstein, saying cost cuts needed to expand beyond reductions in the police-fire project. She cautioned the audience that the town would face identical financial limits next year.

She quizzed Library Director Jerry Carbone about Brooks Memorial Library using some of its $747,000 endowment.

Carbone answered that portions of the endowment are restricted. The library uses about 4 percent of the $579,000 in unrestricted funds each year to pick up where tax revenue leaves off.

The library has already responded to cuts that reduced its hours and limited funds for acquiring new materials, Carbone said.

Recreation and Parks Department Director Carol Lolatte and Police Chief Eugene Wrinn agreed, adding that the proposed cuts to their departments would mean lower revenues for the town.

According to Director of Public Works Steve Barrett, his department had borne the brunt of previous budget cuts.

Barrett said management at public works was cut 33 percent, and staff by more than 20 percent, in 1995. If staff cuts occur in the 2015 budget, the department will be down 26 percent from 1995 staffing levels.

Pacing cuts

“We have to get this budget down,” said Selectboard Member John Allen.

Allen suggested closing the West Brattleboro Station and defraying expenses using more of the town’s unrestricted funds.

“I’m not in favor of cutting any positions at this time except for the animal control officer,” said Selectboard member Donna Macomber.

Macomber agreed the town should hold off on the second police-fire project bond. She emphasised that the town must reconfigure the budget with care.

“I want to take this process a little more slowly,” she said.

Board Member David Schoales said that no one could guess voters’ intent from the outcome of the special referendum.

He suggested stretching the police-fire project bond repayment period to 30 years to reduce monthly payments. Schoales said that the town needed to recoup costs from nonprofits that don’t pay property taxes but use town services nonetheless.

Gartenstein said, “Nonprofits are nonprofit by state law, and we provide services to them and they give nothing back.”

Protecting services

Similar to previous budget conversations, audience members asked that the board resist cutting the library and recreation and parks department budgets.

The audience also expressed concerns about the cost of the police-fire project — the cost of doing the project and the cost of not doing the project.

“We are a town between a rock and a hard place,” said Jane Southworth, library trustee and Town Meeting member.

Town Meeting Member Arlene Distler said almost as many voters cast a ballot in the special referendum as turn out here for a presidential election.

“So I wouldn’t diminish the importance of the vote,” she said.

One audience member said the town needed to grow its Grand List by attracting more businesses if it wanted to help property taxpayers.

A number of senior citizens spoke about the difficulty of living in Brattleboro on fixed incomes.

Another audience member said the town should use more of its budget surplus to defray expenses.

Joe Madison suggested furloughing town employees rather than cut jobs.

Some audience members also asked the board to revisit enacting the 1-percent local-option sales tax. Town Meeting members defeated the 1-percent tax twice. The tax, however, passed by a narrow margin during a non-binding townwide vote on March 4.

Christopher Chapman said the board was well within its rights to resubmit the original budget to voters without cuts.

Dianne Clouet, teacher at Green Street School, showed her support for the library and recreation departments. She said all the services on the cutting block supported the community’s well-being.

The town and community needed to pay for what it needed, she said.

“I don’t want it discussed any more,” Clouet said of the police-fire project. “I want us to pay for it. It’s time.”

Immediate and long-term solutions

While the board decides immediate changes to the fiscal year 2015 budget, audience and board comments pointed toward a long-term need to level the town’s “revenues-in, expenses-out” equation.

“I don’t think we can cut our way to sustainability,” said Schoales.

The town must generate more revenue, he said.

“We have to pay for these things; the question is, How will we pay for it?” Schoales said.

A man in the audience who didn’t speak publicly said to the people sitting with him, “You know the dead elephant on the coffee table in the middle of the room is Act 60.”

Acts 60 and 68 govern the statewide education property tax.

Former Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray said that he supported the idea of staff furloughs. He said he wished more people scrutinized the school budgets as much as they do the town budget.

Why should people “hold the municipal budget hostage for a tax rate that’s impacted by two other budgets?” DeGray asked.

DeGray said that the middle school and high school buildings had been renovated, and now the police and fire stations deserved renovations.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #253 (Wednesday, May 7, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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