Municipal budget brakes spending

Manager proposes $7.6 million plan

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Town Manager Rick McGuire proposed a $7.6 million municipal budget that slows the steady stream of spending hikes of recent years.

The fiscal 2008-2009 budget represents a 5 percent increase over the current budget. If adopted, it would boost the municipal property tax rate by 4 cents. That would result in a $120 tax increase for a home valued at $300,000.

The Selectboard earlier this year urged McGuire to keep the budget hike around 5 percent. Board members said the idea was to reign in the double-digit increases of previous years while maintaining services and facilities.

“We’re trying to hold expenses down and give people a breather,” said Judy Sassorossi. “You can’t escalate things constantly.”

In recent years the municipal budget has increased at a brisk clip, largely to pay for rising expenses driven by Williston’s commercial and residential growth.

The budget proposed by McGuire last year represented an 11 percent increase. Proposals in the two previous years hiked expenditures by 19 percent and 17 percent.

Those numbers include both capital and operating expenses. Budgets actually voted on by residents have often been lower than the original proposal because the Selectboard typically trims expenses before the spending plan is put on the ballot. Chairman Terry Macaig said it is too early to tell whether the board will alter the budget this time.

McGuire unveiled the budget at the board’s Dec. 3 session. He said he was “thrilled” to hold the increase to 5 percent while maintaining existing services.

The budget includes no new positions for the first time in a decade, McGuire said. Hours have been increased for two existing employees in the police and fire departments.

Most departments see only small budget increases. The library and town clerk’s office receive a 5 percent boost. Fire and rescue expenses rise 3 percent. Planning and zoning spending is up just 1 percent.

There are two notable exceptions. General administration, which includes the town manager’s office, property assessors and legal services, rises 15 percent. Parks and recreation expenses are down 2 percent.

Health care costs continue to skyrocket. Changing health care plans provided a temporary reprieve in the current budget year. But health insurance expenses rise 18 percent in the new budget.

Another major spending increase will pay for the new police and fire stations. McGuire said bond money was borrowed in batches, and this is the final installment. The increased debt repayment will hike the budget by nearly $81,000.

On the revenue side, sales tax proceeds continue to be a question mark. Changes in the state rules governing what is taxed went into effect Jan. 1 and have reduced revenue from Williston’s 1 percent local option tax. The budget assumes the town will see $225,000 less in revenue from the tax in fiscal 2008-2009.

Selectboard member Ted Kenney wondered if sales tax revenue, which funds roughly 40 percent of the municipal budget, would fall even more precipitously.

“If we hit a recession next year, I imagine the local option tax is going to take a beating,” he said at last week’s board meeting.

The spending plan represents a starting point for the Selectboard, which on Monday met with the representatives from the library, police and fire departments. The board will talk with the remaining department heads in coming weeks before approving the budget.

A public hearing on the municipal budget is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 10 at 8 p.m. The hearing takes place at Town Hall.

Residents vote on the town and school budgets in March.