The Brattleboro Selectboard officially kicked off FY20 budget season at a meeting Tuesday night, in which they learned about the Police and Fire departments and where the Town expects to find revenue to pay for the budget.
It’s nice that the Selectboard reviews these matters, but this is really about you — the Brattleboro resident or visitor.
Let’s work our way backwards. The Town budget process is about your money.
If you own a home or rent an apartment in Brattleboro, you are very likely paying property taxes and utility fees. The property taxes are for choosing to live in Brattleboro and the utility fees are are for water and sewer if you use them. You might also buy trash bags, or pay fees to participate in recreational activities sponsored by the Town.
Visitors to town might be paying a tax on the hotel/AirBnB they stay at.
Locals and visitors alike might put some money into parking meters, or go out to eat.
All of this (and a bit more, such as fines and fees) counts as revenue for the Town of Brattleboro. The amount you and your neighbors contribute, ideally, covers the town’s cost of doing business.
Each year, what you pay gets recalculated, and that new rate goes into effect at the beginning of the fiscal (financial) year in July.
The people who approve and set this amount are Town Meeting Representatives. They meet in March to approve, reject, or alter the budget that has been suggested to them by the Selectboard.
They have been known to make some changes, and sometimes there are options presented to allow some flexibility, but generally this is a poor time for anyone to have a new request. Save it for next year unless it is an emergency.
From the start of budget season until the Brattleboro Selectboard approves the budget in late January is THE TIME to make your wishes known to the board. This is where the selectboard has the power to make substantive changes. Want more bike lanes? Want to see substantial fees for tree removal permits? Want salaries to change? This is the time to express your feelings to the board.
Budget season is also a great time to learn how the Town of Brattleboro works. To help the board, each department comes to a meeting and explains who they are and what they do. They talk about their programs, number of staff, and ideas they have for improvements or changes.
If you are new to town, watch or attend these meetings. It’s a two and half month crash course in town operations.
If you are or plan to become a Town Meeting Representative, it’s almost your duty to watch or attend these meetings so that you will be fully informed. (It should be mandatory, but that’s another Charter change.) This is the time where the budget is shaped and formed before the approval processes kick in. A Town Meeting Representative would be wise to participate throughout the budget process, as this is where EVERYTHING the Town does is discussed, and the representative would then be fully informed to speak with their constituents — the people they represent.
And if you live in Brattleboro, this is the time to pay close attention and remind the board of your personal priorities. Are high taxes crushing you? Now is the time to bring it up. This is where you can influence how much your share will cost next year. Do you think Brattleboro is slumming and needs to spend more? Go argue for higher revenue… right now.
Have I stressed enough how important it is to participate right now?
Let’s go back a bit further, though. Budget season really begins before budget season, around Labor Day. Town staff begins to prepare a draft budget for the Selectboard. Each of the department heads makes a plan for their department, and these calculations get compiled and balanced, with the Town Manager and Assistant Town Manager steering the process.
No one is winging it. There is a Long Term Financial Plan that gets reviewed before budget season as well as a Comprehensive Review of Town Operations. These documents guide decisions for years to come.
Some of what you will be paying has been determined earlier in the year, as some other town budgets (enterprise funds – their own little units that in theory pay for themselves) are set prior to budget season. Utility rates, parking, and waste removal are three areas outside of the general operating budget and sometimes set in the spring or summer. (You still pay for these services, so if you want to sway the board on these rates, look for them on the agenda earlier in the year.)
To review, utility rates are set at a different time of year. There is the Long Term Financial Plan and Comprehensive Review of Town Operations that guide decisions by the Town Manager and town staff as they prepare a draft budget. The draft budget is a suggestion, a rough guess, the hopes and dreams of town employees, and a list of what they think the public wants and will allow.
The selectboard, elected by the public, takes this draft and reviews it carefully in open meetings that you can attend and weigh in on. They hear from each department head, and can ask questions or make suggestions just like you.
They do this from early November through late January. If the public is silent, the board will generally assume they did the best they could do, and will approve the budget for presentation at Representative Town Meeting.
The public and Representatives are given ample time to discuss the budget prior to Representative Town Meeting. If constituents are silent, the Representative generally assumes that the budget is pretty good and often votes to approve it as is.
The best time for the general public to have an influence over the budget is during budget season, or before. The most difficult time is after it has been approved and sent to Representative Town Meeting.
Want to get smart? All the topic secret (meaning, of course, fully-available) information that the Selectboard receives for budget season is available to you, free of charge, on the Town’s website.
Lazy, too? We’ve added those documents as attachments to this article.
Pop quiz: When is the best time for the general public to have a say in the budget process?