Town reins in spending amid economic woes12/4/08

Proposed budget increase smallest in years

Dec. 4, 2008

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Amid a souring economy and falling revenue, Williston Town Manager Rick McGuire has proposed a $7.8 million operating budget that tries to limit new spending without cutting services.

The budget represents a 2.8 percent increase over current spending. If adopted, the budget would boost the property tax rate by 2 cents, which amounts to a $60 increase for the owner of a $300,000 home.

McGuire unveiled his spending plan at Monday’s Selectboard meeting.

“The budget you have before you this evening is one I guess I would describe as one of the leanest budgets I’ve ever prepared,” he said. “Our intent was to provide the same level of services we have all along with less money.”

The budget increase is the smallest in several years. Spending hikes over the past five years have ranged from 5 percent in the current budget to 19 percent for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

The new budget attenuates spending despite requests for more money by some department heads to cope with service demands, McGuire said. But he said in the short term the town can get by with just a small spending hike.

“I think in lean times we can certainly come in with a lean budget that will not drastically affect services,” McGuire said.

The budget acknowledges an economic downturn.

The hit on retailers has a direct effect on Williston, which depends on revenue from the local option sales tax to fund about a third of its municipal budget.

The budget projects that sales tax proceeds will fall by 3 percent in the 2009-10 fiscal year, costing the town about $80,000. McGuire said the revenue forecast was based on lowered expectations due to the poor economy as well as the pending closure of Linens ‘n Things.

Also a factor is increased competition for retail sales, particularly a pair of Lowe’s stores in South Burlington that may crib sales from Home Depot in Williston.

Interest income is also expected to decrease by $85,000. McGuire said that is partly because rates are falling.

Taking the sting out of those revenue decreases will be smaller bond debt payments because years have passed since construction of the new fire and police stations. McGuire has also earmarked about $500,000 of the town’s $1.3 million budget reserve to keep property taxes down.

The Selectboard listened intently but said relatively little during its first look at the budget.

Board member Chris Roy pointed out that though the property tax hike is just 2 cents, that actually represents a 9 percent rise in the municipal tax rate. He noted in an interview Tuesday that the tax rate jumps by a larger percentage than the overall budget partly because of reduced revenue.

The budget includes no additional programs or positions, although funding is carried over from last year to pay for a new assistant town manager for the second half of the fiscal year. That position would not be filled until January 2010. Most of the overall $215,540 increase in spending pays for employee raises and the rising cost of providing benefits.

As in previous budgets, there is considerable variation in funding among individual departments.

The Williston Fire Department received the biggest increase, 11 percent. Police Department spending rises 5 percent and the Public Works Department gets a 4 percent budget hike.

Funding inches up 2 percent for both Dorothy Alling Memorial Library and the Parks and Recreation Department. The Town Clerk’s Office and the Planning and Zoning Department each see budget decreases of less than 1 percent.

McGuire acknowledged that the poor economy can actually increase service demands. The library, for example, typically records more visits during hard times. Crime also tends to rise.

“You will hear from some of the departments, particularly police and fire, about why they need more staffing,” McGuire said.

Each department will make its budget pitch before the Selectboard in coming weeks.

The board is expected to wrap up budget deliberations by the end of January. Williston residents will vote on the municipal and school budgets in March.


Budget hits the road

For the first time, municipal budget hearings will be held outside of Town Hall.

Officials hope to increase the typically anemic public participation in the process. Each year, the Selectboard discusses spending during a handful of meetings, adding or subtracting expenses before passing a final budget in late January.

Each session this year begins at 7 p.m. The schedule:

Monday, Dec. 8

Williston Woods, North Williston Road

Budgets for the town clerk, library and police will be discussed.

Monday, Dec. 15

Falcon Manor, Blair Park Road

Budget for the Fire Department and Planning and Zoning Department will be considered. Sidewalk maintenance will also be discussed.

Monday, Jan. 5

Williston Town Hall

A public hearing on the overall budget will be held as well as discussion of the public works and water and sewer budgets.

Thursday, Jan. 8

Williston Fire Station

Recreation and parks budget will be discussed.

Monday, Jan. 12

Williston Town Hall

General budget deliberations.

Monday, Jan. 26

Williston Town Hall

Finalize and adopt budget.