BRATTLEBORO — The standing Finance Committee, which reviews town finances on behalf of Town Meeting members, has recommended the body approve the proposed fiscal year 2021 municipal budget.
This budget and other financial items will come before Town Meeting members during Annual Representative Town Meeting on Saturday, March 21.
Town Meeting members will meet in the gym of the Academy School for a pre-meeting informational session on Wednesday, March 11 at 7 p.m.
This session, which is open to the public, allows meeting members to ask questions of the Selectboard and department heads prior to official parliamentary discussion and votes on the Town Meeting floor.
Members of the Finance Committee support all the money items on this year's warrant.
The proposed FY21 general fund budget includes total revenues and expenditures of $18,444,632, an increase of $376,440 (or 2.1 percent) compared to the FY20 general fund budget.
This budget represents a $37.70 increase in property taxes for each $100,000 of assessed property value.
Other money items on this year's annual warning include funding for a new fire engine ($223,000) and funds for the Community Marketing Initiative ($43,748), a collaboration of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA).
A special assessment on downtown properties to fund the Downtown Improvement District ($80,000) is also on the warning. This assessment helps fund the activities of the DBA, the town's designated downtown organization.
The town meeting Human Services Review Committee has also recommended $190,105 to share among several organizations.
In its report, the Finance Committee wrote that it “commends the Human Services Review Committee's work and supports continuing the funding of human services agencies in town at a level of one percent of the previous fiscal year's budget as an ongoing policy.”
At last year's Annual Representative Town Meeting, a portion of the day's discussion was devoted to how much money the town should devote to funding human-services organizations.
Also of note in the budget are salary increases for union and non-union staff.
The increases for union staff are due to recently renegotiated contracts. The Selectboard also approved increases for non-union staff after an extensive review.
“The Finance Committee supports these increases, finding them to be reasoned and just,” wrote the committee members.
The budget also includes an increase of approximately $58,000 in salaries that are earmarked for the new sustainability coordinator position.
The budget also proposes first-time funding for the Project CARE initiative, which combines efforts of the Brattleboro Police Department, Turning Point of Windham County, and local organizations to connect with people dealing with opioid misuse and help them access treatment.
The municipality is considering creating a stormwater utility fund. The state has new requirements around stormwater runoff from places such as roads.
“Town staff is exploring an approach to lessen this expense, one that has been implemented successfully by other Vermont towns,” wrote the committee. “This approach involves creating a stormwater utility with fees paid by property owners proportional to the amount of impervious surfaces (i.e. pavement) on the property.”
Such surfaces do not absorb water and worsen the effects and impact of flooding.
In response, the town wants to create the fund and collect fees related to runoff areas, one of which is likely to be the state-owned Interstate 91.
The committee also supports eliminating the solid waste fund and moving any associated revenues or expenses to the general fund.
The Finance Committee supports these expenditures as well the implementation of a 25-year capital plan. The capital plan outlines long-term planning for equipment, such as police cruisers, or infrastructure projects, such as building projects and roadwork.
The FY21 capital budget contains $763,000 toward equipment purchases and $460,000 toward projects.
Committee recommends approval of school budget
Voters of the Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) will vote on the fiscal year 2021 budget at the district's annual meeting on March 17 at the BUHS gymnasium.
The district includes schools in the towns of Brattleboro, Dummerston, Guilford, and Putney. This is the first full budget year since the Act 46 mergers.
“Now is a tumultuous time for school districts throughout the state after the forced mergers under Act 46,” wrote the Brattleboro Finance Committee. “Newly-formed boards and school administrators are still learning to work together.”
“While intended cost savings were a major driver of Act 46, at present any compelling savings have yet to be realized,” wrote the committee.
In its report on the proposed WSESD budget, the committee wrote, “The Finance Committee finds the WSESD proposed budget to be responsible and supports its passage.”
The proposed FY21 budget is $51,171,300. The associated education tax rates vary for each town.
Along with supporting the passage of the budget as proposed, the committee also recommends “an ongoing level of fund balance at the higher end of the five to 10 percent range.”
The committee also supports the district's capital improvements, specifically improving the athletic fields at the high school and the classroom addition at Academy School.
The Brattleboro Town Finance Committee outlines the estimated homestead tax rates adjusted by the CLA (common level of appraisal) as follows:
Brattleboro's tax rate for FY21 is estimated to be $1.717 per $100 of valuation, which represents a 4.3-percent increase compared to the current fiscal year.
Dummerston's tax rate is estimated at $1.671, a 1.5-percent increase compared to the current fiscal year.
Guilford's estimated tax rate is $1.763, or a 4.1-percent increase.
Putney's rate is estimated at $1.775, or a 3.6-percent increase.
These rates do not take into consideration potential changes that could result from the Legislature implementing the recommendations in the December 2019 Pupil Weighting Factors Report.
Some of the budget increases highlighted by the committee include: health insurance, salaries and wages, the supervisory union's assessment for special education, and an expansion of the meals program at Brattleboro Union High School.
The committee added, “We have watched as the process unfolded, and we believe the outcome is fair and as affordable as could be achieved, especially in comparison to much of the rest of the state.”
Committee members also recommended that the school district create a standing finance committee tasked with reviewing and commenting on school finance issues.