Managers tally budget cuts (1/7/10)

Austere spending hits recreation, road upkeep

Jan. 7, 2010

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Municipal managers on Monday outlined how budget cuts will affect services and warned that further reductions could in the long run cost more than they save.

Williston Public Works Director Bruce Hoar and Recreation Director Kevin Finnegan spoke during a lengthy Selectboard hearing on the 2010-2011 budget.

They detailed how the proposed spending cuts would darken streetlights, extinguish Independence Day fireworks and eliminate a popular after-school program.

The savings come with human costs, Finnegan said. Eliminating the after-school program, for example, will reduce expenses but also cut recreational opportunities for 200 youths. Among the after-school offerings are chess and cooking classes as well as the Girls on the Run program aimed at boosting youngsters’ self-esteem.

“That kind of a program can have a huge impact on a child’s life,” Finnegan said. “And can you measure that? Certainly not, dollar-wise. I would certainly argue that we should keep it, but we’re looking at cuts.”

Hoar and Finnegan were the latest department heads to give downbeat assessments of how the budget proposed by Town Manager Rick McGuire would impact their ability to provide services.

He proposed a $7.6 million operating budget that freezes spending at the current year’s level. But with fixed costs such as insurance and fuel rising, reductions were needed to level the town’s bottom line.

The cuts include the fireworks display ($8,000), the after-school program ($8,000) and turning off a third of streetlights in town ($10,000).

The proposed budget would also cut a police officer position ($70,000, including pay and benefits), eliminate the town’s college scholarship program ($5,000) and reduce road maintenance and landscaping ($15,500).

In all, McGuire’s proposal axes $116,500 in funding. Even with the austerity push, the property tax rate is projected to rise by 2 cents per $100 in valuation.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs signaled at Monday’s meeting and during previous budget discussions that he may seek further reductions to keep the tax rate level. He has asked each department head to suggest additional cuts.

The town could for example turn off all non-essential streetlights or further reduce road maintenance, Hoar said, but each of those moves comes with a cost.

Green Mountain Power, for example, charges to turn streetlights on and off. Slicing road upkeep means that it costs more to fix them in the future. Cutting chloride treatment for dirt roads makes them dustier on dry summer days and increases erosion.

“If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t cut any of these,” Hoar said. “I certainly wouldn’t cut chloride or maintenance.”

Fehrs said he felt compelled to avoid tax increases while the recession hammers many residents. But he also didn’t want to push expenses into future years for a short-term tax reduction.

“One thing I want to be careful of is not being penny-wise but pound foolish,” Fehrs said.

Finnegan said there was little left to cut in his department that isn’t funded at least in part by user fees or absolutely essential. He cited as an example scholarships the department grants to children whose families can’t afford fees for summer camp and other programs.

“I would argue vociferously that we don’t cut that, especially in this economy,” Finnegan said. “Requests for that have just gone through the roof.”

Also discussed during Monday’s session were the water and sewer budgets. Expenditures for those services are kept separate from the operating budget and are funded by users.

Hoar said water rates are expected to rise by 12 percent. Much of the increase is pass-through, as the Champlain Water District raises what it charges municipalities. The district has been forced to hike prices in recent years to cope with a drop of demand and rising fixed expenses.

Sewer rates rise 11.6 percent under the proposed budget. Hoar said much of the increase also reflects higher prices paid by the town. Essex Junction, which owns the treatment plant that also processes Williston’s sewage, is hiking rates in part to pay for increased upkeep on the aging plant.

The Selectboard will continue its budget deliberations on Monday. The Jan. 11 session starts at 7 p.m. and will be held at the Williston Woods Community Center on North Williston Road.