By Greg Elias
The Selectboard on Tuesday passed a $10.2 million operating budget that uses the town’s enviable financial position to minimize property taxes and fund long-range projects.
The spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 represents a 3.9 percent increase over the current year’s budget. If approved by voters, it will bump up the tax rate by a penny, a $30 annual increase on a $300,000 home.
The budget pares a surplus that had ballooned to more than $2 million, using $559,500 of that money to reduce the tax rate and complete several capital projects.
There was little discussion on a snowy night as the Selectboard rapidly plowed through approvals of the main operating budget as well as the capital, water, sewer and stormwater budgets. The votes were the culmination of two months of debate about spending priorities spanning several meetings.
Board member Chris Roy remarked that the operating budget reached a milestone this year. “I would just note that we cleared the eight-figure hurdle for the first time,” Roy said. Fellow member Ted Kenney likened it to “when your child turns 10.”
Town Manager Rick McGuire proposed a spending plan in December that showed Williston had a surplus of about $2.4 million, equal to nearly a quarter of annual operating expenses and exceeding the 20 percent ceiling set by the Selectboard for its so-called fund balance.
The surplus was driven by higher-than-expected revenue from the 1 percent local option sales tax and lower-than-budgeted expenditures for the previous fiscal year.
McGuire initially proposed shrinking the surplus by spending $260,000 on a new highway truck and other planned capital projects while using $350,000 of the money to cut property taxes. The Selectboard later decided to use an additional $50,000 from fund balance to further reduce taxes and eliminated the truck purchase.
Total expenditures rise by $381,330 under the new budget. Among the new expenses is an additional firefighter. A second new position McGuire proposed, an assistant town manager, was cut from the final budget.
Fire Chief Ken Morton told the Selectboard last month that the new firefighter was needed to ensure three employees staff each shift at the department, which provides 24/7 rescue service and fire protection.
Capital items funded by the surplus include work on the library courtyard, accessibility improvements at Town Hall and window replacements at the Old Brick Church. The town will also use the money to replace equipment, including the phone system at Town Hall and a riding mower. In all, $159,500 is taken from the surplus to pay for these purchases, which were all previously included in the long-range capital budget.
Selectboard members had discussed during earlier meetings how much budget surplus to use for property tax reduction. They eventually settled on $400,000, an amount that allowed the board to meet its goal of raising property taxes by no more than 1 cent. The municipal tax rate is projected to be 29 cents.
But that estimated tax rate tells only part of the story about the property tax bills that will be mailed to Williston residents and businesses starting this summer.
In an interview, McGuire noted that the town is currently reappraising all property. The new value Williston sets on any given property may well have more of an impact on the tax bill than the modest rate hike produced by the municipal budget. And town taxes comprise only a fraction of the total bill, with school taxes far exceeding the municipal levy.
Residents will vote on town and school budgets during Town Meeting Day balloting on March 1.