The Brattleboro Selectboard spent most of the regular Tuesday meeting adding things to the agenda for Representative Town Meeting in March. They also gave over $30,000 to a regional effort to develop the economy, and firmly set forth their final budget for FY15.
A number of the articles put on the warning were aimed at reducing property taxes. One thing that won’t be on the Town Meeting agenda, at least not this year, is lowering the voting age to sixteen.
In food news, the former Bickfords will become Brattleboro’s latest pizza place, a regional chain called Ramuntos Brick Oven Pizza. Read on for all the details.
Chair David Gartenstein used his opening remarks to address the issue of 16 year olds voting in town. He said they had discussed putting the issue on the Town Meeting agenda, but decided that the request was premature.
“It’s an interesting and substantial issue,” he said. “Amending the Charter is a big deal. Changing the voting age is an even bigger deal. It’s a very big deal.” Issues about running for Town Meeting seats and the age for entering into contracts need to be worked out with the Town Attorney, he told the room.
He said that the Selectboard would continue to look at lowering the voting age for certain town matters, but “it won’t be on this year’s town meeting.”
Interim Town Manager Patrick Moreland said that up to three tons of patch per day was being applied to Western Avenue/Route 9, and that he is working with VTrans to see when it can be paved.
For Selectboard comments and committee reports, John Allen mentioned a “rousing” Police Fire committee meeting in which soil tests were discussed. He said everything was moving along well. He agreed with David Schoales that the preliminary architectural plans and concept drawings were impressive.
Schoales added that the commitment to staying under budget has been reiterated.
Two people spoke to the issue of teen voting. The first was a woman who said she was confident the board could work out issues so 16 year olds could at least speak at Town Meeting, if not vote, and offered the assistance of the group’s attorney Paul Gillies to the town.
The second was Ben Knapp, a “local youth” who said he felt passionate about the issue. He said it was a great way to involve kids in the community, and keep them here after they graduate. He said it could help with voter apathy, too.
Paul Cameron presented the Brattleboro Selectboard with an award for reducing energy use. The town had entered an energy leadership challenge to reduce electric consumption by at least 7.5% over two years, and Brattleboro exceeded the goal. He said the reduction was due in part to the replacement of streetlights and the new Waste Water Treatment Plant.
He thanked the town for their long commitment to energy efficiency, and gave the elegant, glass award to the board on behalf of Efficiency Vermont.
Kate O'Connor and John Allen showed off the award for the BCTV cameras. In the process, it fell from its fancy blue box and broke. It had looked quite nice, but was now in need of repairs.
Allen joked that O’Connor must have been drinking, although he too appeared to have been involved in the breaking of the award.
Liquor Commissioners - Ramuntos Brick Oven Pizza
As the applicants positioned themselves before the board, they jokingly warned they would not serve O’Connor at their restaurant.
Ramuntos Brick Oven Pizza is the name of a new pizza and Italian food establishment opening at 1111 Putney Road off the traffic circle, the former location of Bickford’s Restaurant. It’s part of a growing chain of restaurants with locations in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
The Brattleboro Selectboard approved a first class liquor license for owners David Ingerman and Michael Onorato.
Ingerman said they operate a sister restaurant in Keene, and that he is a sucker for old buildings. He said the building near Exit 3 is being brought up to date and made energy efficient, but that it is slow and careful process because of the age and construction of the building. He said it had been built in phases.
He promised that when the restaurant opens in a few months it would be family friendly. ”Extremely family oriented.”
“It’ll always be a HoJo’s to us,” joked John Allen, before thanking them for fixing up the old building.
Ingerman said that it had originally been a stop off point for a ferry, then it was expanded. “We’ve been careful that it is structurally sound, and an asset for years to come.”
Monthly Finance Report with John O’Connor
Brattleboro Finance Director John O’Connor gave the Selectboard the monthly financial update through the month of December 2013, the halfway point for the fiscal year.
At halftime, Brattleboro’s General Fund expenditures were noted to be at 53.3% of the annual budget. Utilities Fund expenditures were at 47.7% and Parking Fund expenditures came in at 45.4% of their annual budgets. “Right on target,” he said. “We’re cranking along just fine.”
The town has spent $84,102 on the Police-Fire Facilities Project.
Just over $4 million in outstanding loans have been given out, and Brattleboro has just over $500,000 in available funds for additional loans as needed.
O’Connor said there were 37 active grants and 15 in the application process.
David Gartenstein asked how the utilities bills were accounted for. O’Connor said that the most recent bill covers a period about three months prior, and they are put into the budget when they are billed.
Disbursement of Funds to SeVEDS
The Brattleboro Selectboard voted to give Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS) $36,147 from VCDP program income. The money will be used to support the organization in its efforts to implement economic development strategies.
SeVEDS coordinator Laura Sibilia told the board that their previous year donation of $50,000 in funds was used to challenge other towns to invest in the organization. An additional $66,000 was raised from Rockingham, Wilmington, Vernon, Newfane, Dover, and Marlboro.
She said the money was used to create a workforce development coordinator position and support the operating expenses of the organization.
Pat Moulton Powden, Executive Director at BDCC, said there was another accomplishment: finalizing a regional comprehensive economic development strategy, or CEDS. She said that it helped that the region has a plan with goals, and projects when negotiating the agreement with Entergy to pay $2 million a year for 5 years for economic development in Windham County.
She said the money would go to the state, then be given out as grants, with priority for projects that create jobs. “CEDS will be the guiding document.”
The board was told that SeVEDS work will lead to federal grant opportunities to implement economic development projects in the region, and asked that Brattleboro and other towns contribute $3 per person to the organization.
Donna Macomber asked what SeVEDS would like from the lay person.
Sibilia said the region has been in a long slow decline, and it will take more than $10 million dollars and 5 years to turn things around. “Hopefully in five years we’ll begin to move the needle,” she said. “It’s hard. The public wants things right now.”
Moulton Powden agreed. “Patience.” She said it was important that towns were now working as a region. “Our workforce is mobile. The regional approach expands the conversation.”
Gartenstein asked how the previous money was spent, and how the new funds would be used.
Moulton Powden said it paid for staff positions. “You help us cover our operating expenses. We’re the only part of the state that has a full-time workforce development person,” noting that it was because we needed it the most.
Gartenstein reminded the board that the money comes from program income, which is interest and a portion of loan repayments available to the town from previous grant funding work.
Windham and Windsor Housing Trust Resolution
The Selectboard voted unanimously to designate the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust as a nonprofit community development organization (NCDO), which will help the organization be able to spend their recently-approved VCDP Scattered Site Implementation Grant of $1 million.
It’s a loan program for low income homeowners.
David Schoales asked how the Selectboard had the authority to determine if an organization was a non-profit, but after a bit of discussion, they decided they could both take Patrick Moreland's word for it, and that the motion under consideration was simply designating the group as the entity doing the work, not attesting to corporate status.
Brattleboro Annual Appointments
As is customary this time each year, the board officially put forth the names they would like to appoint to Town Clerk, Town Treasurer, and Town Attorney. It should come as no surprise that Annette Cappy, John O’Connor, and Fisher & Fisher, respectively, were the nominations to be sent along to Representative Town Meeting.
David Gartenstein asked what the contractual obligations with the Town Attorney were, and Interim Town Manager Moreland said that they were in the final year of a three year contract. He said they might consider putting the job out to bid sometime in the coming year.
John Allen asked why ratification was needed if there was a contract in place.
“It’s in the Town Charter to appoint them,” said Moreland.
“If Representative Town Meeting didn’t approve the appointment, we’d then reconsider the contract?” asked Kate O’Connor.
Moreland paused, then said yes. “It hasn’t happened before...” He said they’d probably need to consult the Town Attorney.
Local Options Tax, Non-Binding for Voters
Despite the issue being voted down by a recent Representative Town Meeting, the Brattleboro Selectboard is going to try once again to see if citizens would like to pay an additional 1% for goods they buy in town.
This time around, voters at large will be asked in a non-binding fashion to weigh in on Town Meeting Day on March 4, and the results will be known to Representative Town Meeting members later in the month when they vote on the tax.
“Last year we proposed companion articles at a special Representative Town Meeting,” said David Gartenstein. ”seeking authority to bond for the Police-Fire facility and provide for a funding source for the renovations. The bonds were approved, but the tax was defeated resoundingly.”
He said that some members of the Selectboard would like to revisit the issue..
John Allen said he wasn’t in favor of the tax, but was in favor of letting everyone in Brattleboro weigh in “and finally lay it to rest. I’m not one to keep bringing things up until one gets their way. Let’s say goodbye to this once and for all.”
Kate O’Connor shared Allen’s feelings about the tax, and about letting the public vote on it. She said she wondered if there could be some language that sunsets the tax at a certain point.
Gartenstein said it wasn’t needed because the motion says what the purpose is for “so there is sunsetting intent included.”
O’Connor said state statute allowed for Town Meeting to rescind local option taxes at any point.
Gartenstein no public information session was planned before the earlier non-binding vote, but that information would be made available on the Town’s web site.
Patrick Moreland said the projected revenue from the tax could approach $650,000 a year.
“But we don’t know what negative impact might be,” added Gartenstein.
“A tax is a tax is a tax,” said Allen.
David Schoales noted that some things were exempt from the tax, such as heating oil and gasoline.
Local Options Tax for Representative Town Meeting
As noted above, Representative Town Meeting members will take up the issue of a new 1% sales tax in Brattleboro a few weeks after the town-wide, non-binding vote. The Brattleboro Selectboard voted to put the local options tax issue on the agenda for them to discuss and debate.
“I’m sure Dick Degray is a happy camper if he is watching,” said John Allen.
“We’ll see what the vote is,” said David Gartenstein. “I don’t need to remind anyone that the acronym for the local option sales tax is LOST.”
Transfer of Unused Skating Rink Funds
Should Brattleboro transfer $310,540 from unspent skating rink repair funds back into the General Fund to help defray taxes? The Brattleboro Selectboard agreed this would be another good issue to be on the agenda for Representative Town Meeting.
Background: it cost closer to $45,000 rather than $350,000 to fix the skating rink.
John O’Connor said that this transfer is already reflected in the budget being presented, so if it doesn’t pass, taxes would be adjusted upward.
“Kate, do you want to say something?” prodded John Allen. “These are one time funds...”
“We’re building our budget on the skating rink money,” said Kate O’Connor. “It’s a good discussion for town meeting.”
Appropriate Unassigned Fund Balance
The Unassigned Fund Balance is a bit like a rainy day fund for the town, and the Selectboard has a guideline of maintaining it at 10% to cover emergencies. As of June of 2013, the fund had a balance of just over $1.7 million.
The Brattleboro Selectboard suggests using some of those funds to help reduce taxes in the coming year, and voted to put the issue before Representative Town Meeting members for their consideration.
David Gartenstein said that while the issue could have been raised from the floor with a motion, the Selectboard decided to propose it for inclusion on the agenda.
David Schoales asked for clarification about the total amount available. He was told that of the $1.7 million, about $150,000 of it was spoken for already, for Elm Street bridge repairs and moving the town communication tower.
Patrick Moreland reminded the board that there could be an FY14 surplus that could be applied toward tax reduction, and if not the unassigned balance could be tapped.
John Allen said he pushed for this to be on the agenda. “Kate has said that when you do one-time budget offsets, it gives a false impression,” he said. “The fund is only there because of taxpayers. It’s our duty to do everything we can to lower taxes. I’m really pushing for this. I’m going to ask for $300,000. We’ll see what support we get.”
David Schoales said he had been interested in this idea, but after consulting with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, he was convinced that having a 10% reserve for emergency use was a better use of the funds. “We have expensive things that can break,” he said, adding that “We might need it more next year to offset taxes. I’d rather wait and keep a bit more in reserve.”
“Every year we wait,” countered Allen. “We force people on the brink. At what point, what is the straw that breaks the back? I’m having a hard time with that. I still don’t see why our taxes are so high. I ran on lowering taxes. I’d like to see, for once, some go back to the taxpayers, to give them hope we are fighting for the people of this town.”
“I’ll vote against this” said Gartenstein. He said they were already putting $300,000 toward tax relief, and more will be needed next year to pay of Police Fire facility bonds. “The work needs to be done to support the town. There is going to be a tax increase to pay for the work. Maybe next year.” He also disagreed that the fund was a “slush fund” saying that it was to be used for specific purposes.
Allen made a motion to take $300,000 from the unassigned fund balance to reduce the tax levy.
Donna Macomber said she could agree to $200,000 this year, and maybe $200,000 next year if possible. She thought a gesture of relief with a smaller portion of the fund would keep them from being caught off guard if other emergencies arise.
Allen said there was a surplus every year, and he was hoping that an FY14 surplus would offset this request and allow them to keep the reserve. “To me, this is an emergency, as much as Western Avenue potholes. That’s how strongly I feel.”
“I’m not comfortable banking on a surplus. That doesn’t seem fiscally responsible to me,” said Macomber.
The board voted 4-1, Gartenstein against, to ask for $200,000 from the fund to relieve taxes this year.
Reconsider Agricultural Land Protection Fund
Late last year the board voted to reassign Agricultural Land Protection Funds for the purposes of lowering taxes in the coming year. The total amount available was $95,000, which included both principal and interest.
At the last Selectboard meeting, David Gartenstein suggested using $50,000 of those funds to start an energy efficiency fund, and the remainder for tax relief.
The second proposal (David Gartenstein) was to use the principal to start a $50,000 “energy efficiency fund” and let the accrued interest (45k) be put towards tax reduction.
“It’s an appropriate realignment of our priorities to put unused money toward long term energy efficiency gains,” he said.
David Schoales reminded the board that one young farmer had wanted to keep a portion of the funds available for their original use. “The more established farmers don’t need it. It’s good to remember.”
John Allen said the fund could always be brought back and recreated if necessary. “Charlie Robb has been around, through good and bad, and he said we’re okay and have good support. Very insightful.”
The board voted to reconsider their previous decision, then voted to put the energy-efficient version of the article on the warning for Representative Town Meeting.
Approval of FY15 Budget
The Brattleboro Selectboard officially completed the FY15 budget by adding it to the Representative Town Meeting agenda, at a total of $16,284,625 for the General Fund (operations).
Capital expenses (bigger, scheduled purchases) are expected to be $1,380,475.
Revenue of $828,585.90 is reported from donations ($100,000), loans ($288,000), and a general fund transfer of $551,616.10.
The FY15 municipal property tax rate will be $1.2240, up from $1.1389 last year, and increase of $.0851.
Increases in municipal taxes for varying property values are calculated to be:
$100,000 - $ 85.14
$150,000 - $127.71
$200,000 - $170.28
$250,000 - $212.84
$300,000 - $255.41
Kate O’Connor said the budget needs to be discussed at Town Meeting. “I don’t like the number we came to,” she said. “None of us do. I’m happy with the work, but not the end result.”
John Allen agreed. “I wanted a much lower figure,” he said. “We worked our tails off...”
...”and we aren’t wagging them, “added Macomber.
Allen continued. “Then schools. It’s going to be a hit on people in this town. I hope they know where it is going. People in town, you have to get involved. If you want to see change, get involved somehow. It’s a drum we’re always going to beat.”
“We’ve had discussions about how people most impacted by high taxes are those who can’t always come to meetings to express their views,” added Macomber.
“We’ve said it a lot,” agreed Allen. “The people trust us to do due diligence.”
David Gartenstein added to Allen’s warning about school taxes. He said there could be a 10 cent increase from High School and Town school budgets. “The total increase [for taxpayers] could be around 19 cents in total. Education taxes are already higher than property taxes.
He said there was some good news in that the Grand List had increased by $10 million.
David Schoales said the state had added to the education tax increase. “It’s frustrating,” he said. “You cut and reduce and you get hit with a 10 cent increase in tax. It’s incredible.”
American Legion Little League Field
Should the American Legion Little League Field be exempt from the municipal portion of its taxes for the land and buildings at Oak Grove Avenue? The Brattleboro Selectboard deemed this a worthy question for Representative Town Meeting and voted to put it on the agenda.
A similar request was approved two years ago. The property is valued at about $99,000, with about $1,127 in municipal taxes assessed. The Legion requested that the previous exemption be extended by three years.
The Legions representative, Mr. Costello, said that the field was purchased after WWII by vets, and was later transferred to the American Legion. There is a $10,000 annual budget for the field that is raised from donations and advertising. “The Legion has no connection to activities at the field. It is only for the kids. We just own it.”
David Schoales asked about other exempt properties. Gartenstein explained that a few properties in town don’t meet the state standards for tax exemption, and that Town Meeting can grant exemptions. Camp Wampanoaug, Brattleboro Child Development, and the American Legion are among those getting exemptions, usually for a period of five years.
“My prediction that we’d end at 8 was spot on,” announced Gartenstein to his fellow board members.
As a reward, the board had him read the calendar of upcoming meetings.