Property taxes, utility rates to rise

Selectboard OKs operating budget 

By Greg Elias

Observer correspondent

January 30th, 2014

The Selectboard passed a pared-back municipal budget that will produce a more modest tax increase. But that small relief for residents could be offset by a big jump in water rates and a new stormwater fee.

The board on Monday unanimously approved the $9.8 million operating budget that voters will consider in March. The spending plan would result in a projected 2-cent property tax increase. The board also approved water and sewer budgets.

Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs fretted that even the relatively austere operating budget was part of an unsustainable upward trend in taxes. The new rate will be 27 cents, meaning the owner of a $300,000 home will pay $810 annually in municipal taxes alone, not to mention the much larger school property tax.

Board member Chris Roy noted the municipal tax rate has risen more than 20 percent over the past three years, “when, I think it’s fair to say, people’s incomes haven’t been going up 20 percent.”

Still, Roy said, most residents in Chittenden County would envy Williston’s tax rate, which is relatively low partly because the town enjoys revenue from the local option sales tax.

Also approved were water and sewer budgets that will boost the combined water and sewer rate by 7.5 percent. That translates into about $40 more a year for the average homeowner who uses both services.

Water rates will rise to $4.22 per 1,000 gallons, a 12 percent increase. Sewer fees rises to $6.35 per 1,000 gallons, a 4 percent jump.

“People are going to be somewhat shocked when they get the next bill,” Fehrs said.

The rate hikes are driven by several factors, including: higher charges from the Champlain Water District, the regional wholesaler; maintenance costs for aging pipes and pump stations; and a planned intersection reconfiguration at Williston Road and Industrial Avenue, which will require underground utilities to be moved.

Fehrs asked if the town could reduce the water budget by cutting money set aside for repairs and upgrades. Susan Lamb, the town’s finance director, said taking that step might cause the utility to run out of money for maintenance, which would inevitably force a rate hike.

Aside from tax rate and water bill increases, a new stormwater fee looms. The operating budget assumes the town will collect $367,000 in fee revenue to pay for federally mandated improvements aimed at curbing pollution from stormwater runoff.

The fee likely would be structured in a way that makes commercial properties cover a disproportionate share of the cost, easing the burden for homeowners. Lamb also noted that the fee, unlike property taxes, would be paid by all property owners, including tax-exempt nonprofits and the federal and state government.

Town officials are considering instituting the new charge in 2015, but details such as the fee structure have yet to be finalized.

The operating budget initially proposed by Town Manager Rick McGuire represented a 10.5 percent spending increase. But he noted that the double-digit jump was in part driven by payments totaling about $400,000 on a new, voter-approved public works facility. Those payments account for half of the 2-cent tax hike.

Last week, McGuire gave the board a menu of small reductions that combined shaved more than $100,000 from the operating budget and reached the board’s goal of knocking a penny off the projected tax rate. The rate would have risen 3 cents under the original budget proposal.

Fehrs worried about “nickel and diming programs,” but other board members said making numerous smaller cuts was the only way to reduce spending without eliminating programs or services. The board on Monday accepted without debate McGuire’s proposed reductions.

Residents will vote on the municipal and school budgets on March 4. Those who want to learn more about the spending plans can attend presentations at the annual town meeting, which takes place on March 3 at 7 p.m. at Williston Central School.

Selectboard member Jay Michaud said the board and town staff had done their best to pass a municipal budget that keeps spending to a minimum but avoid drastic cuts in positions or programs. Ultimately, he said, voters will let the Selectboard know if they disagree.

“My fear would be if voters reject it,” Michaud said. “That will be the bell-ringer for us to say that we have to dig deeper or we have to cut (because) they’ve had enough.”