Scaled-back budgets on the ballot2/26/09

Cuts made in hopes of winning approval

Feb. 26, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Voters will decide on Tuesday if downsized town and school budgets represent a big enough shared sacrifice during a severe recession.

The March 3 ballot will include Williston’s municipal budget as well as budgets for the Williston School District and Champlain Valley Union High School. Combined, the budgets account for $45 million in tax money.

The annual Town Meeting will be held Monday night, but voting will take place only on minor procedural items. Town Clerk Deb Beckett said the session, which starts a half-hour earlier than usual at 7 p.m., will mainly give voters a chance to learn more about school and town budgets. There will be detailed presentations on each spending plan and a chance to ask questions.

Town and school officials have focused on paring spending amid the economic downturn. With unemployment rising, tax revenue falling and many residents worried about their economic future, elected officials have repeatedly said they are trying to share the pain.

Spending rises only slightly in each of the school budgets. Municipal spending is down by a fraction of a percentage point in the proposed town budget.

The bottom line is that Williston residents may see a slight property tax rate decrease, with the municipal tax rate remaining at 20 cents per $100 in valuation and the school tax rate expected to drop by 3 cents to $1.30. Combined, that would produce an annual savings of $90 for the owner of a $300,000 home.

However, tax rates are estimates subject to change. The town does not set the municipal tax rate until June. The school tax rate depends on the statewide education funding rate, which has yet to be set by the Legislature.

The trend of steadily rising school and municipal spending is reversed in each of the proposed budgets. Last year’s municipal budget hiked spending by 5 percent, while the Williston School District budget rose 3.7 percent and the CVU budget jumped 4.7 percent.

The Williston School Board increased this year’s budget by just 0.3 percent. The $16.3 million spending plan adds only $49,000 to the current year’s budget.

The board was able to all but freeze spending despite increases in fixed costs, such as raises required by the teachers’ contract. Several positions were cut, including one upper house classroom teacher, one teaching assistant and two paraeducator positions. District Principal Walter Nardelli has said the positions will be cut through attrition and no staff members will be laid off.

The board was also pushed to be thrifty by Act 82, a state law enacted last year that requires school budgets that increase by more than a preset amount to be voted on twice by residents. Early in the budget process, the board learned that it had to cut $325,000 from its baseline to avoid the two-vote requirement.

At Champlain Valley Union High School, the proposed 2009-2010 budget totals $21 million. That represents a 1.5 percent increase over current spending and is also under the two-vote threshold.

The budget hike, however, won’t translate into an increase in property taxes. The CVU School Board used $70,000 in budget reserves to offset the small spending hike.

Voters will be asked to approve the use of budget reserves and unspent money from a 2003 construction bond to repair CVU’s roof and upgrade the auditorium. Neither move is expected to have an impact on tax rates.

Also on the ballot will be separate votes on funding for new school buses, one each for the Williston School District and CVU. Each will cost $105,000.

Champlain Valley Union High School draws students from Williston, Shelburne, Charlotte and Hinesburg. Operating costs are apportioned based on the percentage of students drawn from each town. Budget votes in each town are aggregated to produce the final tally.

The Williston School District also wants to use budget reserves, or fund balance, to reduce taxes. It is asking voters to approve the use of $150,000 in reserves. And the district is seeking $200,000 to replace an elevator.

The economy was also a factor in the Williston municipal budget. The $7.6 million spending plan represents a fraction of a percentage point decrease in spending and keeps the municipal property tax rate at 20 cents per $100 of valuation.

Town Manager Rick McGuire originally proposed a $7.8 million budget in early December that would have boosted spending by 3 percent and increased the property tax rate by 2 cents.

But Selectboard member Jeff Fehrs urged the board to rein in spending to show solidarity with struggling taxpayers. His proposal to produce a level-funded budget won support among fellow board members.

The town reduced spending without laying off employees or eliminating money set aside for raises. Funding was instead cut for long-term projects such as a new public works garage and by using $500,000 of the town’s $1.3 million budget reserve.

Residents will see little or no change in services when the new fiscal year starts on July 1. But McGuire told the Observer last month that the budget cushion is now so thin that further deterioration of the economy could leave the Selectboard little choice but to hike property taxes next year.

Reporter Tim Simard contributed to this story.


On the agenda

Town Meeting will be held Monday, March 2. The session starts at 7 p.m. in the Williston Central School auditorium.

Voting for candidates and budgets takes place on Tuesday, March 3 at the Williston Armory. Polls are open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Parking is available behind Town Hall.

Annual town reports are available at Town Hall and Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. A summary of the report, as well as information about Williston and CVU school budgets, was inserted into this week’s Williston Observer.

Absentee ballots can be cast at Town Hall until Monday at 5 p.m. Voters can also pick up ballots, but only for themselves. Ballots will be mailed upon request through Friday. Call 878-5121 to request one.