BY ANGELO LYNN
BRANDON — After a 17-minute meeting in early December, and a skipped meeting just before the Christmas holiday, the Brandon Selectboard held a 90-plus minute meeting Monday, Jan. 10, at which they announced the hiring of a new police chief, established the proposed budgets and revisited prior discussions on the town’s noise ordinance and whether to mail out town ballots ahead of the annual meeting on Feb. 28 and Town Meeting on March 1.
In a brief report by Town Manager Dave Atherton, he informed the board that their search for a police chief had gone much better than they could have expected — interviewing several highly qualified candidates — and that resulted in the hiring of David Kachajian, 49, who has been a lieutenant with the Swanton (Vermont) police force. He began work as Brandon’s new police chief on Tuesday, Jan. 11. Former Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell had given notice in late November and served his last day on Dec. 18.
To conduct a search and find an “exemplary” candidate in a month’s time was “exceptional,” Atherton said during a follow-up interview. Atherton noted that the police department also saw its lieutenant retire at the end of the year, but the quick hiring of the police chief, the three policeman on staff and two more coming back to the force in late February or early March from the police academy, should have the force back to full strength in the near future.
“I’m feeling more positive with the police department because we got so many good applicants,” Atherton told the board. “We’re on the path for rebuilding our town (after the Segment 6 construction project) and I think it’s making a big difference. Brandon has got to be doing something right because we attracted a lot of great applicants, and a lot of them referenced the investment residents had made in the community. I’m feeling real positive about our ability to recruit top candidates in the future.”
BUDGET, TAX DECREASES
In unusual news about the town budget, board Chairman Seth Hopkins reviewed with selectboard members a proposed budget that saw a small decrease in the General Fund budget and a fairly significant decrease in the tax rate for fiscal year 2022-23.
Hopkins said Brandon’ operating budget of $3,230,130 represents a decrease of 0.42% compared to last year’s total spending of $3,244,020. The “to be raised by taxes” amount of $2,712,274 — compared to last year’s $2,744,135 — represents a decrease of 1.2%.
“Additionally, and this is important,” Hopkins said in a follow-up interview, “the selectboard requested and voters approved a $100,000 stand-alone article for road paving last year (as we had for several previous years). We are not requesting any stand-alone article this year, so that $100,000 will not be raised by property taxes.”
That $100,000, Hopkins said, represents about 3% of the town’s $3 million budget.
“This is only possible because the town is seeing steady revenue from its 1% local option tax,” Hopkins explained, “and now that Segment 6 is completed, we can consider using that fund for other capital expenses for the first time as was the voters’ intent at the time of our adoption of the tax in 2015.”
Hopkins noted that the selectboard also made a transfer in Monday’s meeting of $123,900 from the local option tax fund to purchase a backhoe for the highway department without any debt or impact to the operating budget. That too was the result of funds from the local options tax.
“Non-property-tax revenue sources we have been cultivating for several years are finally performing as designed and taking pressure off property taxes,” Hopkins said.
That good news was partially the result of the town Budget Advisory Committee’s hard work to keep the budget tight. Hopkins praised the committee for its work, citing members: Jan Coolidge, Barry Varian, Peter Werner, Doug Bailey and Neil Silins.
After reviewing the budget, the selectboard approved it unanimously.
“It’s quite an achievement,” Hopkins concluded, “that in a time of inflation and employment pressures, we can come in with a budget that residents will appreciate (in terms of low taxes) while still serving the town well and meeting the community’s needs.”
The board reviewed whether to pose a nonbinding question to voters about the town’s noise ordinance. It was last April that the board held an exhaustive months-long community discussion on the ordinance, which ended in the selectboard voting 4-1 to stay with the state ordinance rather than rewrite one of their own.
In a 15-minute discussion Monday night, the selectboard discussed the pros and cons of putting a resolution at the bottom of the annual meeting ballot. The first challenge discussed was what the question would be, because it has to be in the form of a ‘yes or no’ answer. Framing any question in that context left it vague (for example, Do you think Brandon should draft a separate noise ordinance? Or do you approve of Brandon’s existing noise ordinance?) and might yield a result that was misleading or too vague to be useful.
Others at the meeting countered that because the question would be nonbinding, any question posed could yield valuable insights into what town residents were thinking, and therefore help the board make more fully informed decisions later.
The discussion also noted that the statewide ordinance established basic parameters and hit most of the bases, while not creating potential legal challenges.
In the end, the selectboard voted, 4-1, with Tim Guiles opposed, not to pose a nonbinding resolution on the town ballot.
Said Hopkins, “the board’s 4-1 vote on April 12, 2021, was perhaps one of the most deliberate things the board has ever done, as it was the end result of an extended and very public process of letters, surveys, hearings, and deliberation. The broad consensus of the community and of the board was/is that current state statute is sufficient, and almost any municipal ordinance about noise would be highly difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.”
The state’s statutes on noise are scattered throughout the VSA in various chapters, Hopkins said, but a non-profit organization made an effort at collating them here, which can be found at https://noisefree.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/vermont.pdf.
TOWN MEETING VOTING
In a similar discussion, the selectboard spent 15-plus minutes revisiting a board vote at its Oct. 25, 2021 meeting, in which they voted 4-1, with Tracy Wyman opposed, to send out mail-in ballots to all eligible town residents. At that same meeting, they agreed to couple the school district ballot with the town’s ballot, if all the other towns in the district would also be mailing the ballots to all eligible voters.
Because the other towns in the district are not going to be mailing ballots, however, the Brandon selectboard discussed whether their prior decision would be confusing to voters, and whether they should rescind that decision.
After calling town clerk Sue Gage, who joined the meeting in progress via Zoom, for details about the mail-in ballots — during which they learned the cost was between $5,000-$6,000 (to be taken out of the town clerk’s budget) — the board eventually agreed to keep their prior decision in place. That means the town will send out town ballots to eligible voters. Those voters may send the ballot back by mail, or bring it into the voting places on Town Meeting Day. Voting on the district’s school budgets will be separate and have its own process.
Like last year, the board also decided not to hold Town Meeting in-person, but hold it virtually. Residents will, however, be able to come to a voting place to cast an Australian ballot on the budgets and specific issues.
• The board unanimously approved an update to the personnel policy benefits addendum. It was noted that the benefits to full-time eligible employees beyond wages/salary include: health insurance (town pays 85% of gold-level plan) or buyout; life and disability insurance (100%); dental insurance (100%); vision insurance plan (employee-paid); a town-funded HRA (health reimbursement arrangement account); VMERS retirement system contribution based on statutory percentage of salary; trainings and professional development; and uniform costs or allowance.
• The selectboard also heard from Atherton that the town officially received two grants: one for a new and updated Local Hazard Mitigation Plan (LHMP) development under the 2020 Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program through FEMA. The grant is around $4,000. The other grant was funding for three properties on Newton Road that Atherton applied for through the Vermont Emergency Management Flood Resilient Communities Fund (FRCF). That grant amount was for $481,918.50.
In comments after the meeting, Hopkins made a point to emphasize the amount of revenue the town receives each year from sources other than taxation, and credited Atherton for savings. “In times gone by these would be kind of newsworthy grants,” Hopkins said. “But Dave is so proactive in pursuing grants for Brandon, so consistent in his relationship-building with granting authorities at the state level, and so successful in being awarded grants, that we sort of just expect him to keep delivering for Brandon — and he does.”