Members from all levels of Girl Scouting in Brattleboro led Town Meeting members in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Members from all levels of Girl Scouting in Brattleboro led Town Meeting members in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Brattleboro approves $20.5M budget for FY24

Town Meeting members ask for more transparency and community input to spend federal Covid funds and make EMS choices

BRATTLEBORO — Representative Town Meeting (RTM) voters on March 25 approved a $20.5 million operating budget for fiscal year 2024 after increasing the bottom line by $350,000.

Members were also clear in wanting more transparency and participation in how the town's remaining $2.7 million federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money is used as well as how town emergency medical services are contracted.

The approved budget is about an 8.1% increase to this year's operating budget.

Due to use of unassigned fund balance (surplus) money and expense prepayment, the tax rate is expected to increase by 3.9%. The budget includes a 4% cost of living allowance (COLA) increase for town employees.

This was the first in-person meeting since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 forced RTM to go online for three years.

After having started the meeting in the high school gymnasium at 8:30 a.m., as the time approached 5 p.m., Moderator David Gartenstein said with a smile, “My sense looking out at the faces here is nobody's coming back tomorrow morning.”

The body agreed to extend the meeting until 6 p.m., when RTM adjourned after finishing its business.

ARPA expenditures need community input

David Levenbach (District 3) proposed adding $350,000 to the operating budget after the Selectboard voted last week to set aside $1.75 million of the 2021 ARPA Covid relief money for EMS costs, including some to hire firefighters.

Levenbach said an efficiency consultant has said the fire department is understaffed and that six more firefighters would be ideal in a town the size of Brattleboro, whose population is about 12,000. The additional operating money will allow for hiring three firefighters right away without having to tap into ARPA money.

Saying he's asked the board to seek community input about how to spend ARPA money, “and that hasn't happened,” Levenbach noted that ARPA money “is a once-in-a-lifetime gift that should be used in long-term investments.”

The website of the U.S. Treasury Dept., which administers the federal funds, lists one goal of the program as “build[ing] a strong, resilient, and equitable recovery by making investments in long-term growth and opportunity.”

Voters ultimately agreed with Levenbach's addition and also called for a “dedicated community engagement process” about future ARPA money expenditures.

More public say sought in how EMS services are contracted

Initially, Robert Oeser (District 3) offered a non-binding resolution expressing a general community “lack of confidence in the manner in which” the Selectboard has handled matters regarding emergency services. Those decisions resulted in the town abruptly ending a 56-year contract with Rescue, Inc. last spring.

Oeser called for the incoming Selectboard to set up an “accountable” process with a mediator to determine who will perform emergency services, taking into account community input and the possibility of “re-engaging” with Rescue Inc.

He noted that on April 19, 2022, the Selectboard voted to end the relationship with the nonprofit, private emergency services company “with little notice to the public and without allowing for public input.”

Further, he said that on March 19, 2022, RTM had passed a budget “with the understanding” that a contract with Rescue Inc. “would be renewed, based on information in a 2021-22 annual report,” specifically noting a line item totaling $285,600 for ambulance services with a description of Rescue Inc.

District 1 Representative John Kennedy took issue, saying the motion was not factual, that the board had not so voted, and that Rescue Inc. had notified the town it would not continue services after June 30, 2022.

Kennedy asked Town Clerk Hilary Francis to check and confirm his words and to request a review of the Brattleboro Community TV meeting videotape where it had been discussed.

Apparently, then–Town Manager Yoshi Manale had reopened contract talks, leading to the April action Oeser and others claimed had not been reviewed or publicly debated.

Richard Morton (District 1) spoke against the resolution, saying its “real impact […] is one of condemnation.”

“I don't think that's appropriate, and I'm going to vote against it,” he said, adding he believes the newly seated Selectboard will address the issue properly.

Saying the information put forth was “incorrect” and calling a no-confidence vote “extreme,” District 1 Representative Paula Melton said it was “inappropriate” at this stage to recommend a contract with a specific contractor. She said she agreed with a consultant's opinion that it would be wise to review the situation and set standards for EMS - and then talk about whom to hire.

“I feel sorry that we are here getting into the weeds with so much information we don't have, trying to encourage the board to do something it's already apparent they are going to do,” said Spoon Agave (District 2). “The swamp is so dense and thick that to begin to talk this thing right or wrong, up or down, is going to be an exercise in frustration and futility.”

Bob Tortolani (District 2) said he was “happy we're talking about it.”

“I've been in town about 50 years now and probably this is the most emotional issue that's come up and continues to be talked about, thought about,” he said. “Rescue and the fire department are both essentially loved by the community, and I hate to see one against the other.”

“We really need to heal,” he continued. “I have faith in the Selectboard. […] We'd love to have everybody working together and not in a divisive way.”

“It came across as 'ready, shoot, aim,'” said Andrew Davis (District 3). “A big decision got made, and then we began studying options.”

He called the resolution “an attempt to say, 'can we get the playing field back to level'” so all potential providers and options “can be evaluated evenly and fairly and transparently.”

“I don't think it's about condemnation,” Davis said. “I think it's about trying to restore balance.”

Cristina Shayonye (District 2) ultimately offered an amendment to call on the new board to set up a process to determine the future of EMS that is transparent and takes into account the opinions of residents, without requiring a mediator.

The friendly-amended resolution was adopted by the meeting.

Lengthy discussion to support community marketing

An article to appropriate $45,028 for the community marketing initiative performed by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance drew plenty of debate.

District 1 Representative Lissa Weinmann, who has been involved in the effort, was challenged about the initiative's focus on the BIPOC community. She said she believes the focus has been expanded from that exclusively to include more, despite no “formal” change of direction.

“I think the work is valuable,” she said, adding that most towns of similar size in the state have some marketing outreach and that Brattleboro has received a lot of press about not only the local BIPOC community and its achievements, but also the annual literary festival and more.

Brian Bannon (District 2) said money allocated from the town is used to hire a national marketing company.

“I think it's a modest amount of money,” he said. “I think it gets attention for small businesses and organizations on a national level that wouldn't happen otherwise.”

Outgoing Selectboard member Tim Wessel noted the move was initiated a few years ago, when the 1% local-option tax was passed, and “the idea is we take 1% of rooms and meals, collected largely from out-of town visitors, and invest it back to bring more visitors.”

“The idea is to encourage that spending and the money comes back to the town,” he said.

The article passed, as did spending $36,552 for ongoing work by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) to grow area population and employment.

Circus school: education or recreation?

Lengthy debate ensued about exempting from taxation the New England Center for Circus Arts (NECCA), a tax-exempt, tax-deductible nonprofit, because it is “used primarily for education, performing arts, health, and recreational purposes.”

The meeting approved an exemption for the school from town property taxes through March 31, 2026. Meeting members did not agree to exempt NECCA from the state school tax as well.

NECCA initially brought the exemption request to the Board of Listers, whose members found the organization was more related to health and recreation than education. It came to Representative Town Meeting after NECCA petitioned to include the article on the warrant.

The organization could have appealed further to the Board of Civil Authority and ultimately to court.

NECCA Executive Director Jennifer Struble said the organization chose not to pursue those other options because “we don't want to litigate with the town.”

Had the state tax been exempted by the meeting, the town would have been responsible for education taxes, which total $26,000, and such an action would have set a town precedent.

“We love the town,” she said, adding that as a “vocational school and educational organization,” the board was asking for “fairness” in requesting exemption from both taxes.

Struble explained the school is the “premier circus school in the country” and well known and respected internationally, but she said that it is difficult to keep employees because the organization can't pay what “big cities” pay. She said the tax savings would go to salaries.

NECCA currently employs nine full-time and 42 part-time staff members and this year offered numerous free performances and $54,000 in financial aid to community members, including at-risk young people.

“It's not just cool, it's really vital to those who changed their lives to move to tiny Brattleboro, and they love it,” she said, thanking the community for its support.

“The idea that NECCA is not an educational institution kind of boggles my mind,” said Anthony Duncan (District 3), a teacher there since 2004.

“Ninety-five percent of what goes on […] really is about education,” he said. “It's about helping people grow, develop. There are a lot of young people who come. […] NECCA helps develop character of people in ways that are beneficial to themselves, and the world, frankly.”

Living Memorial Park improvements approved; pool repair study in the works

Meeting members approved a $5.8 million comprehensive plan to upgrade Living Memorial Park's Withington rink, with a 98–19 ballot vote to raise at most $4.1 million with a bond issue.

Voters also approved $50,000 for a feasibility study for repairs to the community swimming pool.

The “generational improvements” include repairs to include new upper softball field LED lighting, replacing a 30-year-old condenser, a 25-year-old dehumidifier, and the 49-year-old rusting and uninsulated roof.

Also slated for remediation are two maintenance buildings that no longer serve storage needs and expanding parking at the Kiwanis Shelter to include about 20 more parking spaces.

The improvements voted upon, also approved at the ballot box, include refrigeration system upgrades to the 1970s-era skating rink with a change from synthetic to natural refrigeration. This upgrade, said Parks & Recreation Committee members, was recommended a decade ago.

Representative Shela Linton (District 3) expressed her disappointment that the plan didn't include upgrading the community swimming pool, saying the pool hosts more BIPOC families and that locker room and restroom improvements are needed.

The pool was considered, and voters agreed to the feasibility study. Some Selectboard members said they, too, wish it had been included now and said the pool will not be forgotten.

Municipal water system upgrade, with state help

Representative Town Meeting unanimously approved another bond issue on Saturday - this one a $2 million improvement to the municipal water system.

This work is included in of a three-part capital improvement plan and includes an offer from the state of a $927,500 subsidy over 40 years at 0% interest for this phase.

The Selectboard pointed out that going through the state loan program would reduce the cost to utility payers and that the project could be paid off sooner than expected.

The approved work of this first phase includes improvements to a pump station at Signal Hill, where the existing station was built in 1971 to serve 14 homes. It will also replace the Black Mountain Pump Station generator, in service since 1966, which has proved deficient in backup power with resulting water loss during power outages.

The final part is water main replacement for the 1949-vintage mains at Bridge and Water streets, where several main breaks have occurred and there is inadequate supply for fire protection/hydrants.

Selectboard compensation

What to pay the Selectboard also drove discussion, after it was proposed they be paid $8,000 each and the chair, $10,000 - the same as this year, but not always the case.

Tom Franks (District 2) said voters had agreed to increase the amount a while ago in an effort to increase participation by a greater diversity of community members to seek election to board seats.

“I think we failed,” Franks said, moving to reduce the amounts to $3,500 and $5,000, respectively. “I think we might want to consider why we're doing this. I firmly believe this is an honorarium, not a payment, and that, in itself, has a tremendous value.”

Paula Melton (District 1) said there's no tangible means to evaluate whether the plan worked and perhaps there should be, so that folks with lower incomes can feel they are able to participate.

“Being on the Selectboard is really, really hard, and people should be compensated, regardless of how other towns do it; that doesn't need to be our standard,” she said.

Robin Morgan (District 2) added, “money is only one barrier to prevent participation” on the board, and all barriers should be examined.

Gary Stroud (District 2), added that money shouldn't be the driving force to serve.

“This is something that's in your heart and let not that [money] be the major thing,” he said. “The main reason you're getting on any of these committees is about people, not profit.”

Franks withdrew his amendment, and the amounts in the proposed motion passed.

Other business

• After nearly two hours of debate, voters agreed to support 36 human service programs and facilities that serve residents by allocating $280,891 and to raise the allocation next year to up to 2% of the total municipal budget - an estimated $440,000 - next year. This year's funding is 1.6% of the budget.

Human Services Committee Co-Chair David Miner (District 1) said the panel received 43 applications for the FY24 budget - seven more than were received for this year - for about $107,000 more than was budgeted.

• In addition to the $50,000 for the pool planning study at Living Memorial Park, the meeting agreed to spend $1,087,306 in surplus money to pay the $515,000 required local match for the Melrose Bridge replacement, $400,000 for the Williams Street repair project, and to transfer $122,306 to the Living Memorial Park Generational Improvement project fund to reduce borrowing for that project by the same amount.

• Meeting members also agreed to spend up to $120,000 to defray the town portion of costs to demolish McNeil's Brewery, 90 Elliot St., after a fire last fall that took the life of owner Ray McNeil and destroyed the structure.

Selectboard members called this “a cautionary article,” adding that insurance/estate money and/or current year money may be available to cover this expense.

• The meeting also commissioned a townwide reappraisal of taxable property to be completed for tax year 2027.

• The meeting adopted special assessments of $80,000 to pay for the work of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and $131,698 to pay for water and sewer improvements at the Mountain Home and Deepwoods mobile home parks.

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