December 18, 2014

Real property tax relief

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By Gov. Peter Shumlin

This week, we released an estimate that property taxes used to pay for public school education will increase once again this year to pay for a projected increase in school spending. While this year’s projected property tax increase of around 2 cents is half of last year’s, it is hardly good news. We all know that rising property taxes to fund education have put an unsustainable burden on Vermonters. Despite a steady decline in school enrollment over the last two decades, property tax payers have not seen a decline in their property taxes; they’ve seen the opposite. But while rising property taxes are one clear indication of the higher cost of education in Vermont, they are only the most visible aspect of the money Vermonters spend on our public education system.

We all know that property taxes go to fund education. But what is less widely known is about 30 percent of all General Fund revenue raised for Vermont (not including property tax receipts) goes to fund education spending. Also, about two-thirds of Vermonters pay for education based on their income, rather than directly on the value of their property, because of income sensitivity in our property tax laws. Even for those Vermonters who pay based on their property values, a portion of their income tax goes to fund education in addition to the property taxes they already pay.

Then there is the sales tax. Just over one-third of all sales tax collected in FY2014 went to fund education spending. Put another way, for every dollar in sales tax that a Vermonter paid, 35 cents went to fund education spending. For those Vermonters who bought a car or truck, one third of the purchase and use taxes collected on the sale of vehicles, about $30.6 million, also went to education.  And don’t forget about revenue from the lottery, because every cent of the over $20 million in proceeds went to fund education this year.

The bottom line is that we support our public education system through multiple revenue sources, not just the property tax. That is why we should not assume that we can solve our property tax problem by simply shifting collection to other sources. While we should certainly continue to look at the complexity and difficulties in our financing formula, we should focus our efforts on the primary problem: education spending has continued to rise, faster than Vermonter’s ability to pay for it, even though our student count has declined and continues to do so.

To bring that trend into sharper relief, consider this: Vermont had 103,898 students in 1997. Today that number is 82,523—a decline of more than 21,000, or nearly 20 percent. Underlining this trend is the fact that on average, Vermont schools employ one staff member for every 4.7 students and a teacher for every 10 students. Some schools have fewer than 7 students per teacher, even though best practices cite optimal class size at about 15 students. These low ratios substantially raise costs, without any evidence to show that ratios this low are improving student outcomes. If classes were slightly larger costing us less, how else could we invest those education dollars? On other educational opportunities? On property tax relief for Vermonters that could free them to spend for other economic activities?

All of this leads me back to one conclusion:  Without addressing our spending challenge, true tax relief will elude us.

Peter Shumlin is Vermont’s governor.

Williston schools request support programs, staff

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By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Supportive programs and staff took center stage at the last Williston School District budget meeting.

Williston School District administration presented its requests for additions to the budget on Dec. 4. Board members and budget buddies—community members providing input to the board—will rank the additions they see as most important. From there, the board will decide what, if any, items to add to or cut from the baseline.

Among the requests was a proposal for a new program to address the needs of students who have experienced trauma or stressors that make it difficult for them to function in a regular classroom setting, but who don’t necessarily require special education.

The program, called the “Success Program” would involve two paraeducators and a half-time teacher, a $113,000 expenditure.

“Our student population has changed over the years,” school administrators wrote in their request to the board. “We need a program that will help students who have experienced trauma in their lives and have difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior to be active participants in a regular classroom setting. The time a teacher spends dealing with issues is instructional time lost for the rest of the class.”

The program would establish a separate classroom staffed by a behavior specialist and paraeducators where students can work on the academics and social skills needed until they are ready to transition back into the regular classroom.

Not only would the extra coaching and support help the students experiencing issues, it would reduce classroom disruptions and safety concerns.

“When a student is in crisis, finding resources (hiring qualified people to deal with a situation as it arises) has proven to be almost impossible,” the request states. “Putting together a team of people to help a student in crisis does not establish the consistency or the relationships needed for these students to be successful. Having a team and procedures in place to handle situations as they arise will save time and provide students the assistance they need in a timely fashion.”

The administration also requested $80,000 for a full time certified math educator for kindergarten through second grade.

The school hopes to increase “numeracy skills and understandings” to enable more students to meet Common Core State Standards in math. The school currently has one K-2 math specialist, which the administration said is not adequate.

“Adding an additional certified math educator would enable us to provide intervention that is more equitable, consistent and effective than the level of math intervention we currently provide,” the form states.

The administration also proposed increasing pay for substitute teachers to bring the rates more in line with area schools. The school currently pays substitutes $80 a day, as it has for the past 10 years. Chittenden East School District pays $95 a day, Essex town $95, Burlington $85 and Colchester between $90 and $110. The administration suggested bumping pay to $95 a day, a $19,000 increase to the substitute expenditure of $101,200 during the 2013-2014 school year.

They also asked for two additional para-educators for third and fourth grade, requested by the Mosaic House. The paraeducators would provide literacy and math support.

In addition to support staff, the school administration asked for an $88,000 increase to the operations and maintenance budget—an area that has taken a hit in recent years as the board attempted to keep the budget tight, leaving it well below the level of work that is needed, according to the administration.

The budget has been decreased or level-funded since 2011-12.

“We tried our best to get by but after 3 years, it has become difficult to maintain,” Allen Brook School Principal John Terko wrote in a letter to the board.

The new head of maintenance, Lyall Smith, has found “many deficiencies” at Williston Central School—parts of which were built in the 1950s or 1970s. “Some are life-safety issues and others involving more capital to fix or upgrade,” Terko wrote. “We urgently need to bring this budget in line with… the projects that need to be completed mostly due to age.”

The Williston School Board is set to meet again Jan. 22.

Board Chairman Kevin Mara said many of the expense and revenue estimates will become clearer by the end of January as well, giving the board a better picture of where the budget stands.

“So many things shake out in that time period,” he said.

Restaurants grapple with balancing costs, prices

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Due to rising food costs, Ramunto's will raise its prices on Jan. 1 -- the first time since the eatery opened in 2009.

Due to rising food costs, Ramunto’s will raise its prices on Jan. 1 — the first time since the eatery opened in 2009.

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Ramunto’s Brick Oven Pizza owner Jeff Paul recently made a tough decision—to raise his food prices for the first time since he opened the eatery in 2009.

While food costs are always inching upward, in the past year Paul said he has seen prices of his top three ingredients—flour, meat and cheese—jump significantly.

“I don’t want to take it out on our customers,” he said. “I love this Williston community…. But at the same time we can’t be bleeding money in terms of our food costs, so we have to raise some prices. We’re almost being forced to do it, just based on the fact that these food prices are spiking with no end in sight.”

In the past year, Paul said his costs for pepperoni increased by 36 percent, steak by 30, sausage 34 percent and flour by 22 percent.

“The (costs of) things we use on a daily basis have skyrocketed,” he said. “Pricing has gone up dramatically. When you jump 36 percent in one year, that’s pretty intense.”

The USDA estimates that wholesale beef prices have risen by approximately 22 percent in the last year, largely due to low U.S. herd sizes and drought in the Western states. Wholesale pork prices have increased by 20 percent since last October, though they have dropped since an all-time high in July. Cheese prices are up 8.9 percent since last year, with high demand supporting the increase.

“In the past year, the industry has experienced price increases in pork and beef, as well as dairy,” said Charley Wilson, vice president of corporate communications at Sysco. “You see that reflected across the country. Generally, there’s just a greater demand for and a lower supply of those products. Those are the big ones.”

Mark Akey, who owns Ake’s Old Brick Tavern, said prices of “just about everything” are on the rise, cutting into his bottom line.

“It’s hard,” he said. “You try to keep your prices reasonable but you have to charge a certain amount to make sure you’re making money.”

He said the restaurant changes its menu seasonally, which gives him some flexibility when it comes to ingredients.

Paul said he is nervous to raise prices, risking customer disgruntlement.

“You have to take product that’s already expensive because of the quality we have and make it a little more expensive,” Paul said. “It’s a scary proposition for someone like us that’s a locally owned restaurant that’s very engaged in the community.”

Jonathan Wish—CEO of Wow That’s Good Food, which owns Vermont Tap House, Grazers and other restaurants—said they haven’t been hit too hard this year, but a lot of it depends on the restaurant’s supplier.

“One of the things that has protected us a little bit, and we have heard some grumbling in the industry, is we’ve made a very good partnership with Reinhart Food Services,” Wish said. “They’ve done a great job with finding solutions, working with producers and distributors to keep those prices down.”

He also said local food runs in a completely different market than the national market, and that balancing the cost of ingredients with menu pricing is always a challenge in the restaurant industry.

“Food prices are constantly in fluctuation, and we always have to deal with that,” he said. “We try to protect our customers. We find it’s very cyclical. Beef is on the rise. Pork went sky high six months ago and now it’s dropping like a rock. We do see these cycles happening.”

Town manager proposes modest budget hike

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Spending plan would boost tax rate by 2 cents

By Greg Elias

Observer Correspondent

Town Manager Rick McGuire on Monday presented an operating budget that rises by just 1 percent, a much smaller jump than in recent years. But a disproportionate property tax hike and new stormwater fees may make some residents think costs are still too high.

The first draft of the 2015-16 fiscal year budget totals $9,889,870. It would require a 2-cent property tax increase, costing the owner of a $400,000 home an additional $80 a year.

The Selectboard listened to McGuire detail revenues and expenses, and then heard presentations on departmental budgets.

Board member Jeff Fehrs pointed out that though the total budget increase is small, expenses rise by 4 percent and the municipal property tax rate jumps nearly 9 percent.

The disparity is largely the result of moving $367,040 in stormwater expenses from the general fund budget to a separate enterprise fund. Revenue generated by a separate fee levied on homeowners and businesses will pay for federally mandated improvements to mitigate runoff that pollutes waterways.

The fee will be levied starting Jan. 1. It will cost each Williston household about $51 a year, according to McGuire. Fehrs said the fee, combined with the property tax hike, would produce higher costs for residents than the budget increase would indicate.

McGuire highlighted other changes in the proposed budget. One of the largest new expenditures is a $120,000 contribution to the environmental reserve fund. The budget funnels proceeds from the sale of municipal property to Vermont Gas to fund most of the contribution.

On the revenue side, the budget projects a modest increase in sales tax revenue. Williston’s share of the tax is projected to bring in $2,810,000.

Much of the nearly two hours of budget discussion was used to detail departmental budgets. The Selectboard heard presentations from Finance Director Susan Lamb, Town Clerk Deb Beckett, Police Chief Todd Shepard and Todd Goodwin, the newly hired recreation director.

Lamb jokingly said the most significant change in the general administration budget is that “the Selectboard is getting a raise.” The five board members collectively made $5,300 this year. The new budget will bump that total to $5,560. Lamb explained the change would restore a previous year’s cut.

General administration is proposing the largest spending hike — 11 percent — of any department, bringing its budget up to $514,910.

Lamb said changes to how stormwater expenses are tallied alter the bottom line for administration and other departments. Costs are allocated by attributing a portion of some employees’ salaries to the stormwater fund.

Beckett said her budget mostly maintains the status quo. The clerk’s office proposes a $249,770 budget, an increase of 1 percent.

The police budget boosts spending by 2 percent to $2,083,580. Shepard said staffing would remain level with the exception of additional weekend dispatch hours.

Fehrs noted the salary line of the police budget rises by 6.9 percent. He wondered how he would justify the seemingly large raises to taxpayers.

Shepard said the increase didn’t mean individual employees would get such a large raise. He said the line item shows total salary costs, which includes promotions, reassignments and the increased dispatch hours. And the department has to pay for one position that had in previous years been funded by a grant.

The Recreation and Parks Department’s proposed budget also rises by 2 percent. Spending totals $556,150.

Goodwin, who on Monday had been with the department just one week, said he was still getting up to speed on the budget. But he has already proposed altering the format to divide expenses into categories such as administrative services, contracted services and park maintenance.

One new expense is $9,500 to fund a new online registration system for recreation programs. Goodwin said the system will allow residents to sign up and pay for programs online rather than having to call or visit his office.

“It makes it easy for mom and dad at 10 o’clock at night when the kids have gone to bed to go and register them all for programming,” he said.

The Selectboard will continue to hear department budget presentations at its Dec. 15 meeting, which takes place at Williston Woods on North Williston Road. The session starts at 7 p.m.

The complete draft municipal budget is posted on the town of Williston’s website, town.williston.vt.us. Follow the link on the right side of the site’s homepage.

PHOTOS: Food drive

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Residents of Williston’s Pinecrest Village and Balsam Circle neighborhoods brought more than $250 and piles of food to donate to the Williston Community Food Shelf during a two-day food drive organized by (from left) Kelly Scannall, Ramona Guadalupe, Sue Hayes and Crissy Sears in late November.

Residents of Williston’s Pinecrest Village and Balsam Circle neighborhoods brought more than $250 and piles of food to donate to the Williston Community Food Shelf during a two-day food drive organized by (from left) Kelly Scannall, Ramona Guadalupe, Sue Hayes and Crissy Sears in late November. (Observer courtesy photos)

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PHOTOS: Christmas trees

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Members of the Goulette family (from left) Zander, Jared, Doug, Dee and Christian of Williston select their Christmas tree Saturday from the Isham Family Farm on Oak Hill Road. (Observer photos by Al Frey)

Members of the Goulette family (from left) Zander, Jared, Doug, Dee and Christian of Williston select their Christmas tree Saturday from the Isham Family Farm on Oak Hill Road. (Observer photos by Al Frey)

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POPCORN: “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1” Undernourished

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2 popcorns

2 popcorns

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1”

Undernourished

2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer

 

Perhaps it’s happened to you…the feeling you get at a party given by folks you don’t know very well, where it seems like everyone but you knows something…maybe a secret or some life philosophy, and you never got the memo. There are few more discomfiting circumstances than being wont to wonder, is it me or them that’s amiss? But, admittedly dear reader, this is how director Francis Lawrence’s “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay- Part 1” taunts me and upends all that I thought I knew about film. I don’t get it. [Read more...]

Recipe Corner: Leftovers recipes

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By Ginger Isham

I do hope all who traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday had safe travels. Last year, David and I began the tradition of going out for dinner so our children could begin to establish their own traditions. We have family day every week here on the farm. I do miss the leftovers, however.

Oatmeal Cranberry Cheesecake Bars
2 cups flour (can substitute 1/4 to 1/2 cup for whole wheat flour)
1 1/4 cups quick oatmeal
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter (3/4 cup or part oil might do)
12 ounces soft cream cheese
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 16-ounce can whole cranberry sauce
2 teaspoons corn starch
Mix flour, oatmeal and brown sugar, and cut in butter. Save 1 1/2 cups and press rest into a 9 x 13 inch greased baking dish. Bake 15 minutes in 350-degree oven. Beat cream cheese, sugar, eggs, juice and vanilla. Spread over baked crust. Mix cranberries and cornstarch. Spoon over the cream cheese layer. Sprinkle saved flour mix over all. Bake 35 minutes at 350. [Read more...]

Personal tech products designed specifically for seniors

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By Jim Miller

Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you recommend any tablets, smartphones or computers that are specifically designed for seniors? I would like to buy a device for my technology-challenged grandmother so she can get online and keep up with her grandkids better, but it needs to be super simplified so she can use it.
—Holiday Shopper

Dear Shopper,
There are actually several new tech products on the market today that are designed specifically for older boomers and seniors that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology.
These devices come equipped with simplified software, big, vivid features, less clutter and better customer support packages, which makes them more appealing and much easier to use than mainstream devices. Here are several top senior-friendly options to look into. [Read more...]

Older driver safety awareness week

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By Greg Smith
Our bodies experience physical and mental changes as we age. Some may be so minor that we hardly notice, while others may interfere with daily life. The following tips will help you cope with these transformations and hold onto your driving freedom.
Physical Ability
It is important to meet with a doctor and get a physical exam to identify any changes that [Read more...]