Brandon advances ‘no-frills’ budget

BRANDON — In the past 23 months Brandon residents have voted on municipal budgets nine times — four times in 2013 and five in 2014. In both of the last two budget cycles, townspeople have engaged in intense debate, emotional wrangling and numerous re-votes that led to budget approval in the summer months after the start of the fiscal year.
With little fanfare, the Brandon selectboard last week warned a “no-frills” budget for Town Meeting Day that represents a 2 percent, or $47,000, increase in the amount to be raised by taxes. It will require a 1.48-cent increase in the town tax rate (about 1.7 percent) if approved by voters.
“This is a very responsible budget. It’s less than a penny and a half on the tax rate, and you can’t get much better than that,” Selectman Devon Fuller said at the Jan. 26 selectboard meeting.
Now Fuller and other town leaders are hopeful that residents will agree when the budget is voted on March 3.
“The town staff, the selectboard and the Citizens Budget Committee have gone through this and we feel this is responsible, reasonable and responsive,” Town Manger Robin Bennett said. “That’s where we’re at.”
The proposed budget calls for $2,425,370 to be raised by taxes. Officials are comparing the “to-be-raised-by-taxes” number because the town library and senior center expenses this year will now be voted on separately as appropriations.
The most notable highlight is what is not in the General Fund budget. Many voters will be happy to hear that the board will ask them to vote separately for individual, much-needed road improvement projects, including shim coat resurfacing of Champlain Street and Marble Street; a 25 percent match (roughly $52,000) for the FEMA-funded overflow project in the downtown; and $10,000 for spot sidewalk repair.
Also, the budget restores the public works director to a full-time position, a $26,500 increase in salary to $52,000. Former Public Works Director Brian Sanderson resigned last summer when the board cut the position to part-time in order to pass a budget. Now, Bennett said fixing some of the crumbling roadways in town and the other projects looming in Brandon require someone running Public Works full-time.
“We have all of these projects and they all have to do with Public Works,” she said. “We’re hoping to get money for future projects and we need supervision of this department.”
Also included in the budget is a 1.7 percent cost of living increase for all town employees, and reorganization of staff to fill some long-vacant positions. Bookkeeper Anna Scheck will become the new zoning, health code and rental code officer for the town, a combined full-time position with a $54,135 salary. Those positions have been vacant for over a year. The bookkeeper position will become part-time (three-quarter time) and someone else will be hired for that job, which will pay $25 per hour.
Bill Moore will continue to be the town recreation director and the economic development officer, but the time split will be three-quarters for recreation and one-quarter for economic development.
“We’ve done a reorganization of people to reflect our needs as best we can,” Bennett said.
Just a week after a long-delayed meeting with union representatives from the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees, the town has included a 5 percent health care contribution for all town employees in the budget as well. The current contract, which expired last June, does not require employees to pay anything toward their health insurance. Bennett spent months trying to get a meeting with the union to re-negotiate the contract, and that meeting finally took place on Jan. 20. It was the first of several meetings and the town hopes to re-negotiate a higher employee health care contribution in the new contract, among other things.
“The contract that exists has multiple housekeeping issues with it,” Bennett said. “As I have said before, there has not been a thorough review of that contract in several years and those are things that just need to be addressed.”
Also in this budget is a plan to replace the aging fleet of Brandon police cruisers over time. While there are six cruisers that need replacement as of the current fiscal year, the town cannot afford to replace them all within a short span of time. So, there is allocation in this proposed budget to replace one cruiser at $30,000, and put $15,000 toward replacement of another next year. Then next year, the board will allocate another $45,000 and, combined with what is allocated this year, two more cruisers can be replaced.
While it was a controversial move, the board voted in October to separate the appropriations for the Brandon Senior Center and the Brandon Free Pubic Library from the General Fund budget, allowing residents to vote on those expenses separately this year. That money, a total of $98,000, also helped the town’s bottom line this year, and gives the voters more say in what they want to pay for.
Bennett characterized the message the town is sending with this budget as “Responsible, reasonable and responsive.”
The selectboard echoed that sentiment Monday night. Selectman Fuller publicly thanked members of the Citizens Budget Committee for their work. The board appointed the four-member committee — comprised of Jan Coolidge, Doug Sawyer, Seth Hopkins and Carol Bertrand — in December, deciding that last year’s 10-member committee was too big. The 2014 committee was divided in how to proceed with the budget, and there was dissension among the members throughout the process.
Also this year, the board and the budget committee met jointly on four consecutive evenings to work on the budget, rather than having the selectboard review the plan and 

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