Brandon voters defeat budget for a fourth time
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | July 23,2014
Albert J. Marro / Staff Photo
Richard Baker, left, and Bud Coolidge socialize with a voter at Brandon's special budget ballot Tuesday at The Neshobe School in Forest Dale. 07/22/14
BRANDON — For the fourth time Tuesday, voters defeated a town budget, leaving Brandon the only municipality in the state without one.
The $3,098,670 fiscal 2015 budget was soundly rejected by a decisive vote of 600 to 425. The amount to be raised by property taxes was $2,493,995.
Select Board Chairwoman Maria Ammatuna and Selectman David Atherton were on hand as the votes were tallied.
Before the results were announced, Atherton said he didn’t “have any idea” what the board was going to do next if the budget were rejected.
Ammatuna said her most immediate concern is the $1.5 million line of credit the town received on July 1 to pay its bills through Sept. 30.
She said without a budget, the clock is ticking on paying back whatever is drawn down on the 90-day note, plus as much as $5,000 in interest.
She called that the “800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“That’s my biggest concern rather than what’s the next (budget) number going to be,” Ammatuna said.
Turnout Tuesday was 36 percent of the 2,864 registered voters.
Brandon is the last municipality in the state without a budget. Fair Haven passed its budget last week.
Last year, it took Brandon voters four trips to the polls to pass a budget. With Tuesday’s defeat, the board will meet again Monday to begin work on a fifth budget proposal.
Atherton traces the difficulty in getting a budget passed to last year when the budget won approval on Town Meeting Day, only to have it petitioned to be re-voted. He said there may have been the belief that taxes would go down without a cut in services.
“I think that gave a lot of people a sort of misconception to what voting ‘no’ to your budget will do,” Atherton said. “The more you keep cutting it, the less we can provide.
The budget plan defeated Tuesday was $120,000 less than the budget that was defeated by a wide margin last month.
The tax rate for all town government appropriations, including the budget and other taxpayer-funded approved appropriations (excluding schools), would have resulted in a 13.4 percent increase in the tax rate from 78.6 cents to 92 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The overall tax rate (including schools) would have gone up 6.9 percent to $2.256.
In an effort to convert budget opponents, the board cut two of the four Public Works Department jobs. The Police Department budget took a $38,000 hit.
Responding to anger about the union contract, the board penciled in a 5 percent contribution by employees for their health insurance premiums, which would save the town $13,000 a year. But the contribution is subject to negotiations that have yet to begin about a new union contract.
At recent meetings on the budget, some townspeople called for cutting police department staff while others questioned having a full-time recreation director.
The town finds itself in a financial bind because of the damage caused by Tropical Storm Irene nearly three years ago. Board members have pointed out on a number of occasions that previous boards used the budget reserve to keep property taxes artificially low.
Together, that left the town with no financial buffer this year. Delinquent taxes is another problem that has crept up on the town. Nearly $695,000 is owed in back property taxes. In addition, several hundred thousand dollars is owed in delinquent sewer fees.
Town Clerk and Treasurer Susan Gage said the lack of income — and not overspending — is the reason the town is facing a deficit that could turn out to be as much as $50,000 for the fiscal year that just ended. The exact amount won’t be known until the books are closed and audited, Gage has said.