Selectmen hold line on Middlebury budget

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen this week will begin crafting a fiscal year 2011 spending plan with the collective goal of keeping the same municipal tax rate for a second year in a row, or perhaps even lowering it.
“We need to be very careful about this budget,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said, alluding to the ongoing recession and job losses that continue to hit the county.
Middlebury leaders took a similar, frugal approach with last year’s municipal budget. Voters this past March approved a fiscal year 2010 budget requiring $5,570,812 in property taxes, representing a 2.2 percent spending increase ($147,808) compared to the previous year’s spending plan. But the selectboard was able to make a series of revenue adjustments to ensure the fiscal year 2010 budget would maintain the same municipal tax rate of 80.7 cents. Those adjustments included a willingness by town workers to adjust their prescription drug benefit to reduce premiums by more than $43,000, and an agreement with the Battell Trust through which that group agreed to offset a penny on the tax rate that produces revenue for Middlebury’s Land Use trust Fund. That amounted to a $70,000 contribution from the Battell Trust’s rental income from land on Chipman Hill that hosts a telecommunications tower.
Maintaining the same tax rate for a second year in a row will be even trickier, officials acknowledged, because of:
• A proposal to phase-out the town’s machinery and equipment (M&E) tax over the next five years. The proposal calls for eliminating the tax on the first $50,000 worth of machinery during fiscal year 2011. Making up for that loss in revenue would require adding a little less than one penny to the municipal property tax rate next year.
• The board’s goal to keep wages flat and not reduce the municipal workforce.
• A projected increase of $115,000 in equipment fund transfers, money that needs to be factored into the general fund.
At the same time, town officials recently got some good news — that employee health insurance premiums are set to rise by 2 percent for the balance of this year. Double-digit increases have been the norm in recent years, according to Middlebury Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo.
Selectmen have already frozen non-union municipal workers’ wages at current levels for the balance of fiscal year 2010. Union workers will see their current pact expire on June 30, 2010, and selectmen will, in negotiations, push for flat wages for next fiscal year.
Already operating within a fairly tight budget and determined not to cut workers, selectmen have few places to look for cuts. The town’s Public Works Committee will meet next month to re-examine a proposed fiscal year capital improvement budget of $820,000.
Selectmen vowed to leave no stone unturned.
“I, for one, think we need to take a hard look at this budget,” said Selectman Don Keeler at last Tuesday’s selectboard meeting. He has urged department heads to bring forward budget requests that represent 5 percent less in spending than this year.
“I would not like to see any extra burden on the property tax,” said Selectman Victor Nuovo.
Board members said they hope setting an early, fiscally conservative course will set the tone for other budget planners. The board is slated to do some work on the spending plan at a meeting this Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m., at the municipal building.
“I hope our action this year, like last year, is sending a clear message to the schools,” said Tenny. Education taxes usually account for a larger portion of residents’ overall property tax bill than municipal taxes. In the current fiscal year, the municipal property tax rate for a Middlebury resident is 80.91 cents and the school tax rate is $1.6536. Of the 7.8-cent increase in residential property taxes this year, 7.7 cents came from increases in the education tax.
UD-3 school district administrators have already pledged to present their board with a draft budget that will not exceed state-prescribed spending caps.

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