Brandon voters nix budget for third time

BRANDON — The majority of Brandon voters voted “no” again on Tuesday, defeating the proposed municipal budget for the third time this year despite an impassioned plea from the selectboard chair. The tally was 376-671.
Three articles establishing $60,000 in three separate funds for specific purposes were also defeated.
On Wednesday morning, the board held an emergency meeting warned 24 hours before to figure out next steps, which will include cutting services and personnel as the end of the fiscal year looms on June 30.
To make matters worse, there were reports of alleged illegal activity by those who are vehemently against the proposed 2014-2015 spending plan. After an information meeting Monday night at the Neshobe School, attended by roughly 60 people and punctuated by an emotional plea from selectboard Chair Maria Ammatuna, Selectman Blaine Cliver’s tire was cut and flattened in the parking lot. On Tuesday, there was a complaint filed stating that a vocal opponent of the budget was seen taking down “Vote Yes” signs near the Neshobe School on that afternoon
The budget failed to pass on Town Meeting Day in March and again at a May 6 re-vote. After a regular meeting May 29, the selectboard unanimously approved sending the last failed spending amount of $3,218,670 back to the voters, with $2,613,995 to be raised by taxes
In addition to proposing the same budget (Article 1), the board also created three separate articles for voters to accept or reject.
Article 2 asked voters to approve $20,000 for matching grant funds the town may need if it wins grants that require a town match.
Article 3 asked voters to allocate $15,000 for emergency funds. There are currently no emergency, contingency or surplus funds available to the town.
Article 4 asked voters to approve an additional $25,000 for the Capital Improvement Fund, which would augment the $48,000 fund created in the regular budget. It would be used to repair and replace aging vehicle and heavy equipment owned by the town police and public works departments.
If approved, the funds in all three of these special articles would stay in a reserve fund and could not be used for anything else.
But they weren’t approved. None of the four articles passed, by the following vote counts:
Article 1: Yes- 376, No- 671
Article 2: Yes- 422, No- 623
Article 3: Yes- 410, No- 635
Article 4: Yes- 365, No- 682
Of Brandon’s 2,858 registered voters, almost 1,050 went to the polls on Tuesday, a turnout of 38 percent. That is an increase over the May 6 re-vote, when only 29 percent voted. On Town Meeting, 44 percent of voters exercised that right.
At the Monday night information meeting, Ammatuna was clearly frustrated and concerned. She stood up and came out from behind the board’s table, took the microphone in hand and spent the next five minutes airing her deep frustration. She described how board members face complaints about roads, sidewalks, bridges, equipment and buildings in need of repair from taxpayers who Ammatuna said freely admit, “I don’t want to pay for it, I just want you to fix it.”
“We drive the same roads, we have the same angst and anguish,” she said. “We feel all of that with you. But we can’t fix it. We don’t have the money.”
The budget as presented Monday included money to establish a Capital Improvement Program to replace aging town vehicles and equipment on a successive basis over the net several years. The town has no more reserve funds, which were used up to pay for repairs after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and to keep the property tax rate artificially low over the last several years. The board maintains that it is now time to rebuild, pay up and plan for the future.
Opponents of the budget have said that they can’t afford a 12 percent increase in the tax rate.
Ammatuna went on to say that she also hears criticism about how the board is out of touch with the financial woes of the average taxpayer. She said the board understands, they see it in their fellow taxpayers, and sitting on the Board of Civil Authority.
“We get it,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “There’s a lot of sleepless nights. We get it. But what I can’t do is allow your town to crumble. We are at a breaking point, a real turning point.”
Ammatuna said of course the town has problems, but in order to even begin to address them, the budget needs to pass.
“Are we perfect?” she asked. “No, far from it. Do we need police cars? Yes. There are nickels and dimes we can do, but we need to keep Brandon on the map, and we will do our damn best to keep Brandon on the map.”
She went on to say that the board watches every penny that each department head spends and gets monthly reports on expenditures.
“We get it,” she repeated. “We ride the town manager and the police chief and the guys in the garage.”
In closing, Ammatuna, her voice still wavering, asked for the “yes” vote.
“I hope you will support the budget because you support us,” she said. “And if this budget does not pass tomorrow, then we have all wasted your time.”
On Wednesday morning, the embattled and frustrated selectboard discussed a number of options, ranging from cutting staff in the public works and police departments, to offering three separate budgets and different budget cuts for each so voters could choose what they want to cut. There was also talk about reducing the length of the workweek for town employees, a freeze of management salaries for one year, and cutting code enforcement.
Selectman Devon Fuller said he did not agree with putting out separate budgets with a choice of cuts, but also was not convinced that cutting services and personnel would matter to voters.
“Until people feel the pain, they’re not going to change their vote,” he said. “And frankly, I’m not convinced they will vote ‘yes’ even if they do feel the pain.”

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