Austere budget batters town services (12/10/09)

Fireworks, streetlights among proposed cuts

Dec. 10, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

The proposed municipal budget would cut police staffing, darken streetlights and extinguish the annual fireworks display. Yet despite those service reductions and several others, property taxes still rise.

Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire presented his spending plan for the 2010-11 fiscal year during Monday’s Selectboard meeting.

The $7.6 million budget meets McGuire’s goal of freezing spending. But with big increases projected in fixed expenditures, services had to be cut and the tax rate raised by 2 cents to accomplish that goal.

“It’s kind of sobering,” Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs said.

McGuire said in an interview that he labored unsuccessfully to rein in spending while avoiding service reductions.

“I was getting desperate about where I could find savings,” he said.

Among the casualties was the Independence Day fireworks display. Eliminating that part of the daylong, town-sponsored festivities, which thousands of residents attend each year, would save $8,000.

McGuire has also proposed turning off some of Williston’s streetlights. He told the Selectboard that it costs at least $40,000 annually to illuminate streets.

Another potentially controversial cut eliminates the town’s after-school program. The program offers a range of activities and serves about 200 students annually, according to Kevin Finnegan, director of the Recreation Department.

Other reductions include scaled-back maintenance for dirt roads and fewer flower plantings around town. And McGuire proposes eliminating a scholarship program that provides $5,000 for college students pursuing a degree in an environmental field.

A big slice of the savings comes from the Police Department, which would lose one full-time sworn officer. The department is authorized to have 15 officers, although the position to be cut is currently unfilled. The staffing reduction would save $70,000.

McGuire said police were offered a choice of cutting staffing or reducing raises, which under the current contract average around 4 percent annually.

Acting Police Chief Bart Chamberlain said the unappealing choice “was a difficult position to put employees in.” He noted that staffing has remained static for years while service demands have increased.

Mike Lavoie, steward of the Williston Police Officers Association, said the union fought hard for pay and benefits and so was reluctant to accept the option of halving their raises. But he worried the staffing cut could create an unsafe situation for officers who may find themselves without backup help when it is needed.

“The town’s growing and we’re going backward,” he said. “And it’s wrong.”

Under the budget, non-union town employees will also receive raises. The budget sets aside $37,000 for pay hikes for those workers, according to Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director.

Despite cuts in existing programs totaling $116,500, and a reduction of $34,400 in overall spending compared to the current fiscal year, a property tax increase would still be required to balance the proposed budget.

The property tax rate would rise from 20 cents to 22 cents, hiking the annual tax bill by $80 for the owner of a $400,000 home.

The downbeat financial situation is largely the result of rising fixed expenses and dwindling budget reserves. Also a factor is the belt-tightening done in recent years, which has left little wiggle room to avoid unpopular service cuts.

“The problem of course is that over the past two years the cost of most services has increased, but the town’s budget has not,” McGuire wrote in a preface to his spending plan. “Last fiscal year, the capital budget was reduced, and other changes were made that had little short-term impact on services. Now, there is little left to cut that will not have an impact on services.”

The town faces a particularly difficult budget crunch this year because of the rising expense of employee benefits driven by a 10 percent hike in health insurance premiums. Fuel prices and other fixed expenses are also expected to increase.

The Selectboard has for years dipped into budget reserves called fund balance to keep the property tax rate down. After using $200,000 in fund balance in the next fiscal year, the town will have less than 10 percent of its operating budget in reserve to deal with unexpected expenses or revenue decreases. That is below the threshold set by Selectboard policy.

The Selectboard must sign off on the budget before residents vote on it in March. The board in recent years has altered McGuire’s proposal before finalizing the budget in late January.

A series of budget hearings at locations around Williston will take place in the coming weeks, giving leaders of town departments and residents an opportunity to voice opinions.

The first session takes place on Monday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. It will be held at Vermont Technical College, room 215 in the west-facing building.




Here are service reductions the Williston Selectboard will be debating in coming weeks as part of budget deliberations:

Cut                                                Savings

Police officer                                     $70,000

Road maintenance                         $11,500

Fireworks                                     $8,000

After-school program                        $8,000

Streetlights                                    $10,000

Scholarship program                        $5,000

Plantings                                    $4,000