Brandon municipal budget would carry 13.9 percent tax hike

BRANDON — In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Brandon selectboard approved a proposed town budget that would ask voters to approve a 13.9 percent increase in taxes. The plan sets 2014-2015 municipal spending at $3,256,142 with $2,651,467 to be raised by taxes.
If that increase sounds high, it’s all relative. The board came to the proposed budget number after a marathon, five-hour meeting Monday night that did not end until after midnight. They were armed with a list of recommendations from the beleaguered and recently resurrected Budget Committee made up of nine appointed taxpayers.
The committee was formed this year after Brandon taxpayers last spring and summer endured four votes on the municipal budget following a divisive re-vote campaign last year. Brandon voters did not pass a budget until July 2013, a $3,147,634 spending plan with $2,331,134 to be raised by property taxes. That amount represented a 3.7 percent, or $84,084 increase in spending.
This year’s proposed increase is a far cry from 3.7 percent, and the board says the biggest obstacle is a steep drop in revenue out of the town’s control and an end to the use of surplus funds that the former town manager historically used work into the budget to keep the tax rate down.
Now, town surplus is at an all-time low, and long deferred maintenance on town vehicles and equipment can no longer be ignored. The lost of revenue staff salaries, health benefits, and liability and workman’s compensation costs have led to a double-digit increase in the town’s spending.
New Town Manager Robin Bennett noted, however, that the board’s approved budget of $2,651,467 to be raised by taxes represents only a 3.6 percent increase in expenditures.
“It’s not a crazy spending problem,” she said. “It’s that money we didn’t really have was used to artificially lower the tax rate in previous budgets. Building surpluses into your budget, you just can’t do it.”
Staff expenses are historically the biggest expense for any town, and Brandon is clear example of that. Without fixing a sidewalk or buying a pencil, the budget would be up 11 percent just based on payroll, benefits, Workman’s Compensation insurance, and property and casualty insurance costs, according to Selectwoman Maria Ammatuna, which accounts for 54 percent of the total budget expenditures.
Last week, the Committee was handed a budget containing a 24 percent budget increase and sat down for four straight evening meetings to hash out its recommendations to the board by Friday. Brandon Town Manager Robin Bennett attended those meetings to help guide the committee through the budget she crafted that included a $130,000 capital improvement plan (CIP), a $150,000 increase in administration costs, or roughly 33 percent, and a $236,000 decrease in revenue.
A CIP is in effect a savings account that a town pays into each year to pay for equipment replacement and upkeep. The money can only be used for equipment/vehicle replacement and repair. Brandon has not had a CIP in many years and there are no longer surplus funds available to use. In the meantime, the public works and police departments have aging equipment that needs attention.
There was also a $61,000 line item for the Town office, that would be the annual interest payment on a proposed $500,000 lease/purchase loan agreement the board is considering to help pay for renovation costs.
In addition, Bennett proposed a half-time administrative assistant position at the town office merged with the current half-time economic development position to make one full-time position that would cost $51,000 in salary and benefits.
In the end, the Budget Committee made the following recommendations:
1.      No more hiring of additional full time and part-time employees.
2.      Limit overtime as much as possible.
3.      Look at leasing equipment or postpone purchases and implementation of CIP.
4.      lnvestigate opportunities for leasing vs. purchasing equipment.
5.      The proposed part-time administrative assistant position cannot be supported at this time.
6.      The Economic Development position should remain a part-time position.
7.      The town should not be burdened with additional long-term debt commitments (such as the proposed $500,000 loan for the Town Office improvements).
8.      During upcoming union negotiations it should be considered that participants of the health benefit plans provide contributions to the plan.
“Given that we are looking at a major decline in revenue it may be worthwhile for you to consider these recommendations for increasing revenue and decreasing cost. Some possibilities are:
1.      Increase activity to collect past due taxes.
2.      Grant activity needs to be increased.
3.      Update list of property owned by the Town and ensure it is being actively offered for sale.
4.      Encourage early retirement and non-replacement.
5.      All departments should look into contracting services vs. use of town resources.
The over $236,000 in revenue loss stems from a number of factors:
•  The end of a grant that funded a new police officer position, which the town must pay $22,500
•  a decrease of $17,000 in state funding for Payment in Lieu of Taxes/Current Use with the sale of three Brandon Training School buildings.
•  $100,000 in capital transfer funds historically used for equipment leases.
The meeting began with a public comment period where most member of the Budget Committee got up to express their dismay at the budget they were given and urge the town to be sensible. They also said they could have used at least another week or two to do the committee’s work.
Chair Devon Fuller began by saying he agreed with notion that the committee should have had more time. He also said he agreed with the majority of the committee’s recommendations.
The next five hours were spent discussing and trimming items from the originally proposed budget. Bennett and the board made the following cuts in expenditures:
•  The new half-time administrative assistant position and benefits was cut- $51,500
•  Contingency funds cut from $25,00 to $15,000
•  Listers office cut by $15,675 in salary and benefits in deference to a proposed plan to hire a town assessor. That plan is a warned article and must be approved by voters on Town Meeting Day.
•  Line item for town office reduced from $61,200 to $30,000
•  Town Hall line item cut from $15,000 to $10,000, which is historically what the hall received prior to the current years’ budget.
•  CIP (capital improvement plan)
Building and Grounds- The appropriations for a backhoe and a grader were cut, a total of roughly $66,000
Police- The $30,000 appropriation for a replacement cruiser stayed, but roughly $15,000 in CIP funds for tasers, vests, a speed cart and money toward eventually replacing another cruiser was cut.
All told, the selectboard cut over $216,000 from expenditures. They also approved Bennett’s recommendation adding $25,000 in projected revenue towards the landfill services with Casella.
The board also voted to approve the retirement of a deficit line item from fiscal year 2013, with business ending June 30, 2012 equaling roughly $85,000 in operating costs in the general fund, according to a recently received preliminary draft audit report.
There is no room to carry that amount forward to the current budget because would increase the budget even more, so the board will ask taxpayers in a separate item on their tax bills to pay off the deficit in the General Fund. 

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