The first meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard in 2018 was almost entirely about money. They continued their discussion of remaining FY19 budget issues, narrowing the list of undecided items by saying yes to some and maybe to others. It makes for a rather high potential tax increase, but many decisions remain that could bring the proposed rates down again. More budget meetings are planned.
The board approved of a planning grant for Tri Park and bulletproof vest purchases for police officers. And, just like many of you, Brattleboro will be depositing $5 million in a new money market account to earn a bit more interest.
Chair Kate O’Connor began the first meeting of 2018 by stating the obvious. “It’s very, very cold outside.” She urged people to look out for vulnerable neighbors.
Town Manager Peter Elwell agreed that it was very, very cold, and noted that they were meeting in the library because a Municipal Center boiler had broken. It will be fixed by Wednesday, he said, adding that repair people are busy all over town dealing with similar failures of heating systems.
John Allen shared that former Selectboard member Hugh Bronson passed away. “He was a good guy and will be truly missed.”
Wayne Estey presented the board with information about new public restroom options. “Nobody wants to go out in the open.” David Schoales suggested he look at work being done by the Rich Earth Institute.
FY19 Budget – Status, and Undecided Matters
The Brattleboro Selectboard continued work on the FY19 Budget, reviewing the current status of their decisions and making a few new ones.
Town Manager Elwell reminded the board that Town staff proposed an FY19 budget of $14,670,848, an increase of 2.75% or 3.42 cents in the property tax rate.
Since then, the budget has grown to $14,701,343 over the course of six meetings due in part to increased worker compensation costs, reduced general liability costs, reduced bond interest, and additional snow removal costs for the new police station. The property tax rate, with these adjustments, would increase 2.96% or 3.68 cents.
Elwell had provided the board with a complete list of remaining items with dollar costs and impact on the property tax rate. He pointed out that three of the items were already in the FY19 budget: the hiring of an HR Professional ($60,000, or .52 cents on the property tax rate,) the Fire Dept Aerial Truck ( $950,000, with a tax increase depending on how it is purchased,) and Implicit Bias Training ($10,000, or .09 cents.)
Some updates on the fire truck were shared with the board. Brattleboro will apply for a grant for $475,000.
And, after some investigation and calculation, rental does not seem like a good option in long term.
The board also had eight items not already included in the FY19 budget to consider: the second sidewalk plow ($140,000) and labor to operate it ($10,000, or .09 cents on property tax rate for labor,) increasing Human Services Funding ($26,000 , .23 cents,) a contribution to Green Up Day ($300, .003 cents,) a contribution to Southern Vermont Watershed Alliance (between .007 cents for $800 to .012 cents for $1350,) a donation to the skatepark ($20,000, .17 cents,) More Light Downtown (TBD,) a Day Work Jobs Program (possibly $30,000, .26 cents,) and an annual contribution to Southern Vermont Economic Development Strategies ($36,147 from program income, not property tax).
“What would you like from us tonight?” asked Kate O’Connor. “Yes or no on each item?”
A sunburned Elwell told the board the deeper they could go tonight, the more likely they could finish budget issues next week.
O’Connor said that if they said yes to everything on the list, the tax increase would be 4.445 cents.
Throughout the discussion, the fund balance (our 10% + recommended rainy day reserve fund) came up as a possible way to pay for things without raising taxes. Almost $750,000 is already eyed for purchases such town vehicles and part of the ladder truck.
David Schoales wanted even more information about how the reserve fund would be used before making any firm decisions. Elwell said it would be hard to give them the specific information without hearing more budget decisions. “When we get it narrowed down, we can give you meaningful fund balance information,” he explained.
The board took the hint and made some decisions. Yes to adding in the HR professional. Pass on the fire truck decision until next week. Yes to implicit bias training. Pass on the sidewalk plow for now.
O’Connor had concerns about the increased request from the Human Services Committee.
O’Connor also objected to the smaller requests coming directly to the board. She worried that granting their requests might set a precedent. “We’re not a bank,” she said, noting they don’t fall naturally into the town budget anywhere.
Tim Wessel suggested they grant the small requests this year, but nudge it toward the Human Services Committee in future years. Elwell said that if they plan on pushing requests to the Human Services Committee, they should not cut their request for funding this year.
It was agreed to move forward with the small requests for Green Up Day ($300) and the Watershed Alliance (at $1000,) but warn them as their own articles for Town Meeting Representatives to discuss. Franz Reichsman cautioned that warning them as unique articles could cause for lengthy town meeting discussions.
The Human Services budget request of $146,000 was not altered, but will be its own article at Representative Town Meeting.
O’Connor was against the skatepark donation. She pointed out that they had already given a $20,000 donation toward the skatepark. “We’ve done this already.” She didn’t mind others debating it, but said many times that she planned to vote against additional funding for the skatepark.
“You’ve beaten that horse into submission,” said John Allen.
Elwell suggested they could propose funding the $20,000 from, you guessed it, the fund balance. He said $20,000 was “margin money” and it could be warned as a fund balance question.
Street lighting and the day work program required more information, and a decision will be made next week.
The SeVEDS request was put off until the following meeting as well, to allow for more information, though Kate O’Connor said she was unsure of how much should be donated, given that Brattleboro already invests in economic development.
Before ending the budget discussion, Elwell told them that despite the progress with decisions made, not enough was clarified to do meaningful capital expense numbers for them by next week.
Remaining budget meetings include a January 9 special meeting and January 16 regular meeting for unfinished business and final decisions. An additional January 23 special meeting may be scheduled if necessary.
Money Market Account
Finance Director John O’Connor recommended a new bank account for a portion of Brattleboro’s checking account balance, which he was rather confident would increase interest earned by nearly $60,000 per year.
As things currently stand, the daily balance in Brattleboro’s checking account is around $10 million. This balance is transferred to a “sweep account” each night and collateralized every evening by purchasing federal trade securities.
By doing things this way, we earn an annual interest rate of .18%.
Elwell asked O’Connor to get proposals from four area banks, asking what better rates could be found by moving half of the checking balance, $5 million, to a fully collateralized money market account that would permit deposits and withdrawals as needed.
Brattleboro Savings & Loan had the best offer of 1.41%. O’Connor liked that it used the NY Fed Effective Funds Rate, not the Target Rate, and was tied to the rate on the 2nd to last day of the month. He said that for some reason, rates always drop on the last day of the month, and this protects against that regular drop.
Brandie Starr said she was “glad to see us move local” and it was clearly better for the money.
The selectboard voted in favor of the new account, and John Allen hoped he might possibly be given a debit card. John O’Connor looked doubtful.
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved and appropriated a $30,000 planning grant from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. This will be used to help pay for consultants to complete a master plan for the Tri-Park Mobile Home Park.
The master plan has been in the works for a number of years. The goal is to come up with a plan to remove or relocate mobile homes that are known to be at risk of severe flooding. Public meetings will be part of the planning process.
Brattleboro contributes $40,000 to the project. Tri-Park will kick in $10,500.
Elwell said the project went beyond safety and long-term viability of homes. He said it was an important endeavor to help Tri Park keep rental income up.
Farm Tax Stabilization Agreement
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved of a Farm Tax Stabilization Agreement for Ross Thurber and Amada Ellis-Thurber.
Town Manager Elwell said that Farm Tax Stabilization in Brattleboro is actually a tax exemption, not reduction. There are rigorous standards to apply, and the result is that Brattleboro encourages keeping agricultural land in use.
With the Thurbers, Elwell explained, a younger generation was expanding the family farm and purchasing new land for active farming in West Brattleboro.
Small Business Assistance Program Loan
The New England Center for Circus Arts was approved for a $50,000 Small Business Assistance Loan for working capital to help meet operating expenses for the new Circus Arts Trapezium. Specifically, they’d like to buy a new registration system and build out their professional student offerings.
It’s a seven year loan, at 3.25% interest. They’ll pay interest only until August of this year.
Interim Director Jeff Lewis told the selectboard that NECCA had the best program in the United States, and that the money would be used to strengthen the school.
They plan to increase their professional program enrollment to 40, hire a new professional track program director, and hire a rigger and skills teacher. They expect to increase weekend workshops and look for ways to generate income during the off periods of the school calendar.
NECCA had requested $100,000, but the loan committee suggested the lower amount. This wasn’t due to any fault of the circus school, but from a tightening of available loan funds. About $400,000 is available to loan, but $250,000 is spoken for already (Commonwealth Dairy expansion) and another $67,000 might be lost due to loan defaults.
Wessel praised the school as the premier trapeze school in the US. Lewis said that students come from all over the country and world. John Allen and Kate O’Connor vowed to take a workshop together. No word whether paying audience members will be allowed to observe.
With this loan, about $40,000 seemed to remain for possible additional loans or grants, but a full accounting will follow next week.
JAG Grant Purchase
Brattleboro Police were approved to spend a Justice Assistance Grant totalling $19,161 for a ballistic vest. containment system.
The funds will mean a new MOLLE carrier, 3 long sleeve and 3 short sleeve uniform shirts, single handcuff case, double magazine pouch and radio pouch for 25 officers at a cost of $11,527.50.
The new vests allow for equipment to be carried off the belt, said Elwell, which is more ergonomic.
The remaining funds wil be used to purchase uniforms and equipment accessories for new officers and as replacements, and special tactical equipment for the Special Reaction Team.
Kate O’Connor asked if the vest could be fitted with body cameras. Elwell said they could, and the police were looking at body cam purchase options.
“You came up with that on your own?” asked John Allen. “No one asked you to ask?”
“Yes,” said O’Connor.
Liliana Vandertuin was appointed to the Citizen Police Communications Committee.
Maya Hasegawa was appointed as a Design Review Committee Alternate.
Frederic Noyes was appointed as Fence Viewer.
John Allen volunteered to be nominated. Wessel jokingly suggested nominating him as fence sitter. He then asked if Terry Martin could be considered for the Traffic Safety Committee. Elwell said that citizen representative seats do open up, and he could get appointed when that happens.