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Brattleboro Town Meeting calls for ‘transparent’ EMS decision

Jul 09, 2023

By Kevin O'Connor

Mar 26 2023March 26, 2023

BRATTLEBORO — Asked to consider a "lack of confidence" motion against local leaders’ surprise proposed takeover of emergency medical services, representatives at Town Meeting on Saturday instead called for a "transparent" public decision-making process and more say in related American Rescue Plan Act spending.

"I’ve been in town about 50 years now, and this is probably the most emotional issue that has come up," Dr. Robert Tortolani told an audience of 150 fellow meeting representatives who, unlike in other Vermont municipalities, are elected. "Our community is really hurting because of what's happening. I’m really happy we’re talking about this, because we really need to heal."

Last year's Town Meeting approved a 2022-23 municipal budget with a $285,600 line item that taxpayers expected would extend a nearly six-decade agreement with the private nonprofit Rescue Inc., the region's largest and longest-serving ambulance provider.

But unbeknown to residents, then newly hired Town Manager Octavian "Yoshi" Manale had reopened contract talks his predecessor had completed. A month later in April 2022, the since-departed administrator sat alongside the five-member selectboard as it unanimously approved a fire department takeover plan with little public notice, debate or outside review.

Leaders still haven't shared any of the facts or figures that caused them to approve the change, which they claimed would reap up to $700,000 in insurance revenue but actually could wind up costing taxpayers almost that much annually, according to a feasibility study commissioned after the switch.

"A big decision got made, and then we began studying options," Andy Davis told fellow meeting representatives gathered over the weekend at the Brattleboro Union High School gym. "It came across as ‘ready, shoot, aim.’ That's what has never sat easy with me."

Robert Oeser, a representative who has questioned the EMS decision publicly for a year, proposed the nonbinding "lack of confidence" resolution as part of the agenda's "other business."

"Be it resolved, that the representative Town Meeting expresses its lack of confidence in the manner in which the selectboard decided this," the motion read in part.

Several representatives voiced opposition to a resolution they called "one of condemnation" and "extreme." But others proposed cutting it down to its concluding words: "Be it resolved that representative Town Meeting calls on the selectboard to set up a process to determine the future of EMS in Brattleboro that is transparent and takes into account the opinions of town residents."

"The feeling," representative David Levenbach said, "is that the public was never really engaged, never really had an opportunity to express their feelings on what is a life-and-death operation."

A clear but uncounted majority approved the amended motion by standing up and saying "aye." They then called for a similar "dedicated community engagement process" for how the town would spend its remaining $2.7 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The selectboard has talked for months about seeking public input, only to vote this past week to set aside $1.75 million of ARPA money for potential EMS startup costs once local leaders conduct another study of all options this spring and summer and choose one this fall.

"There are several areas over the last few years where this question of community input and how the town is soliciting community input continues to come up," representative Emily Megas-Russell, an author of Brattleboro's recent Community Safety Review, said Saturday. "The current strategies don't feel enough and don't feel effective, despite the intentions that may be otherwise."

Most Vermont municipalities decide budgets and other ballot questions at annual Town Meetings on or around the first Tuesday in March. Brattleboro, the state's seventh most populous locality with some 12,000 residents, aims to keep attendance manageable by electing 150 representatives who wait to gather later in the month.

Brattleboro returned to its traditional in-person format after the town was the sole one in the state granted permission during the Covid-19 pandemic to move its proceedings online. Governing from home couches in 2021, representatives debated for a record 15 hours during a two-day session. Back in metal folding chairs Saturday, they dispatched the first 18 of 26 articles by noon and the rest by 6 p.m.

Representatives approved a $20.5 million 2023-24 municipal budget — but only after increasing it by $350,000 for three more firefighters to address what a public safety consultant has deemed a "deficiency" in staffing.

Supporting two multi-year bonds, the assembly approved $2 million in improvements to the municipal water system and $4.1 million in upgrades to the skating rink and surrounding facilities at the town's main recreational area, Living Memorial Park.

Representatives approved $280,891 for three-dozen human service programs and, after nearly two hours of debate, decided to raise next year's suggested allocation to 2% of the total municipal budget — an estimated $440,000.

The meeting adopted two special assessments for specific neighborhoods, including $80,000 to fund the work of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance and $131,698 to pay for water and sewer improvements at the Mountain Home and Deepwoods mobile home parks.

Representatives approved $45,028 for community marketing by the alliance and Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and $36,552 for ongoing work by Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies to grow area population and employment.

Tapping surplus money, the assembly approved $1 million to replace a Route 9 bridge and repair Williams Street, $120,000 for the demolition of the fire-ravaged McNeill's Brewery, and $50,000 to study pool improvements at Living Memorial Park.

Finally, the meeting commissioned a town-wide property reappraisal for completion by the tax year 2027.

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