City’s municipal tax rate remains level

VERGENNES — After learning they were working with a $180,000 budget surplus, Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday kept the municipal portion of the city’s tax rate level at 60.3 cents while also adding money into the 2010-2011 budget for more paving and for raises for city employees.
Aldermen did not pin down an exact general fund budget because the exact staff raises have yet to be determined, but — exclusive of the fee-based sewer budget — Vergennes spending for the fiscal year that runs from this July through June 30, 2011, will probably land at a little less than $1.69 million.
City Manager Mel Hawley recommended that increase of about $85,000 — $65,000 for more paving and up to $20,000 for higher wages and benefits — because of the surplus.
That extra money came from several sources, Hawley said. About half of it, $91,000, came from lower than expected public works spending. As well as not replacing department employee Les Champine, who retired during the year, the city did not have to spend as much as planned on plowing, sanding and salting its streets this past winter.
“We had a hell of an easy winter,” Hawley told aldermen on Tuesday.
The revenue picture was also brighter than expected: State paving aid funding and payments made in lieu of property taxes for state-owned property were both higher than planned for, police fine collection came in above projections, and more property taxpayers paid up in full than a year ago, Hawley said.
Certainly, Hawley recommended no increase in the portion of the city tax rate dedicated to paying for municipal services; aldermen had made  a stable municipal tax rate a priority going into budget deliberations a month ago and unanimously approved Hawley’s suggestion that it remain at 60.3 cents for 2010-2011.
The full city tax rate will remain unknown until the end of the week. City Clerk Joan Devine told aldermen she hoped to have school tax information from the state by then.
The Vergennes residential school tax rate for the 2009-2010 year was $1.239, meaning the overall tax rate was $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 will be about $1.91. That increase of 6.8 cents would mean a hike of about 3.7 percent.
Again, if that estimate is accurate, for every $100,000 of assessed value, city homeowners who are not eligible for property tax rebates would owe $68 of additional taxes. Most Vergennes homeowners are eligible for property tax relief.
The new budget represents an increase of roughly $89,000, from about $1.54 million in the 2009-2010 budget to $1.63, with almost all the hike added on Tuesday once the extent of the surplus became known.
That 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 its fire department and recycling center, both of which are also funded by surrounding towns. The general fund budget also includes voter-approved charitable contributions.
The budget also dedicates $31,000 of the $180,000 surplus to stabilizing the municipal portion of the tax rate at $35,000. Another roughly $64,000 of the surplus will serve as what Hawley called a “cushion” going into the 2009-2010 fiscal year.
The extra $65,000 aldermen on Tuesday dedicated to paving brought that public works line item to $150,000. Hawley said projects would probably include Comfort Hill, Ice House Court and MacDonough Drive.
Essentially, he said, aldermen are taking advantage of an opportunity to get some work done that was put off when budgets were tighter in past years.
“A $150,000 line item in public works for paving is probably … not going to be the new norm,” he said on Wednesday. “But we are going to be able to do some catch-up.”
The final roughly $20,000 of the surplus will go to offering raises of between 2 and 3 percent to city employees, with merit determining the size of the raise, aldermen decided. Hawley will ultimately decide the raises for most employees, while aldermen voted to leave it to Mayor Michael Daniels to determine how much Hawley and Devine should have added to their pay.
Department by department — not counting the $20,000 of raises that will be parceled around in each — aldermen approved an increase of about $13,500 to the administration budget to $346,775. The city will hold three elections this year, and Hawley increased line items for the city newsletter to make sure it would reach all residents, legal expenses for court cases, and insurance.
The police department will see the largest increase, about $32,500 to $446,000, not counting raises. 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 had been set for an increase of just $800 to roughly $621,000, despite a bump of about $20,000 in the paving line item.
After Tuesday’s decision, the public works budget will rise by almost $66,000 to almost $686,000 — again, not counting raises. Hawley said the department will try to do without replacing 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 similar increases.
Hawley said earlier he expects fees to cover a new line item in the city budget, operations of the city pool, which is now directly under city control. The budget contains $46,300 for running the pool.
Andy Kirkaldy is at [email protected].

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