Local News

Brandon struggles to pass budget

Fourth vote set for July 22, includes over $100K in additional cuts

By Lee J. Kahrs

BRANDON – The public has made it clear that it does not want a significant tax increase, and the select board has listened, but if voters don’t pay their taxes, it doesn’t matter what budget is approved.

On Monday, the board approved a proposed town budget to send to voters for a fourth vote on July 22, cutting half of one full-time public works position and another full-time public works position altogether. But a revelation that there is roughly $1 million in property and sewer taxes outstanding to the point that the town will be in deficit raises and even larger concern.

The board approved a $3,098,670 budget, with $2,493,995 to be raised by taxes, which amounts to a 7.17 percent increase in the net municipal budget. The previous $3,147,625 spending plan, with $2,327,125 to be raised by property taxes, amounted to a 3.7 percent budget increase. The board also voted unanimously to reinstate all intergovernmental appropriations to be voted on in the same article as the budget. At the June 30 meeting, the board approved taking town appropriations for non-profit organizations such as the senior center and the library and having voters vote those items separately from the budget.

Hours of meetings have transpired since the June 24 re-vote when the budget failed for the third time since Town Meeting Day. That budget, the same as the one offered for the May re-vote, amounted to a 12 percent tax increase, plus three separate articles totaling $60,000 for matching grant funds, capital improvement and reserves. Everything on the ballot lost by an almost 2-1 margin.

Since then, the board has discussed cutting everything from office supplies to employees, which is more or less what they ended up with. The approved budget going to voters on July 22 includes $104,000 in cuts as follows: 1.5 Public Works employees: $40,000 Police cruiser/ building: $38,000 Maintenance/mowing: $5,000 Buildings and grounds: $5,000 Zoning: $7,750 Listers: $2,000 Trees: $2,000 Culverts: $3,000 Paving: $2,000 There is also a proposed 5 percent health insurance contribution from town employees, which would save the town $12,145, but that item must be negotiated with the American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees union before it can be implemented.

Also coloring the board’s calculations was the revelation that the town will likely incur a deficit from the current fiscal year of at least $50,000.

“People have to understand, there is no reserve,” Town Clerk Sue Gage told the board. “If anything goes over budget or happens out of the ordinary, it’s problematic. It’s frightening to me. We have no cushion at all, we have no room for error.”

The current budget that was in effect until June 30 and is in deficit was only approved after the town’s first re-vote saga a year ago, when it took four votes to finally approve. Selectman Dave Atherton said he was struggling to come up with cuts this year.

“I’m just trying to figure out a budget where we can still run the town that makes sense,” he said. “It doesn’t seem like last year’s budget made sense because we’re $50,000 short.” Gage did add that unpaid taxes are to blame for the shortfall. According to Select Board Chair Maria Ammatuna, there is $694,486 in outstanding delinquent property taxes owed the town, and $374,754 owed in delinquent sewer fees on 274 parcels.

“We came in close on the budget,” Gage said. “It’s the delinquent taxes. I think we’re going to have to take a harder line on that.”

To that end, Ammatuna talked to the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and was told the town can publish the names and addresses of delinquent taxpayers as long as specific taxes owed are not published. There were a number of tense moments at Monday’s meeting. Ammatuna was clearly frustrated with Town Manager Robin Bennett, saying that the board had repeatedly asked for budget cut suggestions from management, but have not received any. “My frustration is that we have not gotten a response about the administrative model,” Ammatuna said. “The police department and public works have worked with us and provided a number of scenarios and worked with us. Management, it seems, is not going to make any more decisions than they already have, so it’s up to us.”

At one point, the board discussed cutting half of Public Works Director Brian Sanderson’s job, half the recreation director’s job and half of the police receptionist job. But Police Chief Chris Brickell stood and said the board may as well cut the $70,000 in salary and benefits for a recruit position in his department instead. He said in order for Lt. Rod Pulsifer to take over code and health officer enforcement duties for the town, which he offered to do to save the town money, the receptionist and recruit position need to be in place. The recruit lives out of state and is planning to move to Brandon in the next few months.

“I pay taxes here too,” Brickell said. “And I don’t want to see the town crumble away, so take the $70,000. It’ll ruin one person’s life out of state, but at least it will keep my current department intact.”

Ultimately, that cut did not take place, but after the chief spoke, it seemed as though board members were ready to resign. Ammatuna started packing up her budgets and paperwork and held on to her keys as she listened to her fellow board members wrestle with potential cuts, but never actually left the table. Atherton seemed inclined to do the same after audience members asked why the recreation director position was not on the table as a potential cut.

“I think it’s disgusting that you voted for the rec director position a year ago and now you’re talking about getting rid of it,” he said. “This is not good and I don’t know that I want to be part of this town falling apart. This is not what I joined the board for.”

Selectman Blaine Cliver said he has heard that people are going to vote against the budget “no matter what.” “So, what the hell are we doing here?” he asked. Bennett strongly recommended that the board reinstate appropriations to the budget article, and Selectman Devon Fuller agreed. “It’s our fault people are upset,” he said. The board also approved scheduling the town information meeting on this proposed budget farther ahead of the vote.

The information meeting was held on Tuesday, July 15 at the Neshobe School.

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