August 31, 2014

Salaries and benefits cause largest hike in town budget

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Proposed police spending includes new officer

By Greg Elias

Observer correspondent

The price of policing and planning would rise by modest amounts under budgets each department presented to the Selectboard on Monday.

Police Chief Todd Shepard and Town Planner Ken Belliveau each outlined their spending proposals during the session held at Williston Woods clubhouse.

The Police Department’s budget is set to rise 5.6 percent. Planning and Zoning Department spending would increase by 3.2 percent. Meanwhile, driven in part by bond payments on the new public works facility, overall municipal spending soars by 10.5 percent.

Shepard explained that higher expenditures in his department’s $2,038,850 budget are driven mainly by rising salaries and benefits. Roughly three-quarters of the budget hike comes from payroll costs.

The budget adds a new officer using a federal community policing grant. The grant requires the town to fund 25 percent of the position in the first year, with the local match increasing to 100 percent by the fourth year.

The Selectboard in the past has been wary of such grants because they eventually leave the town with ongoing personnel costs funded entirely by property taxes. Board member Jeff Fehrs echoed that concern.
“The benefit of grants is they help you pay for a new officer,” he said. “The liability of grants is after the fourth year, we’ve accepted that as a full-time position and we need to budget for it.”

Shepard said the new position would allow the department to increase police presence in the community and step up traffic patrols.

Belliveau gave a low-key presentation of the Planning and Zoning Department’s $400,720 budget, which as proposed increases spending by just over $12,000.

The budget mostly stays the course, he explained, with increases mainly for things outside the department’s control, such as health insurance premiums.

Most line items remain flat and only a handful of line items rise. The department will buy a new computer and boost pay for its intern program. Staff salaries do not increase. Higher benefit costs account for more than three-quarters of new spending.

The police and planning budget presentations were part of the annual ritual of developing a municipal spending plan. Budgets for the library, fire and rescue and town clerk’s office were presented the previous week. Remaining departments will present their budgets to the Selectboard in January.

The draft $9.9 million municipal budget boosts spending by $940,630 over the current fiscal year that ends July 1. As proposed, the budget would require a 3-cent jump in the property tax rate. That translates into a $90 increase in the annual tax bill for a $300,000 home.

But the big budget hike presents a misleading picture of spending and the resulting tax impact because it fails to account for revenue and other factors.

Town Manager Rick McGuire said in an email that $196,310 of the increased spending is related to a new stormwater management system. A proposed stormwater fee charged to property owners, however, would offset all of that additional expense. (See story p.1)

Then there’s payments on the new, voter-approved public works facility. Budgeted principal and interest total about $400,000. But after accounting for interest paid in the current budget year and future revenue from water and sewer fees, the net cost in the proposed budget is $201,410.

Most years, the Selectboard slices expenditures in the initial budget proposal.

In an interview, Selectboard Chairman Terry Macaig did not say if this year’s draft budget should by cut. But he noted that with much of the increase related to the public works facility, the board has less room to maneuver.

“Yeah, it’s (up by) a little over 10 percent total, but that’s a little deceiving,” Macaig said.

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