Town faces half million dollar deficit

Staff proposes decreased budget for next fiscal year

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

The Town of Williston is on track for a half million dollar budget deficit in the current fiscal year and is planning for a budget decrease of roughly $250,000 for the coming fiscal year. 

Administrators have identified a variety of ways to close the budget gap so that spending does not outpace revenue by the end of this fiscal year in June. Revenue decreases in the local rooms and meals tax, passport processing fees, recreation programming and bank account interest — all related to pandemic restrictions — account for the projected $560,000 deficit, according to town finance director Shirley Goodell-Lackey.

Town administrators plan to defer town building security enhancements, town hall parking improvements, Allen Brook Community Park funding, general park maintenance and fire department communications equipment that were budgeted for the current year. They also plan to leave the positions of assistant town manager and library assistant unfilled and reduce the hours of an assistant town clerk. 

The selectboard on Tuesday gave an informal nod to the expense reduction plans, which will take the $11.6 million budget approved on Town Meeting Day down to $11.1 million.

Town Manager Erik Wells expects pandemic-related revenue shortages to persist into the upcoming fiscal year. 

“Our revenue is not going to be back to pre-COVID levels, so we should think about that as we develop the budget,” he said. “We are not looking to add a lot for next year. Any departments thinking about enhancements, it may be a year when we wait on that.”

The administration started next year’s budget planning with a baseline of $11.1 million, matching the projection for the end of the current fiscal year. They then added $300,000 in fixed new costs, including an increase in employee health insurance, the full staffing of the police department and about $100,000 of new debt related to two new fire engines. That got them to a projected budget for next fiscal year of $11.4 million.

Although spending would be down from the $11.6 million budget passed this year, property taxes could go up due to an anticipated flat or negative change in the town’s grand list.

“The prospect of a flat or decreased grand list brings with it a decrease in property tax revenue if the tax rate is not adjusted to meet the revenue needs of the operating budget,” Wells explained in a memo to the board. 

“We’re concerned about the tax rate increase and keeping that at some manageable level with everything that’s going on with folks financially,” Goodell-Lackey told the board.

She noted, however, that property tax delinquencies were no greater than last year after the Sept. 15 installment was collected.