Local option tax? Nope.

Town Meeting reps clash over cost of police/fire project, but pass town, school budgets

BRATTLEBORO — Town meeting members voiced a loud message to the Selectboard: Living in Brattleboro is too expensive.

After more than 10 hours in the Brattleboro Union High School gym, voters at the Annual Representative Town Meeting on March 22 had approved 28 of the 30 binding meeting articles.

After a long discussion, meeting members defeated enacting a 1-percent local-option tax. They also defeated an article to use $200,000 from the unassigned fund balance, considered surplus funds, to defray property taxes.

Discussions focused on the high level of property taxes, the $14.1 million police-fire station project, and the 1-percent local-option tax.

While meeting members told the Selectboard it needed to reduce costs, Selectboard chair David Gartenstein said the board had, in fact, followed their will.

Members also approved the $16 million fiscal year 2015 municipal budget and the $15.3 million town school budget.

One-percent local-option tax

Meeting members defeated an article to enact a 1-percent local option tax by a body that voiced the fear that the additional sales tax would hurt the town more than the projected tax revenue of $650,000 would benefit it.

Town Meeting members previously rejected the tax in 2012.

Going into the floor debate, multiple members, still undecided, shrugged when asked how they planned to vote.

The additional tax would be very bad for business, said local business owners. They said the perception of one more tax would drive more people to cross the Connecticut River to shop in sales-tax-free New Hampshire.

Meeting member and business owner Stanley “Pal” Borofsky said that while the economy in Keene, N.H. grows, Brattleboro's economy shrinks.

Borofsky co-owns Sam's Outdoor Outfitters, which has stores in Brattleboro, North Swanzey, N.H., and Hadley, Mass. He said that Sam's would survive a tax increase but he worried about the Brattleboro business community as a whole.

“Business creates business,” he said.

A number of meeting members said the eastern side of the state has suffered due to its proximity to New Hampshire and urged Montpelier to address this problem.

Eli Gould, a Town Meeting member and a member of the Police-Fire Oversight Committee, voiced a different perspective. Noting that the body needed to fund town services and projects, he described the police-fire project as an “unfunded mandate.”

Meeting member Frederic Noyes spoke in favor of the tax, saying it could help diversify the town's revenue and capture money from tourists and commuters.

Stephen Phillips, a meeting member and vice-chair of the Police-Fire Oversight Committee, said he initially voted against the police-fire project in 2012 but defended the project.

The Police-Fire project has not caused the town's high property tax rate, he said. The high taxes are a result of too much spending, and the local-option tax would exact further revenue from residents and not address the underlying problems.

“This will tax us, not the people passing through town,” Phillips said of the option tax, and he feared that enacting the 1 percent tax would “give the Selectboard a pass” on tackling the town's expenses and levels of service.

The sales tax was supported by a slim margin (439–402) in a non-binding town-wide vote during the town election on March 4. About 880 of the town's registered voters cast ballots in what longtime Town Clerk Annette Cappy described as one of the lowest turnouts that she has witnessed.

Town budget passes

Meeting members ultimately approved the $16 million budget for fiscal year 2015 as warned, despite two amendments to reduce the budget.

The debate on the budget essentially sugared off into a conversation about the Police-Fire Facilities Upgrade project, which received overwhelming approval from Town Meeting members at a Special Town Meeting in October 2012.

But one member described the project as “becoming the punching bag” for meeting members' financial fears.

Debate on the town budget kicked off with two amendments, both aimed at reducing the costs related to the project's municipal bonds.

Meeting member Spoon Agave made an amendment to decrease the budget by $600,000, the amount he estimated the project would cost the town in fiscal year 2015.

The town has taken out a $5 million bond for the initial phases of the project. It anticipates taking out a second $9 million bond to complete the project in fiscal year 2015.

Meeting member Judy Davidson quickly made a secondary amendment to Agave's amendment. She proposed reducing the budget by $261,473, the amount she estimated would cost the town for the $9 million bond it has yet to take out.

Davidson said reducing the budget by that figure would communicate to the Selectboard that voters wanted the project slowed down and the bottom line reduced.

Speaking in favor of the project, Andrew Davis said the town had a responsibility to pay for the project and provide workers with a safe environment.

“A town is like a house,” he said. “If I get the news that my chimney isn't safe, I have to address that.”

Phillips said of the oversight committee's work to reduce the project's bottom line, “We've trimmed a lot of the frills.”

“A year later, I still question whether we can afford it, but I no longer question the need,” said Phillips.

Meeting Member Robert Bady said he no longer supported the project and felt “quite pissed” that the town wasn't listening to people's concerns.

“We're servants of the people, and we have to honor that, and sometimes you can't get more water from a stone,” said Bady.

The amendments, if passed, would not have required the Selectboard tomake cuts to the project.

Under state statute, towns are required to pay back municipal bonds, so the town is locked into the $5 million bond regardless of how the body voted, said Town Attorney Robert Fisher of Fisher and Fisher. Municipal bonds also have a set payback time period and cannot be paid back at a faster rate.

Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said that by halting the project, the town would continue housing its staff “in what we know to be unsafe and unhealthy conditions.”

Gartenstein told meeting members that if they reduced the budget, the Selectboard would go back to work to build a new one, likely cutting from the Brooks Memorial Library or the Parks and Recreation Department, or reducing the number of town employees.

During a pre-Town Meeting informational session for representatives, Gartenstein told members that they could amend the budget down by the amount of the bond interest and payment and said that meeting members could also outright reject the budget if they wished.

In a separate phone interview, Gartenstein told The Commons that if meeting members either cut the budget's bottom line or voted it down as a whole, he would take it as a sign that they no longer wanted the project.

Fisher told meeting members that they could not call a vote on the project at Saturday's meeting because the item had not been warned. The proper procedure would be to file a petition requesting a new vote and then call a Special Town Meeting.

Protecting agricultural land, maintaining rainy day funds

Town Meeting members approved an amended article to use $45,000 to create a fund to pay for energy audits of municipal buildings.

Selectboard and Town School Board Member David Schoales proposed the amendment, which also preserved the $50,000 in the town's Agricultural Land Protection Fund established by Representative Town Meeting in the 1980s.

As originally warned, a portion of the monies from the fund - which has been used twice since its inception - would have been used to create the Energy Efficiency Fund, while the remaining $50,000 would have been used to defray property taxes.

But Caitlin Burlett, a farmer and member of the town Agricultural Advisory Committee, said that the agricultural fund provides necessary bridge loans for farmers. She said the fund could, in particular, benefit young farmers, who often lack the capital of more-established farms.

Gartenstein argued that more programs exist to help farmers buy land than did when the fund was created. He said that farms benefit from being tax exempt as well.

“So you're supporting this very important activity in two very different ways,” said Gartenstein.

Phillips said that once agricultural land is lost, it's lost.

“We have a long future ahead of us,” he said.

An article to defray property taxes by using $200,000 of the town's unassigned fund balance failed.

Using the $200,000 would have dropped the fund's balance below the 10 percent of operating expenses the town tries to maintain for rainy-day emergencies.

In Selectboard member John Allen's opinion, the unassigned fund balance, or surplus, was “built up on the backs of the taxpayers” and should be returned to them.

“We're trying to make it affordable for people to live in this town,” Allen said.

Other members disagreed, maintaining that the surplus funds buffer the town against emergencies like Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and the severe thunderstorm that washed out Elm Street last September.

To help defray costs of repairing Elm Street, members approved appropriating up to $95,371 from the unassigned fund balance. They also approved using $57,500 of the surplus to relocate radio communication equipment from Mount Wantastiquet.

Meeting members approved transferring monies left over from repairs at the Nelson Withington Skating Facility, totaling $310,540, from the capital fund to the general fund to defray municipal operating expenses.

The members also approved raising $78,000 through a tax assessment on properties within the Downtown Improvement District for capital and operating costs of the designated downtown organization, Building a Better Brattleboro.

A special assessment on properties in the Mountain Home Park tax district of $223,276.47 was also approved.

Brattleboro Climate Protection received its request of $10,000. Meeting members also approved $110,000 to support human-service programs and facilities.

The Little League field owned by American Legion Post 5 received approval for three years of municipal-tax-exemption status.

School budget and energy improvements

The $15.3 million town school budget passed with little debate. The budget will fund Academy School, Green Street School, Oak Grove School, and Early Education Services.

The budget for fiscal year 2015 increased $75,000, less than 1 percent, compared to the current fiscal year's budget, said outgoing School Board Chair Margaret Atkinson.

Increases were due to negotiated salaries and benefits related to the union contract, she said.

Agave expressed concern that residents could not effectively participate in the education funding process.

“We keep on voting this enormous sum of money and there's no way to talk about it,” he said.

Atkinson replied, “This is the social contract. No one wants to live in a place that doesn't care about its schools and doesn't invest in them.”

Meeting members approved the town School Board incurring interest-free debt through Green Mountain Power's Evergreen Fund for lighting-efficiency projects at the three elementary schools.

The projects, which according to School Board members will cost $52,000 over five years, will save more than the project cost. The board estimates that about $5,500 annually will be saved in electrical costs for at least 15 years.

Capital improvements of $375,000 for the heating system at Academy School were approved.

Meeting members also approved using $256,272 from the Education Reserve Fund to defray expenses, and they appropriated $193,728 from the unassigned fund balance to reduce the tax rate.

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