The Brattleboro Selectboard held a special meeting Tuesday to make some final decisions regarding the FY19 budget. Vice-Chair Brandie Starr led the meeting in Kate O’Connor’s absence.
Over the course of several recent meetings, the board has added, subtracted, increased and decreased various budget items for a total FY19 budget of $14,653,643, or $57,795 more than what was initially presented to them. As it stands, this would require a 3.16% increase (3.92 cents) in the property tax rate, and assumes a use of $770,000 from the unassigned General Fund balance for capital expenses (the ladder truck, paving, sidewalk repair, skating rink energy savings, roofing for Gibson-Aiken, computers, and replacement vehicles and trucks.)
The Downtown Improvement District tax will increase to pay for the Downtown Business Alliance budget of $78,000. This restores the DBA to prior levels, but is only assessed on downtown improvement district property owners.
Town Manager Peter Elwell helped the board through the remaining unfinished items. He first reviewed the decision of last week’s meeting to make sure he had it right. The board agreed that they added $26,000 for human services, will give $300 to Green Up day and $1000 to SeWVA but warn them as distinct Representative Town Meeting articles, and will contribute $20,000 to the skatepark as part of the capital program and paid with the fund balance.
Before getting down to town business, John Allen asked if anyone knew what the school tax rate would be. Most agreed it would be going up, but no one knew for sure.
Two items, the downtown lighting improvements and the day work jobs program, were taken out of consideration for the FY19 budget. Brattleboro will continue to work on these initiatives, but the information for making specific budget decisions isn’t ready.
The board took up discussion of a Fire Department Aerial Ladder Truck at a cost of $950,000. Elwell had proposed that the board borrow $500,000 and use $450,000 from the General Fund, and the existing budget had it already figured in. He also gave the board a number of other scenarios and options for purchasing.
Fire Chief Mike Bucossi was joined by Assistant Chief Len Howard III to aid in the discussion. Bucossi said the current, used truck dates from 1994, and he didn’t know how long it would last or how well it was taken care of by previous owners. He told the board it was important to stick to the replacement schedule, so that other items in the coming years won’t get pushed back. “We have an engine due for replacement on the heels of this ladder truck,” he said. “I don’t want to have to replace both at the same time.”
Elwell added that postponing a big purchase would also have a cascading effect on other departments. “Pushing this off means putting off other equipment.”
John Allen said that while he had been dead set against the truck purchase, he felt it should be approved for Representative Town Meeting representatives to discuss. “Let them be the good or bad guy.” He said 3.92 cents was a “big nut to crack” for some people.
Brandie Starr agreed. “We can make a recommendation. It’s our job.”
“I wish there was a full town meeting like a lot of places have,” said Allen. “I love Representative Town Meeting but it doesn’t always represent all of town.”
David Schoales felt the truck could be paid for, but that the 3.92 cents “is still a problem.” He said it was the largest increase he could recall in four years.
Tim Wessel had questions about the used ladder truck currently in use. He said he saw them testing it and asked if, at the moment, the truck was fully functional.
Bucossi said the ladder was working properly, but it isn’t what they’d buy new. “It’s not built for this town.” He explained that the old ladder truck had a water tank and pump on it, so the truck could be used as a backup engine. The new one, he said, could be used for rescue work, “strictly for the ladder.”
Wessel said they knew this when they recommended the used truck a few months ago. He asked if mutual aid could assist as backup engines, rather than the ladder truck.
The Chief was doubtful. He didn’t want it to become habit to borrow other town’s vehicles, and reminded the board that other departments are all volunteer, and can take a while to get to the scene of a fire. He said it was important for the ladder truck to get to the front of a building first, and one arriving via mutual aid would be positioned too far to be of much use.
“So we’re currently safe,” said Wessel. He said that Brattleboro can’t buy top-of-the-line every time a department needs the best, and there was a need to be frugal.
Elwell said they had already put the purchase off a year, and would be trying again to get a grant to pay for part of the cost.
Starr and Wessel both noted, too, that after approving the truck purchase, there would be at least a year before it would be finished and delivered. Starr felt the long lag time was a good reason to move it forward to Representative Town Meeting sooner rather than later.
Wessel said he liked the idea of putting the purchase off a year, but setting aside $300,000 this year to help pay for it.
Allen said he was more worried about the 3.92 cents. “How do we lower that? We’re not biting off anything to get to 2.5 cents,” a level he said was acceptable.
The decision was put on hold until Steve Barrett, Director of Public Works weighed in on the sidewalk plow.
The second sidewalk plow, at $140,000 plus $10,000 for labor to operate it, was an item being considered due to citizen requests. The Town Manager recommended against buying both the sidewalk plow and the fire truck using the fund balance, as it would take it too far below the 10% recommended rainy day reserve.
With that introduction, Barrett told the board he didn’t put the sidewalk plow in the budget, but was interested in the request that it be added. He said the fire truck should take precedence, but said a second plow would improve the time it took to plow sidewalks, possibly within 24 hours on all routes. Extra staff, he said, would help. “We only have so many people.”
Elwell then suggested another option. “One potential would be to borrow more for the truck,” he said. “That means we are borrowing to buy the sidewalk plow. He said it wouldn’t increase the FY19 tax rate, but would add an additional $15,000 of debt each year for ten years to pay for it.
Starr and Allen said they had heard more comments from the public about the sidewalk plow than the fire truck.
Wessel asked why the Town Manager was comfortable dipping below the 10% recommended reserve for the fire truck to 9.6% reserved, but not to 8.8% to add in the sidewalk plow. Elwell said it was better than where they had started (9.4% reserve recommended,) and if we went to 8.8% “how low do you go?”
David Schoales felt the sidewalk plow was a perfect reason to use the fund balance.
Franz Reichsman said that after attending recent school board meetings he felt “a storm might be brewing” over large increases in taxes from multiple branches of government. He said there was a different feeling this year than the last couple of years.
Allen said it was for that reason they should tap the fund balance. “We have the money.”
Wessel said he disagreed “but I’m not sure how.” He suggested that since citizens are requesting a change in an ongoing service, it should be funded with taxpayer dollars. He said it was an argument against using the fund balance.
“Sometimes what people want supersedes what we can afford,” said Allen.
Elwell suggested they put the sidewalk plow question to Representative Town meeting representatives, and let them decide. He liked the idea of paying for it directly via taxes if they were to go ahead with the fire truck purchase.
Allen said that when he was first on the board, they put overtaxation above all else. “We didn’t do dump trucks,” he explained. After many years, he said, he could see that that approach didn’t work.
Elwell pointed out that for the first time in many years, services were being added. “Town government is going to do more.” He admitted their timing might be off, though. “The state is sending punishing news to the schools” this year regarding tax increases.
The board had enough information and decided to vote. The approved motions to have a unique warning for the purchase of the sidewalk plow using tax funds (keeping it out of the budget until representatives choose to add it or not) and to purchase the ladder truck, as presented in the budget. Wessel was the lone vote against the fire truck purchase.
SeVEDS requests $3 per resident, or $36,147, from Program Income. Since 2013, Brattleboro has given SeVEDS $147,647, and has provided loans to local businesses totaling $854,000. The board was torn on how much to reduce the grant to the organization.
Schoales suggested $1 per person. Allen agreed. Starr and Wessel were inclined to go with $2 per person. Elwell said they could wait and decide later. No one wanted to wait. They decided that $24,000, or about $2 per person, was the right amount.
More budget meetings will follow, but the to-do list is shrinking.
Before adjourning, David Schoales and Franz Reichsman filled in some details about rising school taxes.
Schoales said the elementary school rate had been set at $1.62, and that the High School budget gets added to that figure.
“The State Treasurer sent a letter anticipating the tax rate to be 9 cents higher,” he said. “It’s hard to know what will happen.” He said the cost per pupil is high, too, to pay for everything we all insist on.
Reichsman said the key driver of the school tax is the number of equalized students, which is based on the number of students plus adjustments for poverty, preschoolers, and so on. He said the high school saw a reduction in students – 72 “phantom students” (kids who leave the system) and 120 from Vernon. The phantom student drop has a significant effect on funding, he explained.
At last night’s school board meeting, he continued, the community didn’t like the cuts being made and asked that the diversity coordinator position and a school program be added back. Adding them back, though, could cause the state to add a penalty amount to the tax rate.
The high school board will have a special budget meeting Wednesday at 2pm to discuss it further and vote on a final budget.
“Good update,” said Starr.
“Not positive, but good,” said Allen.