Vergennes weighs level-funding its 2009-2010 budget

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday will begin reviewing a draft 2009-2010 city budget prepared by City Manager Mel Hawley. Hawley said if adopted, the budget would not raise the municipal portion of the city’s property tax rate.
He will present at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday a roughly $1.53 million spending plan that cuts almost $16,500 from current spending levels. The budget does not include the city’s sewer budget, which is supported by user fees.
Vergennes aldermen will meet several times in June, and must adopt a 2009-2010 city budget and set a municipal tax rate by June 30, when the current fiscal year ends.
Hawley also expects to have at least $23,000 left over from the current budget on that date, and will recommend that the city council apply that amount to keep the municipal tax rate at the current level of 60.29 cents per $100 of property.
After months of belt-tightening, Hawley believes there should be even more money unspent from the current budget, and it will be up to the council how to handle the surplus.
The options will be to reduce taxes further, he said, or put the money toward infrastructure needs that include road work, a sprinkler system for city hall, and repairs and upgrades to the city’s salt shed and recycling center.
“I’m hoping we’ll have a greater fund balance than $23,000,” Hawley said. “The question to be answered by the city council is what we should do if we do have a greater fund balance than $23,000.”
The city’s 2008-2009 overall residential tax rate, including both the municipal rate and the school tax rate, was $1.7454.
According to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union estimates released in January, Vergennes residential taxpayers could be looking at an 8.3-cent increase to the city’s $1.225 school tax rate.
If the school district’s and Hawley’s estimates are accurate, and aldermen adopt the budget as proposed, the new city tax rate would be $1.8284, an overall increase of about 4.8 percent.
The owners of a $200,000 city home, if they were not eligible for property tax relief, would see their tax bill rise by about $166.
Many homeowners in Vergennes are eligible for property tax relief: In 2008, 677 households in Vergennes received a total of about $527,000 in tax relief, or about $788 per household.
The current year’s non-residential rate was $1.8379, and a similar increase could be expected in the coming year.
ANwSU Superintendent Thomas O’Brien said that, despite the back-and-forth budget battle in Montpelier between Gov. James Douglas and the Legislature, he believes ultimately there will be little change from the ANwSU estimates.
“In the upcoming budget year we’ll be pretty close to what we projected regardless of the outcome … from what I can gather right now,” O’Brien said.
Still, he cautioned politicians could still affect this year’s tax rates.
“It’s up in the air,” O’Brien said. “Who knows what the outcome will be?”
Within Hawley’s draft budget, there are decreases in city hall and fire department spending, an increase in public works, and little change in police spending.
Hawley is proposing to drop administration, or city hall, spending from about $357,000 to a little less than $330,000. The central change is a decrease in the hours of the fourth city hall employee.
Hawley said after his many years during his first tenure as manager and before then as the city clerk, he has concluded the work can be done in fewer hours.
“I don’t feel we need four fulltime employees at city hall,” he said. “I worked her for 24 years with three full-time employees.”
Hawley worked with fire department Chief Ralph Jackman and Deputy Chief Jim Breur to trim proposed fire spending from roughly $136,000 to a little less than $123,000. But he said spending will increase next year: Voters approved a $450,000 bond to buy trucks for the department, and sometime after July 1 the right equipment will be found, and bond payments will show up in next year’s budget.
“At some point we’re going to find the trucks we’re going to purchase, and borrow the money,” Hawley said.
Proposed public works spending is jumping from about $586,000 to roughly $615,000 for just that reason: Equipment was purchased, and bond payments were started.
Current year police spending is about $410,200; Hawley is proposing roughly $412,600 for next year.
There are smaller increases scattered throughout the draft budget, including rising health insurance costs and $10,000 more to operate the city recycling center, but Hawley found one other notable line item to slash: an $18,000
“contingency reserve” under general expenses.
Hawley said if he needs to come up with emergency funds, he’ll cut expenses somewhere rather than set aside money in advance.
“I don’t know what that was for. I don’t need it,” Hawley said. “That’s not my style.”

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