October 1, 2014

Budget changes aimed at skeptical voters

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Town emphasizes cost of services

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Amid eroding support for municipal spending, town officials have altered the budget this year so it better reflects how tax money is spent.

The margin of approval for Williston's budgets has narrowed over the past several years. Just 53 percent of voters approved last year's budget, the smallest margin in five years.

So Town Manager Rick McGuire and the Williston Selectboard have taken two steps to ensure this year's spending plan passes muster with voters.

First, the board directed McGuire to keep the budget increase at or below 5 percent. The proposed $7.6 million budget represents exactly a 5 percent spending hike, a reversal of the double-digit increases of recent years.

Second, McGuire has changed how expenditures are accounted for in the budget. An effort has been made to ensure all expenses related to a given department are shown under that department's budget.

The changes are subtle. But McGuire said they will allow residents to better make the connection between the services they receive and how much they cost.

Is he worried that the budget won't pass this year after barely winning approval in 2006?

"Worried may be a little strong," McGuire said. "It's certainly something we are aware of and it's a concern."

The changes may be so small they are unnoticed by voters. As in past years, municipal spending is detailed in hundreds of line items spread out over scores of pages that make up the budget.

But on closer inspection, voters will see one big change and several smaller alterations from previous years.

The biggest change involves accounting for employee benefits, insurance and building maintenance. Those expenses are now attributed to individual departments instead of being lumped under general administration, as was the practice in previous years. That means budgets for each department show how much is really being spent.

McGuire also instructed department heads to organize expenses in categories of services residents commonly use. So in the library budget, for example, line items reflect expenses for reference services and special programs.

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi said she is confident that voters recognize that the town is frugal when it comes to spending their tax dollars, regardless of how the budget is arranged.

  "I think (the changes) make it clear what we provide for essential services," she said. "Williston does not provide a lot of frilly services."

She said some voters reject all budgets no matter what the spending level. But based on balloting in recent years, voters throughout Williston have become increasingly skeptical of municipal spending.

Last year, when 53 percent of voters favored the budget, it passed by 109 votes. In 2006, 57 percent of voters approved the budget.

The margin was slightly smaller in 2005, with 55 percent approving the municipal budget. The high-water mark was in 2004, when 77 percent voted in favor of the budget. That was the year that education funding reform reduced the overall property tax rate.

The municipal budget changes this year were driven by more than an effort to garner voter support. For example, McGuire said it made little sense to group employee benefits under general administration. He said that category should be reserved for expenses that support all town departments.

He also noted that municipalities throughout the nation increasingly are trying to clarify budgets by better tracking how expenses relate to services.

The budget changes will eventually allow the town to accurately evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each service. A study to do that would be labor-intensive, McGuire noted, and the budget needs more tweaking before one could be conducted.

"This reorganization of the budget is a building block toward this goal," he said. "But we are nowhere near to achieving that."

The Selectboard will hold a public hearing on the municipal budget on Thursday, Jan. 10 in the Town Hall meeting room. The session begins at 7 p.m.

SIDEBAR

HEAD: Declining support

The municipal budget has passed by increasingly small margins in recent years. Here are the results since 2003:

Year                         Approval margin             Percent in favor

2007                         109 votes                         53

2006                         195 votes                         57

2005                         132 votes                         55

2004                         1,214 votes                         77

2003                         286 votes                         60

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