Voters in Brattleboro will get a chance to weigh in on the town’s budget in a referendum set for later this month. The budget was approved at Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting in late March. Backers of the recall vote say the $16 million spending plan will increase a town tax rate that’s already too high.
At the center of the budget recall is a $14 million upgrade to the town’s police and fire facilities. The project was approved by town representatives in October of 2012. But more than a quarter million dollars in interest payments on the project were reflected in the 2015 budget.
The project will raise taxes in town by a little less than nine cents on the dollar.
Brattleboro resident Steve Minkin, who supports the budget recall, says that’s too much.
"People are hurting," Minken says. "This comes with an economic downturn, taxes have been going up, everything else is level funded. Basically people can’t afford this addition to their taxes, which are already very high."
Brattleboro is the only Vermont town that has a representative town meeting form of government. Townspeople elect representatives by district. There are currently 154 representatives, or roughly one for every 54 people in town.
Some budget opponents say the governing body is out of touch with taxpayers’ economic reality. Minkin thinks the system just needs some tweaks.
"I think the fact is that a big capital expenditure like this you should consider a town-wide vote from the get-go," Minkin says. "Make the case, make it clear why we need it, what the alternatives are. Most people just woke up to a surprise and said 'Uh oh. My taxes are going up.'"
Brattleboro interim town manager Patrick Moreland says townspeople have had plenty of opportunities to weigh in on the project. He says the town even formed a citizens’ oversight committee to monitor costs and other issues. Moreland says the need for the project has been evident for decades. He says the downtown fire station is a good example.
"There are terrible air quality issues with the diesel fumes that co-mingle with the living quarters for the fire department staff," Moreland says. "In recent years we’ve had to custom order fire trucks because the size of our door openings is too small and modern fire trucks no longer fit in our fire station."
Moreland says an engineering study shows that the firehouse floor can no longer support the weight of equipment it now houses. And he says the town’s police headquarters, which occupy part of the town office, have multiple problems too.
Brattleboro Select Board Chairman David Gartenstein says the construction project is necessary.
"From the very beginning," Gartenstein says, "The board has been way clear that having us build the facility without a revenue stream is going significantly impact the tax burden on residents of Brattleboro. "
But Gartenstein says town meeting representatives have repeatedly voted down a one percent local option sales tax that could help provide that revenue.
The town has scheduled an informational meeting for 6:30 Wednesday, April 9, at Brattleboro’s Oak Grove School to discuss the budget issues. The town wide vote is scheduled for April 17.