Municipal budget rises 15.5%

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

The Selectboard approved a municipal budget on Monday that doubles last year’s spending hike.

Driven by debt repayments and a new commitment to public transportation, the combined operating and capital budget represents a 15.5 percent increase over current spending. Last year, voters overwhelmingly approved a 7.3 percent increase in the municipal budget.

The Selectboard’s proposal carries an estimated municipal property tax rate of 12 cents — 4 cents higher than the current year’s rate. The owner of a $200,000 residence would pay $80 more in municipal taxes under the proposal, though Town Manager Rick McGuire noted the property tax rate was an estimate and will likely change before it is finalized in late June.

Voters will decided whether to approve the municipal budget, which totals $5,791,750, on March 1.

The two major reasons for the sharp spike in spending were payments on the $6.3 million public safety facilities bond voters passed in November and the Selectboard’s decision to contribute $147,300 to help continue bus service in Williston.

The board had reached tentative agreement on a budget at its Jan. 10 meeting, and the proposal it passed Monday was nearly identical. However, the Selectboard did delete $27,000 from the budget for the demolition of the Workers in Wood building in the village and included $6,000 in rent revenues for the building.

The board decided by a vote of 4-1 to postpone the proposed demolition of the building until the 2006-07 fiscal year, allowing residents to propose uses for the building. Andy Mikell was the lone board member to vote for keeping the demolition funding in the budget.

McGuire said he had already moved toward renting the building for the upcoming year based on the board’s discussion of the issue earlier this month. He also noted there were groups beginning to formulate long-term plans for the building. One proposal, he said, was to transform it into a teen center.

Mikell said he believed town residents had previously decided to demolish the building and to expand the town green. Mikell, a former Williston School Board member, said he believed the School Board had signed off on the expansion of the municipal library with the idea that the Workers in Wood building would eventually be cleared away to regain space on the town green.

Mikell also said the money should be kept in the budget rather than removed to “artificially” lower the property tax rate to about 12 cents and produce a spending plan more pleasing to voters. He noted the budget increase could be larger next year and the funds for demolition would still need to be raised.

Selectboard member Mary Peterson argued that removing the demolition funds was not an artificial lowering of the tax rate but a judicious one. Peterson said the budget should be looked at on a year-to-year basis and noted the proposed budget was uncomfortably high for her. She said she also did not see a need to rush the demolition.

“It wouldn’t be prudent to take it down without giving time for people to have further input,” said Peterson, who asserted she had no opinion on whether the building should be razed or not.

When the board reached its tentative agreement on the budget on Jan. 10, town staff had projected a tax rate of 12.5 cents. However, the removal of the Workers in Wood item lowered the rate, as did the discovery that the estimated grand list — the total value of all property in town — had increased.

McGuire said the grand list change means each penny on the tax rate will generate more money than previously believed, allowing for a smaller property tax rate.