April 16, 2014

A look at the books

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Selectboard eyes 10.5 percent increase to
2015 budget

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

December 12th, 2013

Vermin is not a word you often hear at municipal budget hearings.

But protecting the town’s buildings from the possibility of encroaching rodents—as well as protecting the town’s residents from calamity—fell under the purview of the Selectboard Monday night as it got its first look at the fiscal year 2015 municipal budget.

Town Manager Rick McGuire and Financial Director Susan Lamb kicked off the meeting with an overview of the town’s municipal budget—proposed to increase by 10.5 percent to $9,919,030. Of that, $1.6 million is capital expenses. That would translate to an increase of approximately 3 cents per $100 of value on property taxes—an increase of $90 for a $300,000 home.

McGuire conceded that there was “probably some sticker shock” at the increase of approximately $940,000.

More than half the budget—fire, police and public works—goes toward keeping the town safe, McGuire said. He also urged the board to keep in mind that the budget is a balancing act.

“It’s a balancing act between the demand for services and the community’s willingness to pay for these services,” he said.

McGuire said some of the increase is driven by the rising cost of services, a steady increase in Williston’s population and increases to wages and benefits, including two new full-time positions (police and stormwater), plus an increase from part-time to full-time in the fire department.

A large part of the increase, however, is due to new federal and state requirements regarding stormwater.

In addition, the budget includes a $150,000 increase to the town’s debt service to cover principal and interest costs for the new public works facility.

Beginning the budget season in earnest, the board heard presentations from the library, fire department and town clerk’s office.

LIBRARY

While the library’s proposed budget was up just 3.82 percent from the 2014 budget, library Director Marti Fiske drew the board’s attention to a few proposed increases.

Included was an item that recently came to Fiske’s attention—a rotten patio door, which would run approximately $5,400.

“It’s going to start bringing in vermin pretty soon,” Fiske said.

The building also needs an updated air conditioning system—it is still running on a Freon system. Fiske said the entry courtyard to the library will also need attention soon—heavy salt use has led the concrete to wear away in places.

“It’s already difficult for people who have walkers and transport wheelchairs,” she said. “I’m a little concerned it will turn into an ankle twister for everyone.”

Fiske said proposed increases to the library’s operating budget came out of the library’s new strategic plan.

“This operating budget takes into account all of the things we learned over the course of the strategic plan, as well as ongoing expenses,” she said.

The budget includes $2,200 to hire a space consultant to determine how to more effectively use the library’s space and prevent the need for an expansion—a small expense for a large benefit, she said.

Fiske also requested, as she did last year, to increase the assistant director’s hours from 25 to 28. The added hours would increase the library’s staffing levels by 1 percent.

“There are just not enough hours of the day for everything she has to do,” Fiske said. “We haven’t had a staffing increase in seven years.”

FIRE AND RESCUE

Fire Chief Ken Morton outlined a 12.65 percent increase to the fire, rescue and ambulance operating budget, bringing it to $1.54 million.

Much of the increase comes from contractual rank and raise increases and an increase of one position from part time to full time. Morton also requested a 50-cent increase in the starting wage of call firefighters and EMTs, from $9.55 an hour to $10.05.

As in other years, Morton departed from the proposed manager’s budget to put forth a call for added staff, which he said is crucial in protecting the town. For more than a decade, Morton has advocated for having three full-time career firefighters/EMTs on each shift. Currently, the station has two per shift. If they both go out on a call and take a patient to the hospital, Morton said, there is no one on call for an hour and a half.

That means there could be no one in Williston to respond to an emergency call.

“It absolutely could happen,” Morton said. “It’s not a scare tactic…. It’s critically important to protect the community.”

Morton said adding two full-time positions would bring the station up to three per shift and would cost the owner of a $300,000 home 29 cents per week.

“I could throw out a number for what it costs for a latte or a beer at McGillicuddy’s,” Morton said. “At the end of the day it’s 29 cents per week.”

Morton added that himself, Chief Lizotte and Chief Hulbert are set to retire in the next two to five years—a total of 120 years of experience. Adding staff now will help ease that transition, he said.

TOWN CLERK

Town Clerk Deb Beckett presented a budget of $243,380, a 0.95 percent increase.

Beckett requested a $6,600 increase to the town clerk/treasurer salary, which would bring it to the median salary range for the position in similarly sized towns.

She also proposed an increase to the elections budget, since next year would bring a primary and general election, as well as town elections.

The Selectboard will finalize its budget proposal next month, and voters will approve or reject the budget at Town Meeting in March.

The next budget meeting is scheduled for Dec. 16 at Williston Woods. The Selectboard is set to review the Planning and Zoning Department and the Police Department budgets.

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