Brattleboro Budget Process – A Look Back 20 Years

The Brattleboro Selectboard has begun budget season. It’s the time of year when citizens should speak up if they want something funded or defunded. 

It’s also the time of year Representative Town Meeting Reps should be paying close attention, attending meetings, asking questions, and sharing information they learn with those they represent.

It’s quite easy to do nowadays, but wasn’t always this way. The current board likes to mention that they have traditions and that things are done a certain way, but that’s only been the last few years.

Twenty or so years ago, Brattleboro’s finances were – let’s be generous – quaint. The small town had grown under Town Manager Jerry Remillard, bubbling along fairly well but times had changed. Brattleboro hadn’t kept up with accounting. Checks and balances weren’t in place.  Some might recall the meeting where it was revealed that Brattleboro was basically overdrawn, and hadn’t been balancing it’s internal checkbook. Ooops.

This led to a change in management, and a new finance director.  Things were a mess, and expenses were piling up.  Selectboard members and staff spent many painful meetings discussing cuts and looking for places to trim things away. Most attempts to add something to the budget failed. Attempts to reduce the tax rate also failed. A common refrain from then Town Manager Barb Sondag at that point, if anyone wanted to do anything, was some form of “well, what services would you like to cut?”  which equated roughly to a threat about either the Library or Recreation & Parks, which shut things down. This was usually followed by some agitated clicking of her ballpoint pen.

Budget meetings, not so long ago, were scheduled for early mornings on off days. They was no BCTV coverage of these meetings, and little reporting on them. To report on these special meetings meant getting up at 7 am on a Saturday, or something similar.  We complained often here that these very important meetings were almost held in secret.

When David Gartenstein became Chair, he did the work to make budget meetings more open to all by scheduling them on the alternating Tuesday evenings.  It became much easier to cover the meetings, and everyone was treated to a close look at the process. He also began the habit of asking for public comment on every item, which previous boards did not do.

While things were much more open to the public, and departmental budgets were trimmed of all fat, capital expenses remained a problem.  Brattleboro had no savings account to dip into for big expenses, which led to all sorts of purchases being made with loans and bonds. They all came with interest payments, which made everything more expensive.  Poor people’s tax, as some know it.

Enter Town Manager Peter Elwell.  During his tenure, Brattleboro’s long term planning and spending has been brought under further control.  Money is put aside, rather than borrowed, for most purchases.  A schedule of known future replacements and repairs was developed.  Interest payments began to go away. More grants were applied for and obtained. All Local Option Sales Taxes has been imposed. Brattleboro has had more money in its pocket recently.  Funds for future projects have been able to be added into the mix.

The current board enjoys a luxury that many previous boards have not – a solid financial position with a long term plan allows the board to look at things beyond plugging budget holes and fixing financial controls.  The idea of starting a new fund for climate or safety, or increase budgets for paving, would have been impossible for boards not-so-long-ago to comprehend. It was almost always an emergency for them.

Our newest Town Manager, Yoshi Manale, will inherit a very solid base to build upon.  Long term plans are in place, schedules are being followed, local option taxes are established, a new cannabis tax is likely to send even more money into town coffers, interest payments have been going away, and Town staff has been brought along with better training and compensation.  Much of the work of the last 20 years is now internalized.

Work still remains on the Representative Town Meeting front.  Only a handful of RTM reps ever appear to be actively interested in budget season, and their lack of representation means many in the general public are less involved. This lack of connection to local government has come up in comments throughout the Community Safety Review process. 

Each district should have reps attending budget meetings and reporting back to their districts. They should be advocating for their neighborhoods at these meetings.  A reminder, too, that Representatives could create the budget, not just approve one suggested by Town staff or elected board members. Just a little Charter tweaking… : )

One final thought – budget season is a the best time to pay close attention to the Selectboard meetings if you are new to town. An overview of the budget is presented. Each department is scheduled to come and discuss what their plans are for the next year. Board members and members of the public suggest changes. There are discussions of the special funds and utilities. It’s a wealth of useful information and teaches you how Brattleboro operates.  Much of these meetings is descriptive of the department, explaining what it does, who is employed, and everyday work loads. A great basic civic education.

Of course, after going through the process many, many times, I’m a bit bored by the repetition and have stopped writing up the special budget meetings. (I could probably do the departmental reports by heart…) The starting numbers and the final numbers are interesting to me, so I leave it to interested Reps to report to all of us the other new details of the coming fiscal year.

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