Hopes are high for 5th budget vote in Brandon
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | August 06,2014
BRANDON — Former selectman Richard Baker isn’t about to bet the house on it, but he thinks the next vote on the municipal budget just might do the trick.
“I think so, but it’s hard to tell because there are people voting ‘no’ who are purely emotional because they don’t care what’s in the budget,” Baker said.
What makes Baker more optimistic this time around is that the budget isn’t likely to include money to fill a police officer vacancy.
If there was one area of the budget that has drawn the most comment and criticism, it’s the police budget and whether the town could afford an eight-officer force to provide 24/7 coverage.
Townspeople will go back to Neshobe School on Aug. 26, the same day as the Vermont primary, to cast their vote a fifth time on a town budget. Brandon is the only town in the state without one.
Although the Select Board has yet to formally vote on whether to reverse course and cut the position, the person who was given a conditional offer of employment was told last week by Police Chief Christopher Brickell that the offer had been withdrawn in the absence of a budget.
Not filling the police position would save the town $70,000 in pay and benefits.
Baker said some people are voting against the budget because they don’t understand the level of services provided by a full-time police force and the history behind it.
“We had a big battle here 11 or 12 years ago about this very issue,” said Baker, who spent 15 years on the board and several months last year as interim town manager.
Phyllis Cioffi Reed, who served on the citizens budget committee, said leaving the eighth police position open is the right move.
“I think it was a very wise decision on Chief Brickell’s part,” she said.
That should increase the odds of the budget passing, Reed said.
Before the March vote, the committee recommended a hiring freeze that included police.
For most people who voted against the budget, Reed said it was a question of money and the fact that the town can’t afford 24-hour police coverage.
Janet Coolidge, who chaired the committee, agreed that cutting a police position increases the likelihood of the budget passing when the votes are tallied Aug. 26.
The latest budget proposal offered by Selectman Blaine Cliver also eliminates the Department of Public Works director’s job held by Brian Sanderson, with the supervisory duties assumed by the road foreman.
Cliver wants to hire back one of the two DPW workers already laid off and have Recreation Director Bill Moore spend 25 percent of his time promoting economic development.
Sanderson referred questions about his job to Town Manager Robin Bennett, who raised concerns about Cliver’s proposal.
“I think having someone, who is a union employee overseeing that department isn’t in the best interest of the town of Brandon,” Bennett said.
She said while the foreman does have some supervisory duties, those duties are carried out under the supervision of the public works director.
But Reed said if the DPW director’s functions could be handled by the road foreman, that would save taxpayers additional money.
Baker said cutting the DPW director was problematic, leaving the department thin on staff.
The board, in putting together the last budget rejected by voters, eliminated two of the four DPW jobs.
Baker said one of the two remaining workers is out on disability.
If adopted by the board at its next meeting, Cliver’s plan would be a 2.7 percent increase over last year’s budget, with $2,389,974 raised by property taxes.
Since the budget defeat in March, the board has whittled away at the fiscal 2015 spending plan. Coupled with Cliver’s cuts, the budget the board will review Monday night is $281,446 less than the budget that was soundly rejected in March.
To keep the town going through the first quarter of the fiscal year, the town has taken out a $1.5 million line of credit from Lake Sunapee Bank.
Town resident Art Doty said he takes Brickell at his word when he says eight officers are needed to provide 24/7 police protection.
The problem, Doty said, is that while people want 24-hour coverage, some don’t want to pay for it.
Those people are on fixed incomes or their pay raises can’t keep up with their expenses, he said
But Doty said for some, the issue is more than dollar and cents; it’s a distrust of town government.
“I just don’t think they know the town government that well, and I don’t think in some cases they like certain individuals in the town (government),” Doty said. “And in other cases, I don’t think they trust certain individuals in town.”
He said that’s a tougher issue to deal with than arguing over money.
Still, Doty said, the budget should pass if the increase is less than 3 percent.
Bernie Carr, executive director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce, said leaving the police job vacant should send a response to the “no” votes.
Even with one less police officer, 24/7 coverage might still be possible, he said.
“I think they can try to work that out with seven guys,” Carr said. “Is it going to be perfect? No.”
He said the town can revisit filling the eighth officer position next year.
Concerning the public works director, Carr said in the past, the road foreman had taken on a supervisory role but only on a temporary basis.
He said Moore would make an excellent economic ambassador for the town. But he said he is concerned that the Recreation Department would suffer.
“It’s so important to keep that Rec Department going strong,” Carr said. “It’s just getting built back up where it needs to be.”
This is the second consecutive year Brandon has run into a stone wall on the budget. Last year, it took four votes to get voters’ approval.
The town found itself in a tighter bind this year with no budget reserve to fall back on. The reserve was depleted to repair damage after Tropical Storm Irene three years ago. The reserve fund was also used to artificially keep the tax rate low.
Steven Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns said he is not aware of any other town that has voted five times on its municipal budget.
Carr said the town can’t afford to have voters turn their backs on yet another budget.
“The bottom line is, the budget needs to be passed because it’s beginning to affect the public perception of the town,” he said. “We worked so hard over the past 20 years to change that image.”