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Town looks to soften tax impact

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

The Selectboard looked at ways to temper taxes and take on some capital expenses in fiscal year 2017, thanks to a padded fund balance.

Williston’s fund balance—a reserve fund for unexpected costs—is at nearly $2.4 million. According to Selectboard policy, it should be between 10 and 20 percent of the operating budget—between $1 million and $2.1 million.

The fund balance is up due to several factors, according to a Dec. 31 memo from Town Manager Richard McGuire. First, the Police Department came in under budget in fiscal year 2015, largely due to staff turnover and vacant positions.

In addition, revenue from the town’s local option tax—a 1 percent tax added to the state’s sales tax—swelled unexpectedly, though McGuire said that revenue source is volatile. 

Town staff recommended that the Selectboard apply $400,000 to the budget to reduce property taxes, $50,000 more than originally proposed. In addition, staff proposed using approximately $167,000 from the fund balance for one-time capital projects. Those expenditures include money for library courtyard repairs, accessibility and telephone system upgrades to Town Hall, Brick Church window repairs and more.

The spending would reduce the fund balance to nearly $1.8 million, within the range specified by Selectboard policy.

On Monday, McGuire recommended possible ways to trim the budget, including the removal of a proposed assistant town manager position and money for a new police cruiser. Board members said Monday that they would like to see the tax rate increase held to one cent, or less, as recorded by CCTV.

On Monday, the board also heard budget proposals from Dorothy Alling Memorial Library and Stormwater Department staff.

Library Director Marti Fiske proposed a $641,890 spending plan. The library’s budget went up by approximately $16,000, or 2.5 percent, due to increases in salaries and benefits. All other items are level-funded or decreased.

The stormwater utility’s budget proposal is roughly the same as last year—$749,880, up approximately $1,000. Stormwater spending is funded by the townwide stormwater fee (which is set to remain the same in fiscal year 2017), not property taxes.

During its Dec. 21 meeting, the Selectboard heard proposals from the Police and Planning departments.

Police Chief Todd Shepard proposed a budget of $2,133,540 for fiscal year 2016-2017—an increase of 2 percent, or $42,840.

In an October budget proposal, Shepard said Williston’s population balloons to approximately 20,000 during the day with workers, shoppers and visitors, but the department is typically short-staffed.

“I have been called upon by schools, neighborhoods and businesses to be more involved with community education, safety education, community relations, extra patrols for speed enforcement, etc.,” he wrote. “Combining many of these with current workloads will require adequate staff, which is the lion’s share of every department budget.”

The department must now pay 75 percent of a grant-funded position added two years ago, the last year grant money is available for that position. Much of the other increases in salaries and benefits are due to an anticipated contract with the 14 officers in the New Hampshire Police Benevolent Association bargaining unit.

Shepard also recommended increasing dispatch services.

“The Williston Police Department is truly in another transition time where it should move from 24 hour officer availability and limited dispatch coverage to full dispatch services in order to meet the needs of our community,” he wrote.

Planning and Zoning Director Ken Belliveau proposed a budget of $428,500—up $11,650, or 3 percent, from last year, mainly due to increases to salaries and benefits.