Paving reductions help Vergennes meet budget target

VERGENNES — Despite a winter that challenged the Vergennes Public Works Department and increased demand for the services of the Vergennes Police Department, the city’s budget appears to be on track as the June 30 end of the fiscal year approaches.
City Manager Mel Hawley said in an interview last Thursday that a combination of belt-tightening and better-than-expected revenue streams put the city’s finances in a better position than he had hoped even a few short weeks before.
“There could be no combined deficit,” he said.
Still, Hawley could not promise that paving originally planned to be done before June and paid for in this fiscal year would be done, specifically resurfacing of Ice House Court and Cataract Place.
Those two small streets will be up first this summer in the new fiscal year, he said, and if things break right still could be paved in the next two months.
“Those two need to be done. Those two are the priority,” Hawley said.
Cuts in paving have helped control the public works budget during the city’s fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. Aldermen will be creating a new budget and setting the Vergennes municipal tax rate by the end of June.
In June 2010, aldermen budgeted $150,000 for paving, but Vergennes spent only about $115,000 of that on projects that included Comfort Hill, North Maple Street, High Street and some of MacDonough Drive.
That $35,000 of savings, plus a savings from a new health insurance plan, offset about $25,000 of higher winter road maintenance and a $10,000 cost over-run on a New Haven Road sidewalk project.
But Hawley said the city cannot keep cutting the paving budget. He, outgoing public works head Carroll O’Connor and new public works head Jim Larrow, who will take over in late May, will sit down and identify which roads to focus on this year.
They will also come up with a long-range paving plan that Hawley said the city will have to follow to save money over time.
“The city is really in big-time catch-up mode,” Hawley said, adding the city could “absolutely” begin making up lost ground in 2011.
The police department also experienced more demand for its services this winter than expected. For example, Hawley recalled the successful investigation of a series of break-ins that led to multiple arrests and charges.
“We were working around the clock on that,” he said.
That case was one of many that kept city police busy and the overtime meter running. Vergennes has spent $30,000 on department overtime after budgeting $20,000 for that purpose, with two-and-a-half months to go. 
“Our calls for service are way up, and the impact obviously of that is more overtime and wages,” Hawley said.
The department’s older cruisers also developed expensive electrical problems, and the vehicle maintenance budget has been exceeded by $6,000 already.
The good news came on the revenue side of the ledger, starting with money coming from the state of Vermont to Vergennes in lieu of tax payments on state-owned property. Hawley budgeted for about $54,600, and Vergennes ended up receiving roughly $68,300.
Hawley and City Clerk Joan Devine had also focused more intently on investing money that sits temporarily unused in the city’s general fund, and have already exceeded the budgeted investment target by about $2,500.
The police department’s efforts have also boosted the bottom line. Hawley budgeted for $40,000 in fine collections, and the city has already received $50,000. Because collections typically lag, he said, when all the fine revenue trickles in this summer, it could reach $70,000 for this fiscal year.
“Our revenue page is strong,” Hawley said.
In June 2010, Vergennes aldermen had a $229,000 carryover, and chose to use $125,000 to maintain a lower tax rate. Hawley is now optimistic something close to the remaining $104,000 will still be there as of this June 30, a situation that will help aldermen once again control the city’s finances.
With the city’s other departments running as expected, Hawley felt comfortable telling aldermen earlier last week that he was feeling better about the city’s finances than he did after the last big snowstorm in March.
“I’m feeling OK about what looked like a bad year at one point,” he told the council.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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