Municipal budget freeze proposed12/24/08

Fehrs: Frugality needed in bad economy

Dec. 24, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Signs of the sour economy are everywhere.

Businesses are struggling. Unemployment is rising. It seems nearly everyone is paring budgets, waiting for the economic storm to blow over.

Is it time for the town of Williston to cut back too?

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs thinks so. He has proposed freezing municipal spending at current levels in the 2009-10 fiscal year budget.

The idea represents a radical departure from recent years. Driven by infrastructure demands caused by rapid growth, town budgets have far exceeded the rate of inflation over the past decade.

Fehrs said in hard times the town should share residents’ pain.

“Pretty much everyone in Williston is looking at some kind of spending they can reduce or even eliminate,” he said. “We should do everything possible to keep taxes down.”

His proposal colored the debate as the Selectboard mulled departmental budgets during a pair of meetings earlier this month.

Town Manager Rick McGuire’s proposed $7.8 million budget represents a 2.8 percent spending hike. He said the budget adds no personnel or programs, with the modest increase — the smallest in years — only enough to maintain the status quo.

Fehrs, the longest-serving member of the Selectboard, said he usually supports McGuire’s budget proposals and thinks town services represent a good value for taxpayers. But with the economy in worse shape than any other time in his 10 years on the board, Fehrs said town spending needs to shrink.

At least one resident agrees. Mike Mauss, a former history teacher who operates a horse farm on Old Stage Road, believes the economic downturn will be severe.

“When I look at history and the shambles the economy is in right now, I think of the 1930s and it’s very worrisome,” he said. “I think history shows we need to be very careful with our consistent lending.”

Every department should painstakingly justify each expenditure, he said. Increases should be approved only when the expense is an “absolute necessity.”

Looking for support

Other board members have remained noncommittal on Fehrs’ proposal. Chris Roy came closest to backing him, noting that residents struggling with their own finances are likely to balk at government spending hikes.

Roy pointed out that McGuire’s modest budget increase would actually produce a much larger 9 percent property tax hike for residents, largely because other revenue is expected to drop.

“We’ve got to find a way of enhancing revenue or finding additional cuts,” he said. “And by that I mean down to if not a 0 percent increase. That’s going to be more palatable to people because they are going to scream bloody murder if we come out with a 9 percent increase.”

But finding places to reduce expenses won’t be easy. Department heads warn of service reductions and program cuts if their budgets are frozen.

In years past, department leaders proposed budgets, which were usually pared by McGuire. Then the Selectboard would consider whether to restore some departmental funding.

This year, department heads are still making their cases to the board. But then they are asked what they would slash if their budget was frozen.

A case in point was the Williston Police Department. Sgt. Bart Chamberlain, the acting chief, told the board his department is responding to more crimes and calls for services but has not added an officer for four years.

“I understand taxes are going up and the economy is terrible,” he said. “But at some point we really need to figure out what we’re going to do in terms of adding people.”

Chamberlain said he would struggle to cut his department’s proposed $1.6 million budget, which bumps spending by 5 percent. In tough times, he said, crime tends to rise, making it even harder to reduce spending without imperiling public safety.

Fire Chief Ken Morton faced many questions about his budget. Spending for fire and emergency medical services rises by 11 percent, the biggest jump for any department.

Morton said much of the new spending was driven by factors out of his control, particularly pay for overtime and on-call firefighters. Making matters worse, Essex recently said it will no longer provide free dispatching, so Williston will have to pay an estimated $20,000 for the service.

If his budget was level funded, Morton said he may have to reduce staffing. He warned that could increase response times, which in a worst-case scenario could mean more property damage in fires and lost lives in medical emergencies.

Mauss, who was there for Morton’s presentation and grilled him about fire expenditures, said he was disappointed he was the only citizen to speak out during the meeting.

Fehrs said ideally the budget passed by the Selectboard would prevent an increase in the current municipal property tax rate. He acknowledged that would require even greater reductions in spending than a level-funded budget.

He’d prefer to decide departmental spending on a case-by-case basis rather than using the blunter approach of an across-the-board budget reduction.

The town should first look for savings that don’t impact essential services, he said. The last resort should be employee layoffs.

Beyond Williston

Fehrs’ proposal comes as other towns and the state of Vermont struggle with revenue shortfalls and budget cuts. Gov. Jim Douglas and legislative leaders have proposed tens of millions of dollars in budget reductions. Hundreds of state jobs will either be left unfilled or cut.

Fehrs, who works for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said he feels little security himself these days.

“There’s no guarantee I will have a job soon,” he said.

The Selectboard is scheduled to finalize the budget by the end of January. Voters will decide whether to approve the municipal and school budgets in March.

Fehrs vowed to stubbornly advocate for his proposed spending freeze when the Selectboard resumes its budget deliberations next month.

“I’m going to push for this,” Fehrs said. “I don’t know what we’re going to end up with when the budget is finished.”