Board uses federal funds to offset tax increase
By Jason Starr
The Williston Selectboard added a full-time energy coordinator position to its budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year and included $300,000 in federal pandemic recovery funds to soften the budget’s property tax impacts in deliberations earlier this month.
Last Tuesday, the board finalized the $13.1 million proposal, forwarding it for voter consideration at Town Meeting Day, March 1. The proposal is about $100,000 greater than the first draft proposal presented by town administrators in December, largely due to the addition of the energy coordinator position.
However, the tax impact of the budget was decreased from the original draft due to the use of the federal funds.
The budget carries about $1.6 million in new spending over the current fiscal year — an increase of nearly 14 percent. The municipal tax rate is estimated to increase roughly 15 percent, from about 27 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 31 cents, costing the owner of a median-priced ($302,000) Williston home an additional $115 on their annual property tax bill. The town has been granted $3 million in pandemic recovery funds through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021. In using 10 percent of those funds ($300,000) to offset the budget’s tax impact, the selectboard reduced the tax rate increase three percentage points from the 18 percent that was estimated with December’s first draft.
“Let’s maximize what ARPA dollars we can this year because of this huge (budget) increase,” board member Jeff Fehrs said during a Jan. 11 meeting.
The town had already committed about $300,000 in ARPA funds for use this fiscal year and in next year’s capital budget. Use of the remaining $2.4 million will be the subject of future board deliberations. The town has until the end of 2024 to spend the funds.
The majority of the $1.6 million budget increase is attributable to the approval of nine new firefighter positions, as recommended in a staffing study the Fire Department commissioned last year. Using one-time federal funds to help pay for salaries and benefits of the new hires presents the prospect of future budget and tax increases when the federal money is spent, Town Manager Erik Wells advised.
“In the end, any positions that use ARPA for initial funding will need to be paid for in full by the general fund in a future budget,” Wells wrote in a Jan. 11 memo to the board.
The need for new full-time firefighters is driven by the shrinking ranks of the department’s on-call staff.
“This (is a) foundational shift in the department’s personnel resource structure to address the reality of resources available and to build the necessary depth for a consistent response level,” Wells said.
The addition of an energy coordinator is one of the first tasks of the town’s Energy Plan adopted into the town’s Comprehensive Plan in 2020. The position would work with the town’s newly empaneled citizen Energy Committee to implement the Energy Plan, which aligns with the State of Vermont’s carbon-reduction and renewable energy goals.