Town manager mandates level-funded budget (10/15/09)

Oct. 15, 2009

Departments mull service cuts, pay freezes

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

With budget reserves dwindling, Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire has ordered department heads to freeze spending in their budgets for next year.

The mandate comes near the beginning of a months-long effort to craft a municipal budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. McGuire said he is most concerned with the eroding fund balance, money kept in reserve to deal with unexpected shortfalls or expenses.

The spending freeze may help the town continue a long-standing policy of keeping at least 10 percent of the town operating budget, which is $7.6 million in the current fiscal year, in a reserve fund. But it raises the question of whether pay freezes or service cuts are in store to balance fixed costs that inevitably rise each year.

“It’s way too early to answer that question,” McGuire said, while acknowledging that “we may have to look at wages.”

Public Works Director Neil Boyden, who is retiring at the end of the month, said he could not remember a time in his 24 years in Williston that the manager sought a level-funded budget.

Boyden flatly ruled out pay freezes or cuts in his department. With rising fixed costs, and other expenses like snowplowing expenses hard to predict, he said cutting services was the only sure way to balance his budget.

“It’s going to be tough to have a level-funded budget because I’ve got costs I can’t control,” Boyden said. “So I’m going to reduce services.”

He said there are few options left because of austere spending in the current fiscal year’s budget.

Deb Roderer, assistant director of Dorothy Alling Memorial Library, said her department is caught between the push to reduce expenses and rising demand for services due to the recession. During the previous fiscal year, she said library visits increased by 9 percent and circulation rose 8 percent.

She said there has been discussion of pay freezes and programming cuts. Options include cutting or having staff run popular children’s programs that it now pays contractors to conduct.

Raises for staff members could be eliminated, Roderer said. But she noted that the library already stretches its labor costs by supplementing paid staff with volunteers, who collectively work 45 hours a week.

Town Clerk Deb Beckett said it would make little sense for her to reduce services that generate revenue, such as issuing passports. And some services are mandated by law, such as recording property deeds.

Beckett said she is instead looking at cutting expenses for training and conferences. She said she would consider freezing or cutting her own pay before asking employees to sacrifice.

When the current fiscal year’s budget was approved by the Selectboard last January, town officials warned it could be the last year that budget reserves could be used to reduce property taxes. The board has in each year for the past several years used fund balance to help keep the tax rate from rising more rapidly.

Partly by using about $500,000 of the town’s $1.3 million fund balance, the Selectboard avoided a property tax hike in the current fiscal year. Finance Director Susan Lamb estimated that the fund balance will be $918,220 when the current fiscal year ends in June. But she said the town’s financial situation could change considerably by that time.

McGuire said putting together the budget that he will present to the Selectboard is a collaborative process. Department heads assemble spending proposals, then sit down with McGuire to further shape their budgets.

He plans to send the capital budget, a plan for long-range spending, to the Planning Commission in November. McGuire’s proposed operating budget is scheduled to go to the Selectboard in December.

The Selectboard has in years past generally tweaked expenses without making dramatic change to McGuire’s proposed budget. During the previous fiscal year’s budget debate, board members insisted on austerity, reducing McGuire’s proposed 3 percent spending increase to zero while warning more cuts could be in store next year.