I think everyone, including the Select and School Boards, recognizes that Brattleboro has a major property tax problem coupled with an imminent economic crisis. I think the Town needs to take aggressive steps toward a functional solution.
As the former head of the BUHS Board and its Finance Committee for 10 years, I/we faced a budget crisis every year. We recognized that there was an advocate for every budget dollar – and then some. I remember the public debate, scrutiny and pain we faced when we cut programs or tried to implement cost savings through change. We can no longer afford this brutal, slow process.
As residents who essentially volunteer (despite small stipends),to serve a Board position is a perilous existence fraught with personal risk. Attempting to hold the advocates at bay, or worse, eliminating programs/services entirely, risks scorn, condemnation, and often results in personal attacks using scorched earth tactics. While your supporters may confide in you, they will not raise their voice for fear of being picked off/on themselves. Your detractors, on the other hand, will use whatever it takes to protect their interest. This makes it very, very difficult to propose significant or meaningful change. The bigger the change, the more detractors you attract. Nevertheless, it is exactly what Brattleboro desperately needs to pursue. Cutting an item here or there is not the solution and the energy spent working on small savings is not going to be rewarded with significant impact. Change needs to be large, radical and forward thinking.
As a former leader of a large budget Board, we had some radical ideas but we were afraid to propose them. It was not worth the personal risk. I think this issue still exists within the Select Board and in the School Boards. I sincerely believe that Board Members mean well – I certainly felt we did during my time. Now, as an outsider, with a home in town but living in another State and somewhat immune from public persecution, I feel it is time to put some ‘big picture’ ideas on the table to get the dialogue going. So…..
1. Eliminate the Select Board and Town Meeting representative structure and elect a mayor – accountable to all the people. This will change management from a part time passion to a full time job with the power to execute strategy. Someone needs to put this in writing and get it on a ballot.
2. Combine police and fire resources with multiple communities and yes, eliminate the paid fire department and shut the West Brattleboro station. I serve in a community three times the population and geographic size - and it has an all-volunteer single station force. What does Bennington know that Brattleboro does not? In exchange, consider a paid call model. Annual savings will be over $2 million (fully loaded salaries/benefits, etc.).
3. Cancel the new police/fire facility and return the bond funds. Since interest rates are now higher, there is no financial consequence (by law you cannot make money doing this). The Town simply cannot afford this luxury until the economic picture changes.
4. Eliminate non-essential services from the Town Budget, this would include the >$100K spent on ‘Human Services’ which is charity.
5. Investigate long term leasing Brattleboro’s public water system to an outside corporation.
6. Investigate the same long -term leasing model for the sewage system. Lease a connection, if the capacity exists, to Walmart to generate revenue.
7. Investigate leasing/re-opening the waste to energy facility at the Town Dump and turn its energy production into a revenue generator for the Town.
8. Investigate how much money the Town actually nets from its parking meter/meter-maid system and the related costs of servicing it. A free system will attract more downtown tourist interest. I have always questioned whether the revenue generated offsets the fully loaded operating expenses. Alternatively, sell or lease the parking garage.
9. Start charging ALL non-profit Corporation landowners property taxes. Charge all non-profits operating out of any Town property rent.
10. Look at combining Town services into a South Eastern VT Association, much like a county government, thus eliminating the town silo’s that currently exist for the same services. And elect an official to run it so there is fiscal accountability. Combining the purchasing needs of the ‘association’ will save money – think salt/sand, fuel and supplies. Coordinating resources will eliminate duplicate services – like the current situation where every town has its own municipal truck fleet, fire station, tax collection staff, etc. , etc., etc. Think of the Rescue Inc. model, it has problems, but it functions.
11. Speaking of Emergency Services, I believe the Town has a duty to put this and any other contracts like it, out to bid. You may be surprised that the large subsidy will disappear.
12. Consolidate all the regional middle schools into the BUHS complex – depending on the availability of space.
13. Look at consolidating elementary schools – even across town lines, eliminating redundant administration and gaining efficiency.
14. Think capitalistically and competitively with regard to the commercial market.
a. Consider tax abatements for new businesses that want to move into Town, especially those that lease vacant buildings.
b. Offer tax incentives for employers that increase employees. Everyone is doing it down here and it is a huge success.
c. Consider establishing a Cooperative Buying entity that pools buying by small businesses and benefits from volume purchasing – analogous to the regional association proposed above. PA has the ‘CoStars program’ that is hugely popular.
15. Here is a wild thought. Tourists are the Towns best revenue opportunity yet the town’s best asset, the Connecticut River, is hidden from view downtown. Consider building a huge platform deck extending over the railroad tracks from the back of the retail stores on Main St., accessible through the River Garden. Lease space to cart vendors during the summer. And why not create a river walk.
16. Along the same lines, create more Strolling of the Heifer’s type events. Do a reenactment, etc.
17. Resurrect pay as you throw trash collection. It is realistic to charge for services when used.
18. Forget hiring a consultant(s), it is a waste the money. Ideas should come from within the elected officials who need to propose them, own them and make the tough decisions.
Radical, you bet. Realistic? Some probably, others maybe not. The real courage will be to do the analysis, start public debate and then decide what is in EVERYONES best interest. Many sacred cows will be gored and the facilitators (since they lack true power) will be challenged to face the wrath of those affected. It needs to be done if there is going to be true relief that makes housing (with taxes) affordable again and the region, in turn, more attractive to business.