To keep the town services the same as last year and pay our obligations, the property tax rate would need to go up by 16 cents. It’s a major problem that the Brattleboro Selectboard shared with the public at Tuesday night’s meeting as they pondered how much of a tax increase Brattleboro could handle, and discussed various options for cuts and revenue generation.
The town’s search for a new Town Manager was a bust, and the process will begin again in the near future.
The Plan for Red Clover Commons took a step forward with the board supporting Brattleboro Housing Authority’s need to formally “dispose” (an HUD term) of the Melrose property and buildings to enable the upcoming move to new developments.
Much of the rest of the meeting was dedicated to Brattleboro citizens who like to skate. The skating rink got the go-ahead for a series of improvements to improve the refrigeration and preserve the compressors. And now the Town of Brattleboro has an official skatepark site selection committee.
Chair David Gartenstein had four announcements to begin the meeting.
First was disappointing news in the search for a new Town Manager. After spending many months, engaging the assistance of town staff and citizen committees, and narrowing the list of 62 applicants to two finalists “the search was unsuccessful and no agreement has been reached with either finalist.” He said they would re-open the search process and try again, and noted that it was too soon to know the details of the second search attempt.
The second announcement was a bit cheerier: the work on Strand Avenue has been completed. Gartenstein said the new retaining walls are in place, “and we hope they last 100 years or more.”
The third announcement was a thank you to the Police Department for locating the suspects now charged with a series of break-ins in vehicles in town. “It took hard work, so thanks for a job well done.”
His final announcement was that Mr. (Tim) O’Connor asked him to remind everyone that 50 years ago on November 22, President Kennedy was assassinated. “He asks that we all think about that tragedy this Friday.”
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland had no remarks, despite the news he would be continuing as Interim Town Manager for an extended period of time.
For Selectboard comments and committee reports, John Allen mentioned recent Police Fire Facility meetings. He said the process was “moving along at a very good clip,” with attention currently focused on Station 2 in West Brattleboro. He said they had very recently seen some preliminary drawings for Station 2.
Moreland chimed in. “One thing we uncovered in doing the research was that that the Town of Brattleboro has a 99 year lease for that property,” referring to the land adjacent to the current station owned by the schools. He said they met with the school board, and it is an acceptable use under the current, long-term lease.
David Schoales commended a benefit performance and meal for the Reformer Christmas Stocking that was initiated by Patty Meyer, a school vocal coach for BAMS. He also noted the continued success of Dennis Hamilton’s forestry program at the Career Center, winners of state and national soil identification competitions for multiple years.
Doug Cox, of the Arts Council of Windham County presented the Town of Brattleboro with a “Friend of the Arts Award” for forming a town arts committee, adopting a town arts policy, including arts in the Town Plan, and more to support the arts in Brattleboro.
Donna Macomber said the Arts Committee is looking for new membership, and the committee’s vision statement has been clarified.
Paul Cameron, Town Energy Coordinator, was on hand to present sustainable business awards to three local businesses. Triple T Trucking received one for their curbside composting efforts. Cultural Intrigue was awarded for working to make packaging more eco-friendly as well as their energy efficient building. The Brattleboro Food Coop was the third, for their new building setting a standard for green building in town.
Peter Gaskill of Triple T was the only award-winner to speak at the meeting. As he accepted his award, he said “appreciated applause for being a rubbish man,” and said he was happy to both help and be recognized for the effort.
Water & Sewer Commissioners
As the Waste Water Treatment Plant construction project winds down, the team is focusing on completion of final change orders and optimizing and improving the system that is now up and running.
Highway and Utilities Superintendent Hannah O’Connell and retired DPW staff member Rick Ethier gave the board the update.
Patrick Moreland said the town is considering options for compensation from the construction company. The work was not completed on schedule and additional engineering costs were incurred. The board will take up this issue in December.
Final project completion is now expected to be at the end of this month.
Spring Tree Pump Station is substantially complete. The Black Mountain gravity line is in the final design stages, with permit and easement work taking place as well. Work should be underway in early 2014.
The only change order noted was a credit of $731, a bit of savings generated by eliminating an exterior PVC junction box.
To date, $29,914,893.69 has been spent and $1,692,568.81 remains.
Brattleboro Housing Authority - Red Clover Commons Plan
Chris Hart, on behalf of the Brattleboro Housing Authority (BHA), asked the Brattleboro Selectboard for a letter of support for a new, 55-unit housing project to be located near Walgreens and not far from the high school, hospital, and supermarket.
BHA must follow rules from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in order to “dispose” (a HUD term) of public housing at the Melrose location and transfer the operation to the new Red Clover Commons.
In official terminology, it is an application for disposition, which will allow for subsidies for tenants to continue at the new location.
David Gartenstein asked for a quick overview of the Red Clover plan.
Hart said it will be replacement housing for people at Melrose and thereafter be mostly for the elderly or people with disabilities. She said it would be three stories tall in some parts to take advantage of the slope on the property, and that architects who helped with housing at the Coop will be involved. “We’re mindful of it being at a residential and commercial intersection.”
Hart said they have had meetings with neighbors to the new development to answer questions. There will be a Development Review Board meeting about the project on a December 16.
Hart said Red Clover Commons will be on Fairground Road, but the address is officially on Canal Street due to an access way beside Walgreens. Ribbon cutting, she said, is expected in 2015. A second development is expected to follow, to accommodate the other 25 residents and the BHA offices.
In terms of the disposition request, Hart explained that public housing comes with declarations of trust, and cooperation agreements with HUD and the Town. The request would release most of Melrose from those obligations.
Hart said that state agencies “have varying opinions of what should happen to that land.” She said there were no set plans yet, but “it’s in the floodway and it impacts things downstream. Maybe we can find something that makes it all better.”
She said the only buildings that may come down are right along the brook, “but we don’t have funds to take them down.”
Everyone at Melrose has to move eventually, she explained. “It’s almost all in a flood zone, so no public money can be used to repair or invest in that property.” In addition, HUD has issued new environmental restrictions which insist on removing public housing residents from flood areas.
Residents at Melrose will be offered Tenant Protection Vouchers (TPV) to facilitate moving to new locations, within BHA, or to the new Red Clover Commons.
If the disposition is agreed upon, HUD would have no further interest in the Melrose land or buildings, and BHA would assume responsibility for the property.
The selectboard voted to express support for the disposition via a letter of support, and noting that it fits with the Town Plan and helps to move people and property out of the floodway and flood fringe.
Skating Rink Committee
The question of short-term refrigeration fixes at the skating rink is closer to being resolved, thanks to the work of a skating rink committee tasked with looking at available options. Protecting the Town investment in compressors was a top priority.
Carol Lolatte of Recreation and Parks said that after meeting with Brad Oakes of Vermont Commercial Refrigeration to discuss ways to preserve existing town investments in the rink, the committee voted unanimously for a step by step process to optimize the refrigeration system.
The committee suggests beginning by enclosing the plate and frame heat exchanger at a cost of about $7,000. This ice-making equipment currently sits out in the cold, and the new idea is to bring it inside.
In addition, some modifications to control systems and valves would occur, and a new oil separator might be installed. The cost could be in the $25,000s-30,000 range for this work, but could be much less.
Lolatte explained that a step-by-step process would allow them to do small fixes in series, and if one of the early fixes solves the problems, they won’t need to do the other steps.
The committee voted to recommend Vermont Commercial Refrigeration to do the work.
John Allen asked Lolatte if this process has helped better understand issues at the rink. She replied that it was the fiscally responsible way to proceed and they would have more time to look at long-term options, but “we’re staying where we are and not looking to the future.” She said they should plan now for more work in seven to ten years.
Lolatte said $25,000 of existing Vermont Community Foundation funds can be applied to this phase.
Committee member Don Dompier said the information they received indicated that the previous company failed to install things properly. “He didn’t put it together right.” Dompier said Oakes clearly showed them what was needed without trying to sell Brattleboro any particular system.
David Gartenstein concurred with the committee’s recommendations. “Most of the ice-making equipment is sitting out in the cold. It caused the old compressors to give out.” He said that after the expected expenses, there will be at least $280,000 left over from what was set aside last year to do the work, and it could be applied to next year’s budget. In addition, grants will be covering most of the costs.
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved a not-to-exceed total of $37,000 in rink improvements.
VDEMHS Technical Rescue Grant
The Vermont Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security is now allowing towns to apply for grants in bundles, rather than take the time and resources to fill out multiple grant requests on an individual basis.
The Brattleboro Fire Department is taking advantage of this to bundle 6 training programs and one piece of equipment into a single request totaling just under $31,000.
Included in the request is funding for training in structural collapses, swift water rescue, trench rescue, and confined space rescue.
The equipment request is for an RDC (Rapid Deployment Craft). In layman’s terms, it’s a $5,600 inflatable rescue boat.
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved the bundled grant application.
Monthly Finance Report with John O’Connor
Finance Director John O’Connor provided the board with their monthly report on town finances. It’s a snapshot of how planned budgets are lining up with reality.
Looking at the data through October 31, O’Connor reports that the numbers are on track with projections.
One third of the fiscal year is complete. The General Fund expenditures are at 34.4%, the Utilities Fund are at 29.5%, and the Parking Fund spending is at 25.1%.
The Police-Fire Facility Project has spent $20,374 this fiscal year through the end of October.
Just over $4.1 million has been loaned by the town, and just over $461,000 is available to loan.
There are 43 active grants, and 15 in the application process. At least six of the pending grants are intended to help pay for the skatepark.
David Gartenstein asked about line items for certain benefits, such as vacation accrual and education incentives.
O’Connor said that vacation accrual is an expense that comes at end of the fiscal year to cover the 60 day period after the year ends. The education incentives, he said, are benefits paid to police officers based on classes they take.
Gartenstein noted that the recycling ad refuse collection line items looked low. “Are we making progress on tipping fees?”
“Tipping fees are running under budget,” said O’Connor. “Compost and recycling collection is making an impact.”
FY15 Budget Discussion
Earlier this year, the Brattleboro Selectboard asked the Town Manager and staff to develop two potential budgets. Budget 1 would show what it would cost to run the town at a comparable level of service to the previous year. The other, Budget 2, would be a level-funded budget requiring significant cuts to keep things at a comparable level of cost to the previous year.
Patrick Moreland, Interim Town Manager, provided these two budgets to the board, and recommended that they choose Budget 1.
To kick off the budget discussion, David Gartenstein said that in the past, many budget discussions were somewhat out of view of the public. Meetings were held without television coverage, and at early hours.
“I feel it is important to be as transparent as possible about this,” he said. “We want to publicly present the first round draft budget, to talk about challenges we face and some of the policy decisions the board will be required to make. I want everyone to know.”
The FY14 budget was $14.9 million, but Town Meeting Representatives added $765,067 in capital expenses making the total closer to $15.7 million. The additional expenses were paid for from some surplus reserve funds, an option not always available. (Without the surplus, taxes would have risen an additional $.0671 last year.)
Gartenstein said that there were natural increases each year in fuel costs, sand, salt, insurance, benefits, bond payments, and other items. Costs go up.
He presented the two draft budgets.
The FY15, level-service Budget 1 total comes to $16,730,946.25. All services stay as they were, costs go up, and interest and bond payments are made. It’s a 12.1% increase over the previous year and would require an increase in the tax rate at $0.1585 (almost 16 cents) to pay for it. This would be a $.0914 increase over FY14.
Let that sink in for a moment. Taxes at a 16 cent increase would mean a comparable level of town service to last year.
Budget 2 offers suggestions for reducing Budget 1 by $647,019. Cut costs or raise revenue.
The FY15 Budget 2 is a level-funded budget that only adds next year’s capital expenses, plus almost $400,000 for bond and interest payments for the Police-Fire project. This budget total is $16,083,927. This would be a 7.8% increase over the previous year, and taxes would be set at $.1018 (just over 10 cents) more than last year.
Taxes raised by 10 cents would force cuts to keep the budget locked at FY14’s level.
For someone with a $200,000 home value, Budget 1 leads to a tax increase of $316.98, whereas Budget 2 comes to an increase of $203.52 according to information presented to the board.
“What is a tax increase town residents can live with?” asked Gartenstein. He said he has discussed cutting it all from the budget with the Interim Town Manager, and “it would hurt a ton.”
“Are there additional revenues we can generate,” he asked. “Are there other funds we can spend down? What cuts can we live with?”
“What do we feel taxpayers can actually handle?” said John Allen. “It can’t be 10 cents.”
Gartenstein suggested a few more possibilities to consider. He mentioned the $280,000 skating rink savings and said the board would need to decide how to use it. He thought, perhaps, that another $150,000 might be able to be cut from the already-pared capital expense budget for the next year.
He said he would recommend that all voters weigh in on a non-binding resolution regarding a 1% Local Option Tax “to defray Police-Fire facility expenses,” and that Town Meeting Representatives could decide after seeing what the voters endorse.
Moreland’s report to the board noted that the option of a Local Option Tax on sales exists, but local retailers and shoppers don’t like the idea and Town Meeting Representatives voted against the plan. Moreland tells the board that $645,491 would have been raised had such a tax been in place last year, assuming everyone shopped as they did the year before.
Moreland’s report also says the town plans to break out the accounting for regular labor agreement costs such as vacation buy-backs, retiree pay-outs, and education incentives in an effort to better see the costs. Four senior fire fighters are expected to retire soon, other senior staff may retire in coming years, and the town would like to track these expected costs.
His report also says staff budgets have little or no fat in them left to trim. Risk management, health insurance and debt are listed as the three significant expenses.
Coming capital expenses to discuss include replacing computers using Windows XP, buying some trucks, police cruisers, bridges, retaining walls, paving, and sidewalks.
“The best approach now is to think about this and have our first worksession in an early morning meeting in the coming weeks,” he told his fellow board members.
Gartenstein asked that the board consider how to spend the $280,000 left over from the rink repairs, what capital cuts they see possible, and how much tax can citizens tolerate?
John Allen noted that their budget discussions were no longer about line items. “It’s policies now.”
David Schoales suggested looking at fees for service, or at least calculating the costs and showing them to the larger non-profits in the area with a nudge and request to help cover the costs.
Moreland did not like the idea of a fee for any essential service. “We don’t want any incentives for people holding off on calling for help.” He added that the State has rules and “we’d have little leverage other than asking with our hand out.”
James Banslabin said he had talked to some people about the possibility of increasing taxes. He said people are worried about having trouble with medical costs next year, and houses are up for sale in anticipation of tax increases. “There’s one more issue,” he said, “but I’m frightened to say it.”
The Brattleboro Selectboard set a budget meeting for Monday, November 25 at 7:30 am to discuss a policy for deciding how to going forward, and further discussion of the three topics suggested by Gartenstein.
Many citizens volunteered to serve on town committees, and the Selectboard made it official with a series of committee appointments.
The Agricultural Advisory Committee will gain the services of Caitlin Burlett, Nancy L. Miller, Charles B. Robb, Jr. and Karen Robb.
The Arts Committee will see Nicholas Biddle, Jacob Alan Roberts, and John Wilmerding join them.
The Development Review Board adds Steve Cormier as an alternate.
The Energy Committee will be increased in size by one member, and will benefit from new members Sheetal K. Chanda and Tad Montgomery.
And, to end the evening, the Brattleboro Skatepark Site Selection Committee was formed.
Brattleboro residents applying for the Skatepark Site Selection Committee include Joe Bushey, Jacob Allen Roberts, Betsy Gentile, Linda Whelihan, Elizabeth McLoughlin, Martin Fitzgerald, Les Montgomery, Dan Sontag, Francine Vallario, Andrea Watkins and Andy Davis. Peter Whitley of the Tony Hawk Foundation and Melissa Clark, not of Brattleboro, also applied.
Joe Bushey, Jacob Allen Roberts, Betsy Gentile, Linda Whelihan, Elizabeth McLoughlin, Martin Fitzgerald, Dan Sontag, Francine Vallario, Andrea Watkins and Melissa Clark were nominated by board members.
The board voted and appointed Joe Bushey, Jacob Allen Roberts, Betsy Gentile, Martin Fitzgerald, Andrea Watkins, Elizabeth McLoughlin, and Dan Sontag to the site selection committee.
“Thanks to everyone for participating,” said David Gartenstein. “Excellent candidates. Everyone participate going forward.”