Select Board outlines spending plan

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BRATTLEBORO — Town Meeting members did not have many questions about the Select Board's proposal for tax dollars.

"We really did start this year with an approach to the budget that we would try to level fund services that were being provided to the town," Select Board Chairman David Gartenstein said Wednesday at an informational meeting, later adding, "We think this tax increase right now is a responsible way to fund the town's services."

Town Meeting members will consider the $17,483,841 budget on Saturday, March 25, at annual Representative Town Meeting at Brattleboro Area Middle School at 8:30 a.m. The figure reflects a 7.3 percent increase over last year's budget. But the Select Board is hoping to use $1,099,975 of a $2,792,759 surplus to knock it down to a 2.9 percent increase, which represents a 3.5 cent tax increase or $3.5 on every $100 of assessed value. As a matter of financial prudence, the board suggests keeping the remainder of the surplus, which is 10 percent of the annual budget.

Gartenstein said the increase with the surplus is nearly identical to that which would come with the first year of bond payments for the $12.5 million police-fire project approved last year by Town Meeting members. The West Brattleboro Fire Station is expected to be occupied on Monday. Construction has started at Central Station downtown, where an addition is coming. The Reformer's tenant space at 62 Black Mountain Road is completed and the rest of the building is being renovated for the police department.

"We have succeeded over the course of the last few years in saving money in a range of different places in our budget," said Gartenstein.

Without a full roster, the police department's budget came in lower than anticipated and contributed $656,000 to the surplus.

The town moved to bi-weekly trash pick-up after realizing the success of its composting program. Previously, trash was collected every week.

Others savings had to do with retirement benefits for town employees, which town officials say are better for the participants and taxpayers, and a change in the way health insurance is purchased. Also, streetlights around town were switched to LED bulbs and there was a drop in fuel prices.

Gartenstein said Town Manager Peter Elwell evaluated services provided by the town in his second full year in the position. The result was a comprehensive review of town operations and long-term financial plan, showing what's needed in terms of staffing and capital investment.

"In terms of the differences between last year's budget and this year's budget, employees are getting salary increases in a 1 to 2 percent range based on collective bargaining agreements," Gartenstein told Town Meeting members. "We rewrote the police officers' pay scale to make it much more competitive in the region as a whole and to pay officers more at the entry levels."

Wages, he said, are set to go up by $179,000 or more. But benefits are going down by about $188,000.

"We have increases in general operating expenses of about $122,000 for costs relating to running the Black Mountain Road police station, increased investment in sidewalks and guard rails, and other miscellaneous raises," he said, noting bigger payments to the Windham Regional Commission and Rescue Inc.

An approximately $1.68 million increase in capital line items is expected to go towards infrastructure, equipment and debt service payments. The town is preparing to buy a $550,000 combined pumper/rescue truck after the fire department's pumper truck failed inspection. There's a three-year plan for life-safety improvements at the Municipal Center to address violations. Energy-efficiency upgrades also will be made in the building. Another round of window replacements is scheduled at the Gibson-Aiken Center. Parking lots around town are set to be repaved and sidewalks will be replaced. A new street sweeper is going to be purchased along with a 1 ton dump truck, body cameras for police officers and thermal imaging cameras for firefighters. And there's engineering work planned at the Department Public Works facility and the intersection at Williams Street and Western Avenue.

Recalling his days on the Select Board, Town Meeting member Chris Chapman praised town employees.

"I wish I could pay more myself, I would," he said. "Because the absolute professionalism that the board experienced in dealing with all the departments truly gave me, for one, a real faith in this form of self government and specifically in the town of Brattleboro. I'm here to say thank you to all those folks."

Town Meeting member Mary Casey asked town officials for a report on the possibility of collecting payment in lieu of taxes from some of the larger nonprofits based in Brattleboro. That was "one of our stated goals" for this year, the town manager said. Also on the agenda is communicating and collaborating with other "hub" communities, where more services tend to be provided to area residents than other towns.

Finance Committee Chairman and Town Meeting member Franz Reichsman said a report on payment for Select Board and School Board members will be ready by Representative Town Meeting.

"I'll give you a little sneak preview," he said. "We did a lot of research throughout the state of Vermont and around New England as to what is known about how much should board members be paid in a setting like Brattleboro. And the answer is there is absolutely no consensus, there's no research. There's nothing that we could find that would tell us what the right answer is."

A survey has been sent out to Town Meeting members and Select Board members. The results will be part of the Finance Committee's presentation.

Select Board member Dick DeGray called for an article every five to 10 years to pose a question on stipends for board members.

"One dollar is too much and $10,000 is not enough to be honest with you," he said, encouraging Town Meeting members not to spend too much time discussing the issue.

Town Meeting members will be considering whether to raise and appropriate $75,000 through special assessments on properties within the Downtown Improvement District. That would fund the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance's budget.

An article will see Town Meeting members deciding whether to appropriate $24,000 for Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies through a revolving loan fund associated with the Vermont Community Development Block Grant program. SeVEDS had originally asked for more — it requested $3 per resident from communities throughout Windham County, which for Brattleboro would total just over $36,000 —- but the Select Board opted for the figure as presented on the article, citing economic development programs the town offers.

The last article asks whether the town should advise the Select Board to proclaim the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples' Day in place of Columbus Day.

"Why Indigenous Peoples' Day?" asked Rich Holschuh, who petitioned for inclusion of the article. "It's because its time has come. It's a good year, with Standing Rock in the headlines and the move nationwide to embracing those who have not been embraced in the past. It's a nationwide movement. It's going across the country."

He said two to three dozen communities have already made the change. Last week, the town of Marlboro did.

"They were the first in the state," Holschuh said. "I was hoping to be first. We can be second. Why Brattleboro? I think Brattleboro can offer a great deal of leadership on this because this is where colonization began in the state. Fort Dummer, 1724. This is where the process of displacing Indigenous People of this area, which are the Abenaki, began and it continues. It's highly symbolic and I think it's an important thing to do."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.

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