October 21, 2018

Town spending up 5 percent in initial budget estimate

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

A first look at the Town of Williston budget proposal being prepared for voter approval on Town Meeting Day in March shows an increase in spending of five percent over the current fiscal year with a property tax increase of an estimated one cent per $100 of assessed property value.

Town Manager Rick McGuire presented the $11.1 million budget proposal to the Williston Selectboard on Tuesday. The board plans regular meetings through January to finalize the proposal for Town Meeting Day, March 6. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 2 at town hall.

The tax rate increase amounts to 3.5 percent over the current fiscal year. It would cost the owners of a $300,000 home, for example, an additional $30 on their annual property tax bill.

McGuire noted that the tax impact is subject to change until the board sets the tax rate for the upcoming fiscal year in June. The tax impact of the current year’s budget turned out to be flat after prior estimates that there would be a half-cent increase, he said.

“The focus (of the town) will remain on services,” McGuire said. “All the numbers do is support that.”

The five percent spending increase amounts to an additional $546,000. About $300,000 of that comes from an increase in wages and benefits for town staff. The largest driver of that increase is a 10 percent increase in health insurance costs.

“This is one of the largest (health insurance cost) increases we’ve had in a long time,” McGuire said.

The board last month renewed the Gold Plan with Blue Cross Blue Shield for town employees for next year. Town Finance Director Jennifer Kennelly said a premium increase was expected, but a deductible increase of $500 for families and $250 for individuals was not.

“There wasn’t a lot of time to look for other options, so we thought for this year we would ask the town to pick up that additional deductible for employees,” Kennelly said during the board’s Nov. 21 meeting, “then we are going to look at other options for this upcoming year and really try to find a plan that meets our employees’ needs but also that is fiscally responsible.

“We can’t continue to come to the selectboard and the taxpayers and say can we fund more of this. Because each year it’s a large expense for the town.”

The budget also includes increasing a part-time custodian position to full-time, McGuire said.

The other major spending increase in the budget is about $235,000 planned for the purchase of the Catamount Outdoor Family Center property to turn it into a 383-acre public park. The town is partnering with the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board to acquire and preserve the land off Gov. Chittenden Road for open space and recreation.

A committee of citizens is currently working on a management plan for the parcel in anticipation of the selectboard following through with the purchase next year (see related story, above). McGuire said grant funds are being pursued that would help cover the town’s purchase cost, adding: “There is no guarantee we will get that grant. I have to plan for the (possibility) that it won’t happen.”

McGuire also budgeted an additional $65,000 to replace the town-owned clock embedded in the steeple at the Williston Federated Church. The church is planning to replace the steeple next year.

The town is also considering purchasing an array of solar panels behind town hall at a cost of approximately $300,000, according to McGuire. He would use the town’s current reserve fund of $3.2 million for that expense.

The reserve fund has been building steadily since the end of the 2009 recession. McGuire is aiming to spend the fund down to about $2.3 million in the coming years.

“We are doing our best to work out a plan to bring it down in a way that’s sustainable,” he said.

All this weeks News Articles