Selectboard OKs $7.6 million budget

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday passed a $7.6 million operating budget that tightens the municipal belt but still slightly boosts property taxes.

Spending rises by 5 percent under the budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year. The municipal property tax rate will increase by an estimated 3 cents, which will cost the owner of a $300,000 home an additional $90 annually.

The board's unanimous vote to approve the budget came after only a brief discussion. Board members had already reviewed departmental spending in previous weeks and tweaked the budget originally proposed by Town Manager Rick McGuire.

During its annual retreat last year, the Selectboard asked McGuire to keep the budget hike within 5 percent. The board wanted to dial back spending after considering double-digit increases in the past few budgets and seeing shrinking margins of voter approval in recent years.

McGuire told the board that the budget restrains spending without cutting services.

"The overall goal was to continue with the same level of services we are currently providing for citizens," he said.

The budget, which if approved by voters goes into effect on July 1, includes no new big-ticket items. It instead tinkers at the margins of the existing spending plan, adding a few thousand here and subtracting a few thousand there.

One new administrative position is added, but the budget only funds it for a half year at a cost of $30,000. McGuire said several departments need administrative support, and he will determine the new employee's duties at a later date. The budget also includes money to increase hours for two other administrative employees working in the police and fire departments.

The biggest budget reduction involves a change in health insurance for town employees. The switch to a new plan saves $68,500.

Revenue projections in the budget are surrounded by uncertainty because of changes in sales tax collections. The 1 percent local option tax piggybacks on the state sales tax.

The tax funds roughly 40 percent of the municipal budget. But Williston has seen revenue drop since the state changed rules governing what is taxed last year.

The budget assumes that sales tax revenue will continue to fall in the coming fiscal year. McGuire said revenue could also be affected by a potential recession and the opening of a retailer in South Burlington that competes with a Williston store.

Though he did not name the retailers, he was clearly referring to the new Lowe's home improvement outlet in South Burlington, which could impact sales at The Home Depot in Williston.

But he reassured the Selectboard that the town can handle a moderate but bigger-than-expected drop in revenue. Williston will have budget reserves referred to as a fund balance of nearly $1 million when the new fiscal year begins, according to Susan Lamb, Williston's finance director.

Residents go to the polls on March 4 to vote on both municipal and school budgets.