October 1, 2014

Selectboard mulls budget reductions

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Final decision slated for next week

By Greg Elias

Observer correspondent

The Selectboard on Tuesday considered cuts that would chop a double-digit budget increase down to more voter-friendly size.

Town Manager Rick McGuire presented the board with a list of 17 mostly small reductions during the session held in the Williston Police Department’s community room. But rather than finalize specific cuts, board members discussed revenue adjustments and the long-term effect of slicing a little bit from so many programs.

Board member Jeff Fehrs asked if the town would be better served by cutting one program or service entirely rather than making many smaller reductions.

“We end up kind of nickel and diming programs, and that has a cumulative effect on those programs,” he said.

Board member Chris Roy responded that the town offers only the basics—public safety, recreation programs and the library—so there’s no savings to be had from cutting unnecessary programs.

“Frankly, one of the good things about this town, and why I think it has been responsible with its finances, is we don’t have a lot of frilly extra stuff that we do,” he said.

The board had previously asked McGuire to find ways to find cuts that would reduce the projected tax rate increase by a penny. His original budget proposal would have boosted the rate by 3 cents. Each penny added to the rate raises property taxes by $30 on a $300,000 home.

The original $9,919,030 operating budget needed changes in expenses or revenue totaling more than $100,000 to reach the Selectboard’s goal. McGuire offered a menu of reductions that ranged from fewer cleaning services to less training and conference funding.

The board did not discuss whether to accept all or some of McGuire’s cuts, although no one objected to the proposals. Chairman Terry Macaig emphasized that members would have to make a final decision at their next meeting.

But the Selectboard appeared to reach consensus on adjustments to the revenue side of the ledger that would bring the tax rate increase to exactly 2 cents. McGuire’s proposed cuts would have produced a 2.1-cent tax rate increase.

Roy said he’d rather tell voters that the tax rate was 2 cents rather than promise that the rate would later be reduced to reach that number.

“It’s just a simpler story to tell on Town Meeting Day,” he said. Voters approve the town budget but the final tax rate is set about three months later, just before the new fiscal year starts.

To produce the rounded-off tax rate, Roy suggested a more optimistic estimate of local sales tax revenue that would add $30,000 to the budget’s bottom line.

McGuire said he wasn’t so sure that the town would actually receive that extra money. Instead, he said the budget should show a bigger grand list increase that would increase projected property tax revenue. Then he said he would bump up the sales tax estimate enough to produce the desired property tax rate.

The budget originally proposed by McGuire for the fiscal year starting July 1 represented a 10.5 percent increase compared to the current spending plan. But he has noted that that double-digit jump is misleading because it includes payments on a new, voter-approved public works facility totaling about $400,000. Water and sewer fees will cover about half that cost, with property taxes paying the balance.

Also driving up the budget will be spending due to a new stormwater management system. Those costs, however, will be covered by a separate fee charged to property owners.

As for the property tax rate, payments on the public works facility account for half of the projected 2-cent hike.

The board is slated to adopt the final budget at its Jan. 27 meeting. Residents will vote on the spending plan in March.

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