At their special meeting Tuesday night, the Brattleboro Selectboard finalized the FY19 budget. They agreed on the amount of fund balance to tap, set a final property tax rate, and reviewed draft warnings for Town Meeting on March 6 and Representative Town Meeting on March 24.
Before getting into budget matters, there was time for public comment. Mr. Nickerson asked the board if they had taken up the matter of high school football brain injuries. “I’d like you all to start thinking about it.” He said it shouldn’t be up to parents or guardians as to whether a child can damage their brain. He thought football should be banned until kids are 18 years old, or possibly reformed so that injuries were minimized.
Board members suggested he take the matter up with the high school board.
FY19 Property Tax Rate and Use of Fund Balance
As they began the meeting, the FY19 draft budget stood to increase property tax rates by 3.9 cents and use $735,000 of the Unassigned General Fund Balance. That would leave a cushion of 9.8%, or $1,719,139, in the fund balance.
The question for the selectboard was whether to adopt this as is, or make changes in any way.
Town Manager Peter Elwell told them that the property tax rate and amount of fund balance to use were interrelated, and that an increase to one would mean a decrease to the other. He also told them they would need to consider how changes to the FY19 budget would impact budgets and tax rates in the coming years.
Elwell reminded board members that the tax rate they propose will, most likely, be higher than what people will end up paying. Property values, he explained, go up each year and this offsets the rate a small amount. Last year’s budget proposed an increase of 3.5 cents but the actual impact, he said, was only 3.1 cents.
He said there was also an addition made to the FY19 budget since the board had last met. Interest income from the new $5 million money market account added over $50,000 in non-tax income, and $35,000 of that is now available to the general fund, reducing the amount of fund balance required.
To help guide their decision, selectboard members were given charts and graphs with four possible scenarios, to show how their decisions would impact rates, balances, and the future budgets of FY20-23.
One showed things as they stood currently. Property taxes would go up 3.9 cents and Brattleboro would use $735,000 of the Unassigned General Fund Balance. That would leave a cushion of 9.8%. For a $175,000 property, taxes would increase by $68 per year. This option was shaded and preferred by Elwell.
A second option showed what things would look like if the 10% reserve was maintained, rather than dropping to 9.8%. This would increase property taxes by 4.2 cents, and only $700,000 of the Unassigned General Fund Balance would be used.
Two other options were presented to the board that showed how varying the amount used from the fund balance would impact tax rates. If the selectboard wanted to use $770,000 of the fund, basically ignoring the new interest income from the money market account, property taxes would increase by 3.6 cents, and our reserve would be at 9.6%. A $175,000 property would see an increase of $63 annually.
If they wanted to use $800,000, property taxes would increase by 3.4 cents and our reserve would be at 9.4%. Elwell strongly discouraged this. “Don’t go this far,” he told them.
Elwell cautioned them to look at the impact over more than one year. Reducing property taxes this year will likely cause an increase in coming years, he said.
“Is anyone worried that this is way too much?” asked David Schoales.
“It always seems too high,” said John Allen.
Schoales noted that they had been asked by citizens to add things to the budget, so taxes would go up. He said he would like to see the increase closer to 2 cents, but was ready to go along if other board members were “okay with going to an almost 4 cent tax increase.”
Tim Wessel said that the bulk of the increase was not due to citizen requests so much as inflation. “Things get more expensive and we have to pay for them or cut services. I don’t hear clamoring for cutting services.” He felt 2 cents of the increase could be attributed to inflation.
“I don’t want to see anywhere near 4 cents,“ said Allen, adding “I don’t see how it can come down without being drastic.” He suggested using more of the fund balance, but then said that using it that way was a bad habit. “I’m contradicting myself.”
Brandie Starr was against using the fund balance to offset taxes. “It’s artificial to use that,” she said. “Let’s stick with 4 cents and be honest. Show what it is. Things cost money.”
Allen said Representative Town Meeting representatives would need to beat the bushes to find out what people want, and argue the facts. Starr agreed.
Kate O’Connor noted that $35,000 for tax relief was a relatively small amount.
Schoales moved that the board adopt the third option, the one that would increase property taxes by 3.6 cents.
Allen asked if anyone had the tax rates for the schools. No one had specifics, but there was a general guess that the schools would increase by 6 cents.
Franz Reichsman again offered his warning that these looked like high tax numbers. “They might not look too rosy to reps,” he cautioned.
Wessel liked the original proposal, and said that it might feel good to say 3.6 cents rather than 3.9 cents. “It’s smoke and mirrors with these numbers.” He like, Starr, thought it should be clear that we both want more and are paying more for it.
Wesel said that if the difference between the two was $10 or less or so in taxes, “that’s skipping a Latchis movie.”
“Or a meal,” added Schoales. He added to the defense of his choice, the 3.6 cent increase, by pointing out that there might be a surplus at the end of the year that could also help lower costs in FY19.
“If we could get to 2.5 cents, it would be great,” said Allen, before pointing out that sidewalks need repair and that the potholes in town were some of the worst he has seen in some time. “I saw four people pulled over with blown tires on Western Ave.”
Elwell wanted to remind the board that the decision to buy a new sidewalk snow plow would be put before representatives, but until they decide to buy one, it is not in the budget. If added it could add another 1.25 cents to the property tax rate.
“I’m glad it is a separate question, “said Allen.
O’Connor agreed with Schoales that 3.6 cents was the way to go. “A little can be a lot for people,” she said, adding that the psychological impact of a lower number could help convince people to move here.
The board voted 4-1 to adopt the third option, of 3.6 cent property tax increase and $770,000 use of the fund balance. Brattleboro’s reserve would be at 9.6%. A $175,000 property would see an increase of $63 annually.
Wessel voted no.
Town Meeting Warnings
With the budget work behind them, the Brattleboro Selectboard was able to take a look at draft warnings for Brattleboro’s town meetings. Kate O’Connor read through the draft, summarizing each one and asking for feedback.
For March 6, all voters will be asked to consider an advisory resolution to prod the state into making more progress toward renewable energy. It asks Vermont to halt investment in fossil fuel infrastructure, and suggests the Town also work on energy-related matters including many already underway in Brattleboro.
For March 26, Town Meeting Representatives will get to decide if Brattleboro should have a new aerial ladder truck for the fire department, and whether we should borrow money to pay for it.
Fire Chief Bucossi asked why representatives would vote on the truck if it was already in the budget, since Representative Town Meeting cannot alter line items. Elwell explained that any borrowing for longer than five years requires a vote. “They must.”
Representatives can also decide on the donation to the skatepark, purchase of an excavator, repairing the Gibson-Aiken roof, repairs at Harris Place, a donation to Green Up Vermont, a donation to Southern Vermont Watershed Alliance, funds for Brattleboro Sustainable Energy Coalition, purchase of a sidewalk plow, a contribution to SeVEDS, and of course, the FY19 budget.
No one had any major concerns, and the warnings were allowed to be finalized for approval.
Final Action on Budget and Warnings
There will be another special meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard on Tuesday, January 30, to approve the final warnings.