BRATTLEBORO — I left Brattleboro's Representative Town Meeting on March 25 perturbed. A lot of good was voted for. Not much restraint was in evidence. I was also unsettled because I think a lot of District 1 (now District 7) residents would not agree with all the spending that was approved, but I failed to articulate my concerns.
We representatives wrestled for a good while with Article 23, about how large a human services budget to recommend for FY25 (i.e., for July 1, 2024 through June 30, 2025). The budget for this coming year will be some $280,891. A motion to raise that to 2% of budget (or approximately $400,000) the following year was made, seconded, debated, and ultimately passed.
We have a great Human Services Committee. They do substantial and superb work. I and many others are in awe of them. I in no way want any criticisms I have of the budget to be directed at them.
I personally do not feel that the Town of Brattleboro should be a substantial funder of any nonprofit, no matter how important a role it plays. There are just too many other needs that the town should give priority to. Nonprofits need to get their funding through some combination of grants, fundraising campaigns, and program income.
From 2003 to 2010, I was the executive director and then the business manager for The Brick House Community Resource Center, a small nonprofit in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. We were lucky to be voted $5,000 almost every year by the Town of Montague (of which the village of Turners Falls is part).
We greatly appreciated this money, and it definitely helped. Yet we knew we could not, and should not, depend on this source of funding. That $5,000 made up just 1/50th of our $250,000 budget. We really needed to hustle to write grants and have a year-end fundraising effort and bring in some money through fees we charged. We did not expect the town to play a substantial role in our overall finances, though we were glad that it was supportive.
In 2022, my wife and I made personal donations to 10 of the human services organizations that the town decided to fund this coming year. My wife and I are also comfortably well off. Although we find the constant rises in property taxes irritating, we can pay for them without real hardship.
In District 1, however, what about the people in the more modest housing? Yes, many of them might see some relief granted by the state program related to income and home ownership, but their household budgets are still strained. What about the renters in West Brattleboro, who may well see their rents go up? What about investment in business and jobs along the underutilized Marlboro Road business zone? Will there be any?
The decision to raise the human services budget in FY25 to 2% of the previous year's overall budget is but one factor putting upward pressure on future tax rates.
Certainly, the priority decision to fund three new firefighters will have a bigger effect. Certainly, the voted-in approval of the bond for the next generation of parks and recreation facilities will have a larger effect by its second year. Certainly, the substantial (4% or greater) raises for town staff (which I do not argue with, given the even higher cost of living) will have a substantial effect.
What about the new communications coordinator? Nice, but not essential. What about the likely need a year from now for more bonding for a pool upgrade? Such an upgrade will, I think, serve more low- and moderate-income town residents than the ice rink upgrades.
It also looks like many of the long-term vacancies in our Police Department will be filled, since a number of persons are currently getting trained at the Vermont Police Academy. Good - we need them filled! That will mean, however, that we will not have much of a general fund surplus left over at the end of the fiscal year. Additionally, some members of the Selectboard are already talking about a new town department to work on community safety measures. Is that really needed, or can existing staff take that on?
I guess my bottom-line plea is that people keep the negative effects of a very high tax rate in mind - negative to households with moderate means, negative to the future likelihood that developers and businesses will want to invest in Brattleboro.
I see a lot of good being done. I don't see a lot of restraint in making choices, in prioritizing. Hopefully the Selectboard, between its new members and old members, will lead the way in being careful about keeping spending down.