Town Meeting boosts measures for climate change

Annual Representative Town Meeting also bumps up human services allocations for next year in a $23 million town budget

Representative Town Meeting members went through several hours of discussion regarding non-binding resolutions after members increased the fiscal year 2025 budget by $70,000 for climate change concerns and passed a total budget of $23,063,830 - a 4.3% increase over this year's - by a 65–41 vote.

The budget is predicated on $17,701,970 being raised in property taxes.

Members gathered at the Brattleboro Union High School gymnasium on March 23. A quorum, defined as 50% of all potential RTM members plus one for this purpose, was set at 77. Despite inclement weather, there were 87 representatives present at the start of the meeting.

RTM members needed to approve, by Australian ballot, borrowing money to build a secondary water storage tank at the Pleasant Valley Reservoir for an estimated $1.62 million at 0% interest. They did so by a vote of 96–1.

Funding already exists in the utility budget to pay off the bond in several years, but the town also has the option to take up to 20 years.

Public Works Director Dan Tyler said that since the money is already in the budget, the project will not affect water rates. Only town water users will repay the debt.

A 3-million-gallon water storage tank currently stands at Pleasant Valley Reservoir next to the treatment facility to provide water at high-demand times. All of West Brattleboro to the downtown area is served by the tank.

A recent inspection by scuba divers identified maintenance that needs to be addressed, which would necessitate draining the tank and taking it offline. Typically, this would be done using a temporary storage tank, but that requires costly site preparation. Town officials looked into alternatives and found that a more cost-effective solution is to install a secondary, permanent water tank.

Thus this article proposes a 400,000 gallon tank to be installed next to the bigger one. "We're limited by space, but it's designed to do what we need it to do," Tyler said.

First few articles handled quickly

With no discussion, voters appeared to unanimously approve, in a standing/voice vote, spending $131,698.86 through special assessments on property within the Mountain Home Park Special Benefit Assessment Tax District to pay debt service on capital improvements to water and sewer lines serving the Mountain Home and Deepwood Mobile Home parks.

Voters also approved spending $80,000 through special assessments on properties within the Downtown Improvement District to pay for the work of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance (DBA). This is an annually recurring article on the warning.

Asked if there was an overlap in the community marketing initiative and DBA funding, Selectboard Chair Ian Goodnow said the board allocated $160,000 from the revolving loan fund after a request from the DBA to move in a different direction and contract with a consultant to access grants and other money to invest in the downtown as a pilot program.

Spending $367,810 to support 38 human service programs and facilities for residents was supported by voters after discussion. That figure represents 1.73% of the total budget. The committee that decides how to allocate money can spend up to 2%. The tax impact per $100,000 of valuation would be $31.40.

"Brattleboro is not a philanthropic organization," said District 9 member Steve Heim, arguing that the article, and the practice of the town directing funds to charities, take away agency from residents who might have other priorities.

District 8 member Mary Casey said part of the request has to do with the grant procedures that nonprofits have to go through to apply for money elsewhere. "I hear what you're saying; it's just that grant system," Casey said.

"We put this money toward these uses because we care about the people who live in our town. [...] This is a moral obligation that we are fulfilling," said District 8 member Spoon Agave.

Compensation for Selectboard members was approved at $10,000 annually for the chair and $8,000/each for board members, which is the current rate.

The request for voters to transfer $268,862 from the Unassigned General Fund balance for street paving and capital road improvement projects (non-operating capital costs) saw lengthy discussion and was amended at one point to put the money in the Global Warming Solutions account. But first, District 9 member Kevin O'Brien asked how the money is spent.

Generally speaking, said Goodnow, such transfers of "leftover funds that aren't budgeted for" are invested in capital improvement projects.

The board always keeps 10% of any leftover money in the fund for emergency spending, said Vice-Chair Franz Reichsman.

District 8 member Arthur Davis said he was happy to hear that the town is looking at road improvement projects in a "holistic way that is not just car-centric."

Goodnow noted that the board put $290,000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money toward a bike path master plan.

O'Brien moved to amend the article to transfer the full amount of the unassigned general fund balance to the Global Warming Solutions account. Moderator David Gartenstein found the amendment was not related to the article as warned, but his ruling was appealed by District 9 member Oscar Heller.

Heller maintained that because it was being decided what to do with the excess fund balance, it would be acceptable to change that use on the floor.

Gartenstein noted the amount could be changed, but not the objective, without having publicly warned that objective.

"It's not a question whether the moderator thinks it's a good or bad idea," he said.

Town Counsel Bob Fisher agreed with Gartenstein, saying the article was warned for a particular purpose. He added that if the moderator's decision was sustained but the article was voted down, the money would remain in the fund.

Gartenstein's ruling was sustained in a standing vote and the body returned to the original question of transferring $268,862 for street paving and capital improvement projects, until District 7 member George Carvill moved to amend the article to $135,000.

Carvill said he cut the amount in half with the intent of then meeting with the Selectboard about other ways to spend the money and have it on the annual RTM warning next year.

Tyler noted that a recent roadway assessment recommends spending $700,000 annually to maintain the current level of repair, adding it would cost more than $1 million to actually improve it.

"At our current funding levels, we're getting to these roads every 20, 30 years," he said. "Bottom line is I don't think we have enough money now. We're trying to do the best we can."

Ultimately, using the $268,862 for capital road projects passed in a standing vote by a landslide.

The budget

A lengthy discussion ensued before voters approved the $22,305,158 general budget.

District 9 member Kate O'Connor said this was the first time she would vote against a budget, "because I think this is wrong."

She called the proposed $104,693 in salary increases for department heads - ranging from 7.6 to 16.7% increases - "out of touch."

"I think we need to look at the people who live in our community," she said, adding that 27% of the town population is "living in poverty" and that those on Social Security are only seeing an increase of 3.2%, or $108 per year.

"To me, this is a moral issue," O'Connor said.

Goodnow responded that the total salary increase represents less than 0.5% of the total budget.

He noted that all town employees who are not in a union received 4% cost of living (COLA) increases, totaling $38,666 of the total salary increase. He also noted three other elements affecting the overall increase: regular step increases ($17,584); "compression" issues of people lower than department heads being paid more due to union contract structures ($24,559); and the fact that some department heads have new responsibilities ($23,883).

When asked why the large increase should happen now, Goodnow replied, "because it really should have been done sooner."

"We've been deferring this issue and we're catching up," he said, adding that the board looked at similar salaries in "a number of other towns" as well as numbers from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in trying to offer competitive pay and benefits to retain the knowledge and history folks have by keeping them working here.

Agave recalled that in the late 1990s, the town manager earned $61,000 annually. But he said that, given time, "I don't consider this excessive over the long range. My concern is more [to] do all we can to make sure the working stiff in town gets their share, [and] can also make a living."

District 9 member Robert Oeser then moved to reduce the budget by $2 million, the amount of ARPA money in the board's discretion to disperse. That notion was defeated by a notable margin in a standing vote.

Increase for climate concerns

District 9 member Django Grace then proposed increasing the budget by $70,000, asking the board to allot that to the Global Warming Solutions Fund, a $70,000 annually replenishing fund that promotes the sustainability and resiliency of town operations. The balance in that fund as of December 2023 was $74,821.

Grace said his four years on the town Energy Committee have shown him that earmarking the money for climate change solutions is the ''greatest step" the town has taken in this realm "in the 18 years I've been alive and living in this town, but I think we need more."

"This is a drop in the bucket and we need to do more as a community to face the crisis that we're in," said District 9 member Sonia Silbert.

Town meeting members cannot direct how money is implemented, only whether to increase or decrease the bottom line.

Selectboard member Daniel Quipp noted he felt assumptions were being made that all other dollars spent in town were ignorant of climate change impacts. That's not so, he said, citing a more efficient water-treatment facility and road work projects.

"This $70,000 is wildly insufficient," Quipp said, but added he has "no problem" being advised to put the money into the Global Warming Solutions Fund. He added that when the board is advised by voters, members take that advice and act on it.

When challenged that some community input about how to use the ARPA money was not acted on, Quipp concurred, saying there "were a couple of items" on the community surveys that the board didn't fund with ARPA money, but that were funded from other sources, and in fact with more money than was available through ARPA.

He also encouraged constituents to meet with the board in the fall, not just on RTM Day, to voice priorities and concerns.

"It's really hard to have a big impact on the budget on this day," Quipp said, urging members to "please" work with the board during the budget drafting process.

After lunch and non-binding resolutions

Fewer voters returned after a one-hour lunch break, but enough were present to supply a quorum.

After lunch, a motion to direct the Selectboard to allocate up to 1.4% in funding for human services next year was successfully amended to 2%.

Two percent was approved by RTM for this year, but the Human Services Committee ended up allocating somewhat less after saying members assiduously reviewed all requests.

Committee member Sarah Turbow of District 9 said there "continue to be huge needs for human services in the community that are not yet being met," and proposed the 2% directive.

District 9 member Zeke King then amended the amendment to 2.3% of the FY25 budget, in hopes of adding more programs. That failed.

The 1.4% equaled $322,893, the 2% amount equaled $461,276, and the 2.3% equaled $530,468.

Quipp said people often attend RTM and look to the board "for answers to really big social problems." He said it's disappointing that even the amount being spent isn't enough and questioned "how impactful" even this amount of money can be in the face of such large issues.

A non-binding resolution calling for Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt, to support halting U.S. arms sales to Israel until a permanent ceasefire is achieved in Gaza was clearly supported.

Many in attendance at the RTM also wore keffiyehs, the traditional square cotton scarves symbolizing Palestinians' connections to their land.

District 7 member Isaac Evans-Frantz made the motion and said elected officials have an "obligation to speak up in the face of war crimes that the U.S. is funding."

He noted Balint "has rightly called for a ceasefire in Gaza" and said that "to avoid the perception of complicity, she must commit to opposing any additional funds for weapons for the genocidal war in Gaza."

District 9 member Tim Wessel said the resolution "only benefitted one party and one party only, and that's Hamas."

A resolution was also passed asking the Legislature to provide education and information about commissioning ranked choice elections by the end of the next biennium. District 9 representative Fric Spruyt moved originally to implement the change by the end of the next biennium.

"At a minimum, this would make us a good role model," he said.

A partly tongue-in-cheek motion to deliberately introduce controversial warning articles to increase RTM attendance brought a laugh, but was amended to ask the board to do what a committee had suggested several years ago: enhance RTM access to offer virtual attendance as well as free lunch and childcare.

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

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates