Brandon residents back town budget on fifth vote

BRANDON — For better or worse, Brandon has a budget.
In this, the last town in Vermont to pass a municipal spending plan, voters approved a budget on the fifth try Tuesday by a vote of 534-472.
But considering the austerity needed for voter approval, it is not exactly a time for celebration. Voters and officials alike are feeling bruised and beaten after five months of financial wrangling, finger pointing and frustration.
What they have to show for it is a budget that is actually lower than the one that finally passed a year ago in July after four re-votes.
Reached after the results came in Tuesday night, selectboard Chair Maria Ammatuna was battle weary and far from thrilled.
“Now, we can go to work,” she said. “Tomorrow is just another work day. Unfortunately, it’s business as usual. And the thing is, the phones are going to ring this winter about lack of services, and there isn’t a darn thing we can do about it. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
That’s because the board was compelled to cut spending with every defeated budget until there was very little left for maintenance, let alone improvement, of the town’s infrastructure. It also cost two town jobs.
The now-approved spending plan of $2,992,800, with $2,388,125 to be raised by taxes, represents a $154,834, or 4.9 percent, decrease in operating expenses over last year’s budget.
Factoring in a roughly $211,000 drop in revenue and other factors, the overall budget increase comes to 2.4 percent. Coupled with the state and local education tax rate, the fire district tax rate, and appropriations already approved by voters, the total town tax rate would go from 79 cents per $100 of assessed value to 87 cents.
The board cut an additional $105,870 from the previously proposed budget. It reduced the Public Works director job to a half-time position, cutting $21,405, and added back an equipment operator position in public works at a cost of $23,725. Public Works Director Brian Sanderson resigned last week to take a full-time public works job in his hometown of Proctor.
The board also cut $69,905 in salary and benefits for an eighth police officer.
Also, $5,950 was cut from the economic development officer position, since it will now be melded with Recreation Director Bill Moore’s position. The figure of $17,330 was cut from the rec. director salary making it a three-quarter-time position with a one-quarter-time job for economic development. Also, $3,000 was added to recreation to buy software that will streamline the fee-paying process and give Moore more time to devote to the new position.
The board cut $10,000 from town office maintenance and $2,000 from park maintenance.
Lastly, 5 percent was cut from the town appropriation to the Brandon Public Library for a savings of $4,500, and from the Senior Center for a savings of $675. The town also reduced its appropriation to the Rutland Economic Development Corp. by $500.
There are no reserve funds, no capital improvement funds, no paving project funds, no sidewalk repair funds, and no culvert repair funds. There are no matching grant funds, and no emergency funds in the event of a natural disaster like the flood from Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated Brandon three years ago this week.
The town will also be negotiating with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union representing town employees in order to get the town health care contribution reduced by at least 5 percent. Right now, the town pays 100 percent of town employees’ health care premiums.
Officials had hoped that holding the fifth re-vote on Primary Day would boost voter turnout, but in the end, Brandon’s numbers were relatively flat. In fact, 20 fewer people voted on Tuesday than turned out for the fourth budget re-vote on July 23. All told, 35 percent of Brandon’s 2,858 registered voters turned out for the fifth re-vote, as opposed to 36 percent on July 23.
In the meantime, the town has been paying its bills with a $1.5 million current expense loan. According to Town Clerk Sue Gage, as of Aug. 25, the town has used $350,000 of the note. The town sought approval for the line of bank credit as the June 30 end of the fiscal year approached without a town budget, and has been drawing on the note to pay employee salaries, buy supplies, maintain equipment and do the general business of the town. The deadline to re-pay that note is Sept. 30.
It should also be noted that the cost of four re-votes since Town Meeting will also have to be accounted for. Each special vote costs the town $800-$1,000, so the tab is now in the $3,300-$4,000 range.
Then there is the roughly $1 million in delinquent property taxes and sewer fees that previous town administrations failed to collect over the last decade. Since The Reporter published the names of the delinquent taxpayers in the July 16 issue of the newspaper, according to Gage, $103,963 in delinquent property taxes has been paid, and $48,316 in past due sewer fees has been collected.
At Monday’s selectboard meeting, Ammatuna announced that the town will start posting a list of delinquent taxpayers’ accounts each month on the town website. Taxpayers who have set up a repayment plan will not be included on the list.
Now, with Town Meeting Day only seven months away, the board and Town Manager Robin Bennett will be gearing up for union negotiations and begin crafting the next proposed budget for town meeting.
Some officials hope that in March, voters will finally understand that the school budgets and the state’s education funding system have more to do with their property tax rate than the town budget, which has become a punching bag in the arena of Vermont’s complex and flawed tax policy.

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