The Brattleboro Selectboard announced their nearly-final budget numbers for FY15. It will cost $16,306,285 to run the town, an increase of about 8.7 cents for taxpayers. Everything was trimmed, but nothing substantial was cut or reduced. As one member said, the can was kicked down the road.
In the good news category, a unique public-private partnership has been formed to save the town large sums of money. Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, SIT, and Harris Hill have offered to help the town relocate communications towers off of Wantastiquet by providing towering locations in town.
The topic of energy audits returned, a plan for a $50,000 energy audit fund was proposed, and a 16 year old asked the board for the right to vote. All this and more below.
Chair David Gartenstein kicked off the first regular Selectboard meeting of 2014 with a warning to drive with caution. “Driving conditions have been terrible. Drive slowly and carefully.”
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland agreed, and added that pedestrians should wear bright or reflective clothing.
He also said he was aware of the stretch of road along Western Avenue between I-91 and Edward Heights in West Brattleboro. “It’s in rough shape, we know that. It has frequent potholes.” He said they can do temporary fixes in the winter, but that the patches don’t last long. Compounding the problem is an issue of “concurrent responsibility and jurisdiction,” a fancy way of saying the state paves the road and the town fixes holes. Moreland said he’d be encouraging them to pave sooner rather than later.
John Allen said he missed the last Police Fire Facility Project meeting. Moreland said no decisions were made. He said they discussed potential energy saving opportunities and some minor updates from the project manager.
Bill Dion said he was both concerned about tax increases and the bus schedule. “I have words to say but not here.” He said the busses go in odd places, such from Price Chopper to Guilford, then out Western Ave.
A young woman named Roxanna gave the board members a handout of a resolution she hoped they would put before voters. She said she works at a few jobs in town, is taxed at each of them in her paycheck, “but I’m not allowed to vote. I’m 16.”
She told the board that she and a group called Brattleboro Common Sense had drafted a resolution with the help of Paul Gillies. The resolution stated that voters shall mean all persons who reach the age of 16 and have taken the Voters Oath. “I request that the Selectboard put this on the ballot for a public vote.”
It appeared that the board was somewhat taken off guard by this. “I wonder if we can?” said John Allen.
David Gartenstein said they would look at the process for Charter revisions and said someone would be back in contact with her about the process. The deadline for the Selectboard to place items on this year’s town meeting agenda is January 29 at 5 p.m.
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved a first class liquor license for The Blue Moose Tuesday evening.
Readers may recall the restaurant receiving a liquor license not long ago. This new license is due to a change of venue. The Blue Moose cafe is moving to 139 Main Street, the location of Brattleboro Cheese.
Paul Faust will be opening a new location for the Blue Moose merchandise in a portion of the former Adavasi store on Flat Street.
Old Business - Energy Audits of Municipal Buildings
At the December 3rd meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard, David Schoales made a motion to spend up to $3,400 on energy audits for municipal buildings. The money, he proposed, would come from money not currently being spent on a Town Manager position.
The matter was tabled pending some research into availability of funding the energy audits in this manner.
The audits would be performed on the library, Gibson-Aiken Center, public works garage, skating rink, and water treatment plant.
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland did the research with John O’Connor and reported a list of budget adjustments that could be interpreted as savings, but cautioned that there could always be a need for unforeseen expenses. He said they both think it is too early to project a surplus.
He said former Town Manager Barb Sondag’s departure results in $30,000 not spent, liability coverage restructuring reduces costs by $60,000, and new streetlights will reduce costs by $50,000.
Moreland said tax revenue and income from ordinances will be lower than expected, however, and another storm or emergency could occur.
David Gartenstein said he had thought the estimates to be quite low, and the audits didn’t seem to be part of a long term plan. He had other questions as well. “I sent an email to the town energy coordinator to verify the amount of savings we’ve actually experienced from the work we’ve done. I want to be sure that when we float numbers they come from careful analysis of temperature and weather conditions.”
He seemed to be knocking the plan down, but offered up an alternative approach by suggesting a $50,000 fund be started to begin “doing and planning the work in the right way. It would be a really good thing in the public interest. I want a well thought-out, long-term plan to save money. A meaningful fund.” Gartenstein suggested retasking agricultural loan funds to cover the cost, and said he’d bring it up as a motion at the next meeting.
John Allen said he wanted to “spend our money logically” during the budget crunch, and questioned what energy audits could accomplish.
Donna Macomber said it was a choice between “immediate needs versus systemic changes to relieve budget burdens.”
“I don’t see how it can be done before Town Meeting,” said Allen.
David Schoales said they were already requesting the agricultural loan funds be used to relieve taxes. He wondered if there would be two articles for Town Meeting Representatives to choose between.
Gartenstein said he’d find out if we the board could revisit the motion due to changing priorities.
“I’d rather do something thoughtfully and right, and put adequate resources behind it,” said Kate O’Connor. “If we don’t do it right, we’ll end up doing it again.”
“Too bad you can’t consolidate everything,” said Bill Dion. “Are there no chances for changes in the Police Fire plan? You are scraping the barrel to try to do things. I know this isn’t the best location for the Police, and energy audit sounds good, but I don’t know if I trust what you are saying. I’m troubled by it.”
Chair of the Energy Committee Lester Humphreys said he supported the idea of a well-thought out plan and time to find out the costs of doing it right. He said the potential for savings was still there. “The right way to do this is to put aside some money to do it right over time, but put aside that money now.” He said a more accurate number for doing an energy audit of just the Municipal Center would be close to $3,400.
“I applaud the energy committee’s work with the solar farm,” said Tim M. “I think spending the $3,400 would be a first step in legitimizing an argument for the $50,000. I pay way too many taxes. I want them to be well spent. $3400 would be the seed money.”
Kurt Daims, sporting a coat and hat, said “we could save money by turning the thermostat down. It’s warm in here. We can keep things simple and gain a lot. It begins with conservation.”
Paul Cameron also supported putting up the funds for energy audits, adding that Wilmington had done it successfully. He told the board “the sooner we do it, the sooner we can save money.”
Kim Smith of the Windham Regional Commission’s energy committee agreed that being thoughtful and doing it well was good. She said the average return on investment for recent improvements in Windham County for similar projects was about 14% with a seven year payback. She reminded them that their energy audit will help the board prioritize projects.
Chad Simmons agreed with everything everyone said.
Tad Montgomery praised Gartenstein for questioning the cost of the audits. He said the proposed $50,000 fund was the best news for the energy committee he’d heard in a number of years, and it sounded forward-looking. He suggested that doing an energy audit of the Municipal Center now might help with the Police Fire renovations.
John Allen asked about the extent of the Honeywell project audit. Gartenstein said the town still pays $144,000 a year for the project and a service contract, and would continue paying through 2021. he said the town was starting to see some net energy savings.
“I don’t see where we’ve reaped any rewards from Honeywell,” said Allen. “It’s still dysfunctional. I don’t want to just throw money out there.” Gartenstein repeated that the town was in the net energy savings part of the contract.
Humphreys said the Honeywell work would provide a starting point for any new audit.
David Schoales said the first step was getting audits, and “we can get estimates for the buildings at no cost at all. Estimates are free.” With estimates in hand, the board could then decide how to proceed.
Schoales expressed concern that the proposal for a fund was different than funding it. He suggested applying the $50,000 in savings from new streetlights to create the fund, and made a motion to get estimates of the cost of energy audits for the considered list of municipal buildings.
Gartenstein said the current budget already uses the streetlight savings and he wasn’t prepared to change it. He added that he had a concern about the staff time and money required to assist with these audits.
“My goal is to lower property taxes in town, looking at every nickel and trying to give it back to homeowners,” said John Allen. “I know in the long run energy savings help, but I’m looking at this year. $50,000 is half a percent and I’m going for that. I understand the other side, but...”
Donna Macomber said she liked the idea of applying streetlight savings to the new fund for energy audits. “The rubber has to hit the road and reinvest in future savings. We can’t put off the problem. I can’t see any reason to delay money for audits. We all feel climate change happening. There is a direct link between preparedness and how we spend our money.”
“Two points,” interjected Moreland. The first was a reminder that they were only halfway through the year, and talk of a surplus was premature.
The second point was that he had been working with Bob Rueter, vice chair of the Energy Committee, on a plan for the Municipal Center along with an estimate of what the costs would be.
Kate O’Connor said she was fine with the new motion, but not ready to figure out where $50,000 will come from. “I am sitting with coat and scarf because it is freezing,” she said, “so that means we need to do it right. Finding out the true costs for this building is important. We’re sitting here freezing, so we have to do something.”
Moreland suggested coming back to the board with a proposed scope of work for the Municipal Center, and after the requirements for the firm are agreed upon.
The board agreed that the motion could be vague enough to accommodate current plans already underway, and went ahead with requesting estimates of the costs of energy audits for the previously mentioned buildings and the Municipal Center.
Relocating Communications Towers
Back in September the Brattleboro Selectboard learned that the cost of renting space on Wantastiquet for police and fire communications was going to jump from $10 a year to $12,000 a year, with annual increases for the five year lease. There would also be costs for power and maintenance.
This led the town on a search for alternatives, and three good candidates have volunteered space: Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, SIT, and Harris Hill.
BMH would allow the equipment to be placed on their smoke stack, which works perfectly for the fire department’s needs.
The police department uses different equipment, and tests showed that the BMH site wouldn’t work for them. The police have recently applied for a grant to upgrade their radios and, if approved, the new equipment will work at the hospital location.
If they fail to get the grant for equipment upgrades, the Harris Hill location will be used and equipment will be placed near the top of the jump in exchange for helping with the annual ski jump event.
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland asked the board for $57,500 in surplus funds to relocate the equipment off of the mountain, and that a Town Meeting Article be added for Town Meeting Representatives to vote on to approve the spending from the unassigned fund balance if the surplus doesn’t cover the total cost.
He said it would be a one time expense to save Brattleboro money over time. Beliveau Communications would do the work.
Chief Buccossi of the Fire Department praised the work of Joe Newton and Bruce Beliveau in evaluating sites and options. He noted that in addition to the rent costs, the town would have no future costs of repair power lines to the tower on the mountain, or trimming the trees along the way. There will be $16,000 of savings with payback in four years, he told the board.
Moreland said it was a much better long-term plan.
Bruce Beliveau said the costs of repairing a power line on the mountain would be significant, so it is good to avoid those future costs. “It’s hard to get up there in bad weather.”
“Up there is a lose-lose situation,” said Newton. “Getting it to a more reliable location is better for us. If police get the grant, both systems will work together which will save more money. Harris Hill is a good backup location.”
Police Chief Wrinn said he hoped to hear about the radio grant in the near future.
Gartenstein felt this was an effective long-term solution. After a bit of explaining the two motions before them (the first to do the work, the second to ask Town Meeting Representatives for money if extra funds are required), both motions were approved.
Connecticut River Transit Board Representative
Perhaps it was the holidays. No one applied to become the representative to the Connecticut River Transit board.
Other committee vacancies are awaiting your application as well.
Technical Rescue Grant
Brattleboro accepted and appropriated a grant for the Fire Department in the amount of $30,067.54 from the Vermont Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. The money will be used in support of technical rescues training and safety equipment.
GHS Equipment Incentive Grant
The Vermont Department of Public Safety has given a grant of $5,000 for the Brattleboro Police to use to purchase portable radar equipment.
FY15 Background - Budget Memos
In a recent budget memo to the board, Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland addressed some of the recent scenarios that the Brattleboro Selectboard have proposed to keep the tax increases to a minimum.
First, Moreland reported that updating the FY15 budget with their latest changes resulted in a tax rate increase of $0.087, or almost nine cents.
Second, he reported on their request to look at staffing changes. The type of cuts varied depending on the size of a department, but in general each was asked to evaluate a reduction of hours and/or staff.
Large departments (DPW, Police and Fire) were asked to imagine a reduction of one full time employee (FTE) each. This, Moreland said, would save $150,000.
Medium size departments (Rec & Parks, Brooks Memorial Library) were asked to imagine a reduction of 1/2 FTE. This would save $35,500.
The small departments (Town Manager, Finance, Planning, Assessors, Clerks) were asked to evaluate two reductions in hours - to 36 hours a week, and to 32 hours a weeks. If cut to 36 hours a week, the savings are reported to be $20,750. If cut to 32 hours a week, the savings are pegged at $75,750.
Moreland cautioned that cuts to small departments would have a “severe impact” on the 12 positions affected. He said many would look for new jobs, morale would be low, and would impact employees least able to cope with pay cuts.
In accompanying memos, department heads shared their views. John O’Connor, director of the Finance Department, said that a reduction to 36 hours would have little impact on getting things done, but a cut to 32 hours would cause delays as well as be a 15% pay cut. He said staff would leave.
Rod Francis of Planning Services reported that his department already works uncompensated overtime hours, and that some of his staff are among the lowest paid by the town. Any reductions, he said, would slow their office work, and would likely lead to staff taking second jobs or other work. “Staff this good are not easy to find.”
Annette Cappy, of the Town Clerk’s office, said reducing hours would be devastating. “It is my assumption that this proposal would only affect non-union staff,” she wrote. She said her low paid staff would be forced to look elsewhere for jobs, and she worried about the calibre of replacements for them when morale was low. Essential work would get done, she said, but long term projects such as digitizing records would end.
Russell Rice, Town Assessor, had similar words from the Listing Office. He reminded the board of legal requirements for having certain jobs done. At the 36 hour mark, he thought that work could get done, but at the 32 hour limit, the department would not be able to do what it is charged to do.
Carol Lolatte said the impact would be “devastating” on Recreation and Parks. Her employees often give up evenings, weekends, and holidays, she said, and they would be less likely to do so if hours were cut. She reminded the board that families “stay local and not travel,” making her department’s services even more essential.
Jerry Carbone of Brooks Memorial Library said the proposed reductions would mean three fewer open hours for the public, mostly likely taken away from Wednesday evening.
You can read their letters in full here.
FY15 Budget Discussion
With the above memos as introduction, the Brattleboro Selectboard took up the matter of the FY15 Budget.
David Gartenstein said the board had met many times to discuss the budget.
The first round was look at goals, then what capital spending could be cut, then what further cuts could come from departments. They reviewed each potential cut, considered additional areas, and made various proposals such as reducing town office hours and cutting personnel.
He said they considered reductions of all sorts: eliminating the street sweeper and the sidewalk plow, outsourcing park maintenance, changes to animal control, abandoning roads, eliminating town-financed trash pickup, reducing funds for line striping, not paying for traffic safety improvements, eliminating human services funding, repurposing the agricultural loan fund, energy efficiency work and Pay As You Throw, charging non profits a fee for services, revisiting the local option sales tax, and cutting town employee benefits.
“Many issues are long-term questions we need to address over the coming year,” he said. “The board as a whole concluded that many cuts would cut into core municipal services, and that we cannot accept.” He gave an example of cutting a single position at the Fire Department reducing fire service in town. “It’s not acceptable to us.”
“We are at the bare minimum of staff for essential emergency services,” he continued. “We’ve proposed and will vote to adopt at our next regular meeting a budget totaling $16,306,285.”
The proposed budget includes a one time capital transfer of $310,000, money saved from renovations to the skating rink that came in under budget.
He said they’d re-propose the 1% local option tax at their next meeting.
Auditors had given Brattleboro the final numbers from FY13 and they show $1.7 million in undesignated unreserved surplus. About $150,000 of it is already applied to Elm Street bridge repairs and the Communications Tower relocation.
Gartenstein said last year’s budget was under-reported, leaving out $765,000 for capital projects that the town undertook. The increase over last year, he said, should take this into account.
He said this year’s budget includes $742,000 in principle and interest for the Police Fire facility bond, equivalent to almost 5.5 cents of this year’s increase. Even so, he warned that next year would be worse, when $1.2 million would be due, or an additional $450,000.
“Next year the crunch will be worse to fund Police Fire facility,” he told the board.
Making matters more difficult, Town Meeting Representatives voted last year to offset their taxes using $750,000 to keep tax increases to little over a penny. “This 8.7 cent increase is better thought of as an increase spread over last year and this year. It’s a two year increase, but last year we had the cash to offset taxes. We gave money back to the taxpayers last year.”
The other Selectboard members offered their points of view.
Kate O’Connor said they had built a budget around one time funds, and warned that the surplus from the skating rink won’t be there next year for them to use. “This budget hasn’t solved our problems,” she said. “We’re kicking the can down the road. I’d like to do long range planning about what to do. We can’t come back a year from now in the same situation. I’m looking at what we can do next year. It’s going to be worse, and we’ll have to do painful things we didn’t want to do this year.”
“We do have to think about that,” said John Allen. “You know my opinion. There was a windfall last year to apply to taxes last year, we should do the same again this year. Our undesignated reserve system comes from taxes. We need to lower the taxes to the people in town. We may not have a surplus for next year. An 8.7 cent increase is way too high. I’m going to argue we take $300,000 from the undesignated reserve to lower it. I want it to be around the 3-5 cent range. We have to start thinking long range, and about revenue, but single family homeowners are hurting.”
Donna Macomber said she wanted to assure people that the board really pored over ramifications of different cuts. “Many cuts were related tangentially to safety. It was a sobering process and we’ve gotten close to our goal of not increasing the tax rate. If we are here next year, we have set something in motion that could increase fiscal responsibility. It’s a complex tangle of issues with real consequences.”
David Schoales said the process of hearing from the departments “brought a lot of things to light - quality of services, efficiencies, and the desire of community to have these services. We have to replace things on a schedule. The library is important to many people. We are beginning to look long-term, and we need to look at new ways to lower costs and increase revenue. If you’d been here with us, you‘d be right with us. This is as low as possible.”
“Everyone hears 8.7 cents but don’t always understand what it really means” said O’Connor. She hoped the Interim Town Manager would send out information explaining the ramifications for different home values.
Gartenstein said that the process of year-round budgeting shows they can keep working on budget issues almost immediately. “We needed to understand the expenses, but our goal is to push forward with identified areas for additional revenue. We’ve also talked about trying to conceive of a different way for us to do business - in any way - to reduce costs. Running the town as it is run costs this amount of money. It’s not champagne level services. It’s pretty basic, and that’s what it costs unless we can find a different way to do business.”
Tad Montgomery asked if the skating rink repairs would come up in the near future. The board said the recent repairs should extend the life of the rink for a decade.
“I am a strong believer that those who pollute should pay for it, and pay directly and immediately,” added Montgomery. “Solid waste is a form of pollution. People assume trash collection doesn’t cost anything.” Gartenstein said the state would be requiring Pay As You Throw in the near future.
“We did adopt PAYT once...” said John Allen.