City eyeing level municipal taxes
VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen have taken a look at the first draft of a proposed $1.6 million 2010-2011 city budget that if adopted would not require an increase in the portion of the city tax rate that supports municipal spending.
That $1.6 million figure does not include the sewer budget, which is funded by users, or the fire department budget, which is funded by the several towns protected by the department. It does include Vergennes’ share of funding the fire department.
City Manager Mel Hawley, who presented the city budget draft at the city council’s May 25 meeting, said he and aldermen had objectives for the draft budget.
“There were actually three goals: no tax increase, no measurable increase in the fire contracts, and no need to look at an increase in the sewer rate,” Hawley said in an interview on Wednesday. “We did good.”
Unlike in other Addison County towns, in Vergennes the city council adopts budgets, not residents at town meetings. The deadline is the end of June; before then they will hold several budget workshops to go over Hawley’s draft. The first such meeting will be held on June 8; residents are welcome to the 6 p.m. meeting at the fire station.
No discussion was held last week, though Hawley said he did provide “a little bit of an overview.”
The city’s current municipal tax rate stands at $0.603. The Vergennes residential school tax rate for the current year is $1.239, meaning the overall current tax rate stands at $1.842.
According to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union estimates, the residential tax rate in Vergennes needed to support Vergennes Union high and elementary schools could rise to $1.307 for the coming school year.
If that estimate is accurate, the new Vergennes residential tax rate would be about $1.91. That increase of 6.8 cents would mean a hike of about 3.7 percent.
For every $100,000 of assessed value, homeowners would owe $68 of additional taxes, assuming they were not eligible for property tax rebates. Most Vergennes homeowners are eligible for property tax relief.
Mayor Michael Daniels praised Hawley for helping the city hold the line on its share of the tax rate, even if it means some things have to be put on hold.
“He continues to perform miracles,” Daniels said. “There’s some stuff we would like to do, but because of the circumstances, the economy, we will have to grin and bear it until things turn around a little bit.”
Specifically, Daniels said aldermen might like to fund economic development and recreation positions.
“Right now I don’t see us being able to afford doing either,” he said.
Aldermen would welcome feedback and constructive suggestions during the budget process, Daniels said.
“Opinions are very valuable, but the question is how those opinions are carried out,” he said. “If anyone is willing to help out, we’re more than willing to listen.”
More revenue and a budget surplus will keep the tax rate in check, Hawley said. More money is coming from higher state mileage aid, an increase in state payments in lieu of taxes for state-owned property, and a return of police fine collection to historic levels after a couple of low years.
A year ago, aldermen used $25,000 out of an $82,000 general fund balance — money left over after tightly controlled spending during the fiscal year — to keep the tax rate down.
Hawley said more carryover from this year will be added to the remaining $57,000, allowing aldermen to dedicate $35,000 toward keeping the tax rate at 60.3 cents. Because of the mild winter, the public works budget especially is in good shape.
“I see that (fund balance) growing,” Hawley said. “Given the easy winter we had, that’s clearly going to increase. Using $35,000 to stabilize the rate is certainly safe.”
Department by department, Hawley is proposing an increase of about $13,500 to the administration budget to $346,775. He attributed the increase to the fact the city will hold three elections this year, line items for the city newsletter to make sure it would reach all residents, legal expenses for court cases, and insurance.
The police department would see the largest increase, about $32,500 to $446,000. Hawley said the department needs new equipment, including a cruiser, a canine conversion kit for a cruiser, a taser, computer upgrades and new uniforms.
Public works would see only an increase of about $800 to roughly $621,200, despite a bump of about $20,000 in the paving line item. Hawley said the department would try to do without replacing retired full-time employee Les Champine by using part-time help as needed.
The “General Expenses” section includes about a $12,000 increase to $163,689. Significant there is a hike in the commitment to the financially strapped Bixby Library from $20,000 to $29,000; other towns the Bixby serves have made or are considering similar increases.
Also in General Expenses are the city’s shares of higher recycling center and fire department budgets. The recycling budget rose 10 percent to $66,000, and projected fire department spending rose by about $3,000 to $126,850.
Hawley expects fees to cover a new line item in the city budget, operations of the city pool, which is now directly under city control. Hawley budgeted $46,300 for running the pool, but noted because operations do not coincide with the city’s fiscal year that the process entails some risk.
“I feel confident that the rate will be sufficient. The problem is if it isn’t, it’s too late to do anything about it,” Hawley said. “We’ll all feel better when we have two or three years under our belts.”
Finally, Hawley reported the sewer fund balance is healthy, thanks at least in part to more accurate metering of Northlands Job Corps. Although the budget is projected to rise by $7,300 to $610,000, he said fees would cover the increase.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]