Flush times for town budget

Spending plans outlined by department heads

By Greg Elias

Observer correspondent

The holiday season brings a big budget surplus to Williston this year.

December is when the Selectboard traditionally begins formulating a budget for the following fiscal year. Town Manager Rick McGuire has proposed a spending plan that includes ways to pare down reserves now equal to 23 percent of the entire operating budget.

The proposed $10.4 million budget boosts spending by 4.5 percent. It would produce a 2-cent property tax hike, equivalent to a $60 annual increase for a $300,000 home.

Budget highlights include funding for two new positions: an assistant town manager and a firefighter. But what jumps out amid the sea of numbers in the 150-page budget is a fund balance of nearly $2.4 million.

Fund balance is the town’s term for budget reserves that provide a cushion against unexpected expenses. The balance largely resulted from rising revenue from the local option sales tax, a 1 percent levy the town tacks onto the state sales tax.

But that funding source, projected to total $2.8 million this fiscal year, can be fleeting, McGuire warned.

“The local option tax collections have been on the increase for several years but current trends indicated they have leveled off,” McGuire wrote in a memo introducing his proposed budget. “It is important to keep in mind that this revenue source is very volatile.”

The town did not dip into reserves in the previous fiscal year as planned. McGuire’s memo noted that the 2014-15 spending plan would have reduced fund balance by $327,250. But he said that did not happen mainly because of greater-than-expected sales tax revenue.

So the fund balance swelled when the fiscal year ended on June 30. When added to the existing reserves, it exceeds a target set by the Selectboard of keeping reserves between 10-20 percent of the total budget.

McGuire proposes reducing fund balance by $610,000 over the fiscal year starting next July. About $260,000 would be used for a new highway truck and other one-time capital expenditures. The remaining $350,000 would go toward reducing property taxes.

It remains to be seen if the board will further spend down reserves, as it has in the past to pare property taxes.

Departmental details

Finance Director Susan Lamb only briefly touched on the fund balance during a budget discussion held Monday at Williston Woods clubhouse. The Selectboard mainly listened to presentations on departmental spending.

Deb Beckett, the town clerk and treasurer, proposed $265,700 in spending for her department, a 5 percent jump from the current fiscal year. She explained that “very little is changing,” other than additional funding for Town Hall maintenance and more money for office supplies.

Recreation and Parks Director Todd Goodwin gave a more detailed presentation while explaining his department’s $547,570 budget, which rises by 2 percent.

Goodwin outlined how many people the department has served and detailed programming. The budget includes $4,000 for a seasonal maintenance position that had been funded through the Public Works Department.

The same amount will be spent on purchasing a new mower.

Goodwin said the idea is to improve grounds maintenance at Williston’s parks “so no one is calling me to say the grass needs cutting.”

The Fire Department is seeking a 7 percent budget increase, boosting its budget to $1,771,650. That spending hike is driven by the proposed addition of a new firefighter/emergency medical technician position.

Fire Chief Ken Morton said another full-time employee is needed to cope with the never-ceasing demand for emergency services. He explained that the additional position would ensure three people are on duty for each service call.

The firefighter’s union contract requires that staffing level, Morton said. That obligation is now met by having Morton and the assistant chief fill in the gaps. He noted that staff responds to as many as four emergency calls at once, so he agrees with the union’s contract provision.

McGuire outlined the proposed $572,270 general administration budget. The 22 percent spending increase—the largest of any department—is mainly the result of a long-delayed addition of an assistant town manager.

The position was approved by the Selectboard about eight years ago. Then the recession hit and the position was never filled.

Finance Director Susan Lamb noted that administration is the only department that has not added staff during her 21 years with the town. She and McGuire continue to complete required tasks, but sometimes not in a timely manner.

Personnel and programming demands have also increased, they said. There are now 60 municipal employees, double the number when he was hired 18 years ago.

“I’m not saying it’s a desperate thing,” McGuire said of the increasing workload. “But with each passing year, it gets incrementally worse.”

The Selectboard will consider further discussion of the budget next week. A public hearing on the spending plan is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 4 at 8 p.m. at Williston Town Hall.