Brandon and OV budgets defeated once again


BRANDON—In their continued resistance to proposed tax hikes, voters once again rejected the Brandon town budget and the Otter Valley Unified Union (OVUU) budget at the ballot box on Tuesday. While the final tally for the Brandon town budget showed a margin of just 75 votes, with 478 no (54%) to 403 yes (46%), the tally for the school budget was considerably more lopsided, with 1019 no (61%) to 638 yes (39%). 

Both votes showed a significant decline in the number of ballots cast compared to the first round on March 5. In March, 1,377 ballots were cast in the Brandon budget vote and 2,216 in the school-budget vote. On Tuesday, by contrast, only 881 ballots were cast in Brandon and 1,657 for the school budget.

Otter Valley

The OVUU budget had originally been proposed at $27,247,823 in March. After its defeat at the ballot, the OVUU Board reduced the amount by 1% to $26,979,072 by removing a late-run afterschool bus for the Middle School, the Dean of Students position at Neshobe Elementary, the Nordic ski team at the High School, and $164K in assessments from OVUU to the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU) to cover special educators, mental-health professionals, and transportation.

Apparently, a 1% reduction in spending was not enough in a year when school taxes are anticipated to rise up to 18%. The 1% reduction in the budget would have resulted in an average annual savings of $13.60 per $100,000 of assessed property value across the OVUU district. So, a taxpayer whose home was valued at $200K would have saved roughly $27.20 per year and a taxpayer whose home was valued at $300K would have saved roughly $40.80. Voters clearly wanted more.

The OVUU Board will now have to revisit its budget and find other expenses to trim, a challenging task, given that the Board had already trimmed $500K from its budget to arrive at the March proposal. At the time, state law capped property-tax increases at 5% if districts kept their budget increases below 10%. OVUU cut $500K in order to remain just below that cutoff. 

However, the Legislature subsequently felt that districts that would not have approached a 10% increase were “padding” their budgets to stay just a hair below the cutoff and removed the protective cap. OVUU had already cut $500K to remain below the threshold and now found itself in a position where further cuts were demanded by voters because the 5% protection was no longer available.

In preparing its now-defeated budget, the OVUU had considered a 3% reduction in the March proposal, which would have entailed cutting world-language instruction in the elementary schools and consolidating some elementary classrooms (allowing the reduction of teaching staff). OVUU Board members rejected that proposal as inflicting too much damage on the educational experience of district students.

A 3% reduction would have saved the average OVUU taxpayer $40.80 per $100K of assessed property value. A taxpayer whose home was assessed at $250K, for example, would see a savings of approximately $102 per year in school taxes.

RNESU Superintendent Kristin Hubert wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday night, “Our boards will be meeting in the near future to determine next steps.”

It is not known whether the OVUU Board will now adopt the 3%-reduction plan it previously rejected or devise a different approach with different cuts. Under state law, a school district can borrow up to 80% of its previous year’s budget to cover costs until a new budget is passed.

Brandon town budget

Brandon voters rejected the revised FY2025 budget of $3,554,880 proposed by the town’s Selectboard, which saw a reduction of $241,300 from the original proposal of $3,796,180 that was defeated in March. 

The $241,300 reduction was achieved primarily through reconfiguring the $300K earmarked for paving in the original proposal. Of that $300K, $100K was replaced by money from the 1% Local Option Tax, thus avoiding the need to raise that amount from taxpayers again, and $115K was eliminated by removing the High Pond Road paving project from the FY2025 paving schedule. An additional $24K was removed from the budget by postponing the purchase of one of the two police cruisers that had been slated for FY2025. Additional savings were realized by eliminating the automatic mailing of ballots to all registered voters in town.

However, these changes clearly did not satisfy a majority of the voters who cast ballots on Tuesday. In fact, the sufficiency of the reductions had been a point of sometimes heated debate in Brandon since they were proposed following the defeat of the original budget in March.

At Selectboard meetings, on Front Porch Forum, in the pages of this paper, and in conversations around town, some Brandon residents expressed frustration and anger with what they said was an insensitive process that did not recognize the financial stress many in the community were feeling. Moreover, some members of the citizen panel that had been appointed to advise the Budget Committee stated publicly that they had felt dismissed during the workshops that culminated in the original defeated proposal.

For the most part, the Brandon Selectboard defended its budget choices, yielding once to community pressure to reinstate Guinness the police dog after he had been eliminated in an early draft of the proposed budget. Otherwise, the board resisted calls to make further cuts, stating that the budget that went to the ballot on Tuesday represented a balanced approach to town management, weighing management needs against taxpayers’ financial limitations.

At the last Selectboard meeting, on Monday, April 22, board member Brian Coolidge defended his public criticism of the board’s budget process, which he had called deceptive in that it reduced needed tax revenue without reducing spending. 

Regardless of the board’s view of its defeated proposal, it will now have to reexamine the budget and find additional cuts or other means to reduce the tax burden on Brandon residents.

Board chair Doug Bailey wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday night, “We will be having a ‘special’ board meeting to discuss our next steps next Monday, May 6. I will be meeting with the town manager tomorrow.”

No date has yet been set for the next vote on the budgets.

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