Middlebury selectmen consider budget cuts
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury selectmen on Tuesday said they will explore more cuts, freezing staff vacancies and using a fund balance in order to trim another $106,905 from a draft fiscal year 2011 spending that would allow Middlebury to maintain the same municipal property tax rate next year.
It would be the second year in a row that Middlebury residents would be offered a budget to maintain the same municipal tax rate, which currently stands at 80.91 cents. The chore is being rendered a little more difficult this year, for two main reasons.
First, the board will ask residents to phase out Middlebury’s machine and equipment tax over the course of the next five years. That move would reduce revenues by roughly $63,000 next fiscal year. Officials want to make sure that amount doesn’t simply get passed on to residential property taxpayers.
Second, the latest projections indicate Middlebury’s grand list has grown by 0.02 percent during the past year, resulting in around $57,000 less in revenue than had been anticipated, according to Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo.
Selectmen have already credited town staff for pinching pennies in their respective budget submissions.
“This is a bare-bones budget,” Colangelo said. “No new initiatives or programs are being proposed.”
But at the same time, selectmen realize that any property tax increase may be too burdensome for some local taxpayers who are trying to weather a sluggish economy fraught with layoffs and level paychecks.
“We know these are hard choices that need to be made,” selectboard Chairman John Tenny said of the budget decisions that will come during the next few weeks.
The coming weeks will see selectmen weigh a combination of small cuts and see if they can postpone filling any vacant municipal positions.
But as of Wednesday, it appeared there weren’t any vacancies.
Middlebury police recently lost two of its officers — George Merkel last month was named Vergennes police chief, while Nicole Chapleau announced she was moving on to Rutland. Some selectmen suggested the town could save upwards of $50,000 by not filling one of those two positions next fiscal year.
But Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley confirmed on Wednesday his department has already made job offers to two new hires (Kristine Bowdish and Ken Hawkins) who have already received Vermont Police Academy training and are prepared to start soon.
Hanley said following through with the two hires would cost Middlebury far less in the long run than the alternative of leaving a vacancy, backfilling that shift with overtime, and then absorbing the training-related costs of a new recruit who would not be able to start for as long as 33 weeks after he or she is identified.
“It is far cheaper to do it this way,” Hanley said.
The size of Middlebury’s fund balance still must be confirmed by a financial audit, but it should be around $450,000, according to Colangelo. That would place it slightly above the recommended 5-percent rainy day fund cushion the town seeks to preserve, but officials said they don’t want to delve into the money too aggressively.
“If we needed $25,000 to $30,000 to make the difference, that might be a reasonable way to approach it,” Tenny said of the fund balance.
Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger cautioned the board that cutting and/or level-funding budgets over a lengthy period could produce dramatic sticker shock in the future, when those services are restored.
He said such a scenario could set the board up for a situation of being “doubly behind, with double catch-up.”
Selectman Victor Nuovo said that while making budget cuts is a painful process, he believes the town will be able to restore those cuts gradually in the future.
“The most prudent action right now is to hold the line,” Nuovo said.
Selectmen will revisit the budget at their next meeting, Dec. 22.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard:
• Unanimously agreed to donate the Middlebury Police Department’s K-9 cruiser and other related equipment to the Vergennes Police Department. The K-9 program was run by longtime Middlebury Police Officer George Merkel, who last month was named Vergennes police chief. Merkel owns the police dog, Akido, and had asked for permission to bring along the equipment that had been privately donated for the K-9 program. The dog is expected to be available to police forces throughout the county.
• Unanimously approved the purchase of a new pump for the Palmer Springs municipal water pumping station. The cost of the parts and labor has been placed at $18,968, and the work is to be done between March 20-30, during the Middlebury College break. Water service is not expected to be interrupted, but the town’s other pumping locations will have to shoulder a bigger load.
• Unanimously OK’d a contract with Bread Loaf Corp. to manage “feasibility studies and implementation strategies” for a potential biomass project that could someday serve Middlebury College, Porter Medical Center, the town of Middlebury and other partners. Bread Load was the low-bidder on the contract and will be paid up to $43,770 for its services.