Brattleboro prepares town budget for RTM approval

Selectboard proposes $23 million for FY25; budget will recommend $1.38 million of ARPA money for 13 projects

The Selectboard has approved a proposed $22,993,830 million fiscal 2025 operating and capital budget as well as plans to spend the town's remaining $1.38 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money.

The budget proposed for the Annual Representative Town Meeting (RTM) on Saturday, March 23 represents a 4.3% increase ($955,000) over this year's budget.

Town Manager John Potter noted in his budget memo that numerous neighboring towns are seeing 7.4% increases overall.

That's a $727,000 total increase in property taxes, as Potter told the board on Jan. 16 - an increase of $60 per $100,000 of valuation, or about an annual $110 increase for a median-valued home in town.

Potter writes in his budget memo that the recommended budget would allow the town to:

• Continue or slightly increase service levels in all departments consistent with this fiscal year.

• Shift service delivery for the EMS program from a hybrid public/private model to a fully public one at a projected five-year savings of $1.7 million over the best alternative.

• Address capacity needs in public works, the Town Clerk's office, and the library and establish an in-house information technology capability.

• Absorb personnel cost increases consistent with approved collective bargaining agreements, including compression and equity adjustments at the managerial level, promoting successful recruitment and retention of valued employees.

• Address $1.8 million in critical capital replacement needs consistent with long-term capital plans.

• Account for enterprise fund risk management expenditures appropriately at an estimated $116,000 savings to the taxpayer.

• Incorporate projections of sustained increasing local-use-tax returns at a $98,000 savings to the taxpayer.

Taxpayers will see some savings in the proposed budget, including $48,404 for the community marketing initiative - marketing money for the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce that will now come from a revolving loan fund to help cover a new position - and $1,000 for the West River Watershed Alliance, now defunct.

The Human Services Committee saved $73,000 by not spending all of the more than $400,000 that was allocated to it.

However, salary costs are higher. A Dec. 15 memo notes the $104,000 in department head salary increases stem from "compensation from collective bargaining contracts, cost of living adjustments, scheduled step increases for newer employees, and, in some cases, increase in pay to reflect new assignments and responsibilities."

As described by the job board website Indeed, salary compression "happens when differences in compensation among employees don't reflect their experience, skills or responsibilities." It can happen when economic pressure and employment law drive up wages for new hires faster than existing employees' pay rises.

Also noted is "external competitiveness and the value of keeping a department head in Brattleboro rather than seeing them leave for a higher salary."

The final proposed budget includes salaries for new positions of assistant town clerk ($6,255), IT coordinator ($59,982), and Brooks Memorial Library outreach and programming specialist ($41,847).

An additional $30,000 has been allocated for the promotion of a current highway department employee to supervisor.

In hopes of having another social worker in the community (one now works as a police liaison through Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Vermont), also included for the first time in the proposed budget is $45,000 for counseling services and $22,000 to pay the social worker.

Reactions to the budget

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin commended Potter and town staff members "for taking a sharp pencil" to the general budget, noting that numbers have been reduced significantly since the board's December discussion about it and subsequent public input.

"I think it does a lot of good things for a lot of people in this town, and we can look forward to the implementation of the plans that are in here and hold our heads up and think this is the right thing to do," said Board Vice-Chair Franz Reichsman.

Chair Ian Goodnow commended the Human Services Committee for making "smart" allocations of its money and thus coming in under budget.

"I'm looking forward to proposing this to RTM and defending it rigorously," he said.

Former board member Kate O'Connor was not as glowing in her assessment.

"It's not going to come as a surprise to you that I am not celebrating this budget," she said, adding the 4.3% budget increase is "sort of celebrated as being great compared to the 7.4% increases in a handful of other towns. What you haven't looked at is comparing this tax rate to what's been going on traditionally in the town of Brattleboro."

O'Connor noted that, in 2023, town staff members looked at eight years of tax rate increases and this, if approved, would rank as the second highest increase in that time.

"This 4.3% increase is higher than seven of those eight years," she said, noting one year saw a 4.2% increase and the other six were at 3% or less.

"This is not by necessity. We're not having some big flood or something that we have to spend a lot of money on. This is because of the choices you folks are making, the choices of things you're putting in the budget, and choices of things you're not taking out," she said, noting particularly the $104,000 salary increases for department heads "for the people who are already at the highest pay in town government."

"I don't think this is anything to celebrate," O'Connor said.

ARPA money allocated

The board agreed to a budget that spends American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money - not other municipal funds - for the following:

• $120,000 for a trail connections scoping study for the Whetstone Pathway to do added research to understand ownership, costs, and environmental constraints to complete a long-deferred plan to extend the pathway from downtown to Living Memorial Park.

• $300,000 for walk/bike action plan matching funds to implement projects.

• $50,000 to design intersection improvements for the intersection at Guilford Street and Western Avenue.

• $300,000 to replace the dispatch console.

• $55,000 to replace the Central Fire Station HVAC controls.

• $50,000 for construction of the intersection of Green and High streets.

• $150,000 to relocate the salt/sand shed at the Department of Public Works.

• $75,000 to repair the Brannen Street retaining wall.

• $165,000 to rehabilitate the Brattleboro Transportation Center, to make the space usable and free of water.

• $22,000 to upgrade and repair the six bus shelters in poorest condition.

• $30,000 to engage community discussion, define a program, find a site, and develop site-specific construction drawings and cost estimates for town pickleball courts.

Discussion included taking a look at the basketball court at Living Memorial Park and at the two town tennis courts for a more immediate solution to providing space for townspeople to play pickleball, a notion estimated to require about $15,000 of the $30,000 allocation.

• $63,000 for sidewalk repair.

Board member Daniel Quipp said when the ARPA money first came to the town, it "seemed like a massive amount of money that could be transformative," but that in reality, he is not so sure.

"I think this puts into motion quite a lot of good preparatory work needed in order to help future Selectboards continue to make Brattleboro a great place to live," said Quipp, adding he has "made peace" with the list but was "pretty disappointed" that public restrooms, identified as a public survey high priority, were "not supported" by being on it.

Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin, however, noted that ARPA funding has already been allocated to pay for three new ambulances and other startup costs associated with the new municipal fire/EMS model that will start in July.

"I'm very happy with how this has panned out […] or sugared out," McLoughlin said, noting she feels the list acknowledges input from the community and addresses town needs.

This News item by Virginia Ray was written for The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates