Of course I have been reading the latest opinion letters about Brattleboro finances and taxes. I agree there is a fair bit of sentiment being expressed about this issue, with most of it against higher property taxes.
There is, however, another side of the story. The major reason for tax increases coming over the next two years is that Representative Town Meeting approved the bonding of the Police & Fire Station improvements, which bonds may reach about $14.1 Million. The full weight of this bonding will be phased into our tax rates over two years' time, because of the Selectboard's decision to apply for the bonds in two stages: $5 Million initially to fund the planning phases of the project, and the rest the following year.
I'd like to point out that in voting at our special Representative Town Meeting session held a little over a year ago, we rejected the idea of a local-option sales tax by a 5-1 margin, and approved the Police-Fire bonding by fully a 3-1 vote. Given these overwhelmingly persuasive margins of approval by Brattleboro's democratically-elected local representatives, I do not think that if the same votes were held either today or at our next Representative Town Meeting in March, either of these results would be likely to be reversed.
But the question is academic, because those votes were held, those decisions were taken, and the Town government committed itself in doing so to proceeding with a project that stood to raise our tax base substantially.
I have served on Representative Town Meeting's Finance Committee since early 2011. Naturally we studied the Police-Fire proposals ad nauseam, and in the end I personally was persuaded that the Municipality had done due diligence, that the Police-Fire improvements were necessary, and that it was in the Town's best interest for the project to proceed, particularly on public safety grounds. This is why I strongly support the project, and believe that since these votes were taken, the best opportunity for local residents to influence the project's results and expenses is to attend meetings of the Project's oversight committee and argue for whatever economies can be realized. It is important that the Oversight committee's members understand that there is substantial public concern about expenses, and if they do, they will make sure that the Project proceeds in accordance with the best and most efficient possible management practices.
That said, I do believe that seeing the impact of this project on our tax base raises an important question; one that we on the Finance Committee, and in particular our Chair, Spoon Agave, have raised many times, and that is the necessity of budgeting for the longer term, and in particular for the rational and careful phasing-in of the Town's plans for major capital improvements, which usually must be bonded (financed over time). The best way to prevent major bumps-up in the tax rate is to try to even such expenses out over time, so that the public is not paying for too many expensive projects at once.
There is one more observation that can be inferred, but we cannot be sure that it is valid without evidence: the idea that all the departments of the Town are well-managed and economically efficient could be called into question when the Town's expenses have gradually but substantially grown over time. In a town with very little if any population growth, this steady increase in the funding of public services and education raises the question whether or not part of the increases in our Town budgets is due to mere 'momentum' or because our Town government's level of management efficiencies and/or best practices has failed to rein in costs.
It is more our observation in the Finance Committee that we are seeing these increases because certain cost increases are unavoidable: health insurance, fuels, electricity, etc. There's also the common-sense observation that with the larger economy hitting people's pocketbooks pretty hard 'across the board' these days, we're going to see some steady increases in the Town's budgets no matter what. Yet there are still questions that could be raised about the levels of staffing in the Town's departments and in the schools, and of the impact on local taxpayers.
So I have proposed to the Finance Committee and the Interim Town Manager that we in Brattleboro commission an expert study or studies by one or more third parties, in the nature of Management and/or Performance Audits, which would let us have some new vantage points and perspectives to the effect that we, the taxpayers, are getting what we are paying for, and that our funds are not being used for unnecessary expenses or to underwrite any inefficiencies or faulty management or administration in the Town. I just think that possibility ought to be taken out of the equation, so that we can make the best and most rational budgetary decisions, and that this is an excellent time to do it because there is an 'inter-regnum' (time between administrations) and when we do hire a new Town Manager, that person has a presumptive right to start here with a 'clean slate'.
We in the Finance Committee have lots and lots of spreadsheets and numbers to look at, but our opportunity to evaulate or second-guess key management and administrative decisions is poor. We have to rely on Town Managers and department heads when they come to speak with us and tell us that everything is on the up-and-up, and money is only spent on what is absolutely necessary. For instance, we were all gratified to hear such representations by the most recent Town Manager, Barbara Sontag, who said she let each and every department head know her expectations by demanding from them such reassurances. Still, having management/performance evaluations by neutral third parties is a good idea once in awhile (the last one was at least a decade ago), and right now might bring some substantial results in budget reductions and/or prevent any unnecessary expenses or increases.
Thanks for reading this! Please let me know what you think. I'll be sharing these thoughts in today's Finance Committee meeting.
John Wilmerding, MBA
Member, Town of Brattleboro Finance Committee