BY JASON STARR
Perhaps the one thing that hasn’t yet been impacted by the pandemic is Town Meeting Day. Last year’s annual meetings and election were squeezed in just days before residents were advised to hunker down amid the first wave of COVID-19 cases.
This year is different. While there may be light at the end of the tunnel as more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus, Town Meeting Day 2021 will take place next week in full light of a public health emergency.
Cancelled is the traditional Town Meeting gathering at Williston Central School, where administrators present a budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year and residents vote by voice on a variety of mostly mundane topics (such as setting the due dates for property taxes). Those questions will now be on the ballot, with voting taking place Tuesday at the Vermont National Guard Armory at 7846 Williston Rd. from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The budget presentation will be held virtually Monday via teleconference.
The Champlain Valley School District’s annual meeting has also been moved online, with questions usually settled in person moved to the ballot. The school district’s ballot will be available to voters at the armory Tuesday alongside the town ballot.
Voters will be asked to approve an $11.5 million town budget, an $85.2 million school district budget, $1.1 million in new debt for Champlain Water District infrastructure and to fill two uncontested seats on the selectboard and school board. The lone contested election is for a seat on the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library Board of Trustees.
A school tax decrease
How does a school budget proposal carry $2.8 million in new spending (3.5 percent) over the current fiscal year, yet result in decreased property taxes? The Champlain Valley School Board is proposing to inject $2 million in reserve funds into the budget. If voters approve the move, it would decrease the budget increase to roughly 1 percent over the current year.
That combined with Williston’s 92 percent Common Level of Appraisal — a calculation the State of Vermont makes annually to reconcile the assessed value of homes with their market value — and the tax incentive the district received for consolidating in 2017 push the estimated tax impact of the budget into negative territory.
“In recognition of the difficult economic times the community is facing, the board has chosen to apply an unusual amount of its reserves to revenue,” said school district Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen.
Administrators estimate that Williston residents will see a school property tax rate of $1.58 for every $100 of assessed property value. That is a decrease of .3 percent compared to the current year rate. The decrease would save the owner of a $300,000 home, for example, about $15 annually.
This is the final year of the consolidation tax incentive.
The majority of the $2.8 million in increased spending is due to increases in salaries and benefits. The district proposes the addition of three full-time staff members: a new classroom teacher, a literacy interventionist and a director of equity and inclusion. Administrators are budgeting for a total of $2 million in new spending on salaries and benefits.
According to Jensen, the school district has received $5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds that has made the added expenses associated with the pandemic — universal meal service, creating a remote learning academy, adding staff for decreased class sizes and buying personal protective equipment — budget neutral.
A town spending decrease
Town Manager Erik Wells is predicting reduced sales tax revenue, reduced interest revenue from town investments and no growth in the town’s taxable property for the upcoming fiscal year. Because of the conservative revenue projection — made with the impact of the pandemic in mind — the budget proposal being put to voters on Tuesday shows a decrease in spending of about $100,000 compared to the current fiscal year.
The budget proposal of $11.5 million would result in a level property tax rate of 27.5 cents for every $100 of assessed property value.
Much of the decrease in spending comes from a reduction in capital project plans, elimination of a full-time position in the town clerk’s office and reduced Recreation and Parks program expenses.
Also on the ballot, Gordon St. Hilaire and Terry Macaig are running unopposed for selectboard seats; Josilyn Adams and Brendan McMahon are running unopposed for seats on the Champlain Valley School Board; and Kathleen DeLuca is running against Steve Shepard for one seat on the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library Board of Trustees.