Middlebury uncovers $1.5 M surplus

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials have grown accustomed to looking under rocks and cushions for even the most minute revenues to soften the property tax impact of the annual municipal budget.
On Tuesday, officials discovered a pile of cash — approximately $1.5 million — in surplus funds that will in the short-term assure no rise in the municipal tax rate while unleashing an interesting debate among town residents on how the financial windfall should be allocated in the long-term.
“There will probably be 25 million ideas on how to spend this $1.5 million, and we are probably going to hear them all,” said Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny.
Middlebury town Treasurer Jackie Sullivan and CPA Thomas Telling, who recently audited the town’s books, confirmed the $1.5 million fund balance at Tuesday evening’s selectboard meeting. The surplus money, officials explained, has accrued from various capital improvement projects that had been completed under-budget, but had not been closed out. This accounting lapse apparently transpired over several fiscal years.
“Jackie Sullivan felt there was too much money there, and she started checking back and forth,” Tenny said. “She checked with the auditors, and the money was uncovered.”
As a matter of budgeting protocol, the surplus money must be reassigned to the general fund, Tenny explained. And since the sum of $1.5 million substantially exceeds the savings reserve of 5 percent that Vermont towns are advised to maintain, Middlebury residents will have some decisions to make about how the money should be used. Ideas will likely run the gamut from stabilizing taxes to earmarking at least a portion of the money to whittle away at road, sidewalk and culvert repairs. Taxpayers could also decide to divert some of the surplus into some looming construction projects, such as new town offices or repairs to the Ilsley Library roof.
“I’m sure it will generate a lot of discussion,” Tenny said.
The selectboard on Tuesday decided not to pre-empt any of the future discussion by dipping into a large portion of the $1.5 million. Instead, they elected to apply around $43,115 of it to further draw down the property tax impact of the proposed 2012-2013 municipal spending plan of $8,420,920, which they endorsed for the town meeting warning. This will have the effect of ensuring no bump in the municipal tax rate of 81.6 cents per $100 in property value.
It’s a budget the selectboard increased by $3,185 to boost the town’s annual contribution to the Addison County Parent-Child Center (ACPCC). Donna Bailey, ACPCC co-director, explained her organization has been receiving the same annual contribution of $3,815 from Middlebury for more than 20 years. The selectboard has consistently proposed level-funding virtually all of the approximately 20 social service organizations that ask for Middlebury’s assistance each year at town meeting.
“While we realize it is hard times, it is hard times for us all economically,” Bailey told the selectboard. And as times get tougher, more families have been seeking help from nonprofits, Bailey noted.
The ACPCC requested that Middlebury bump its annual contribution to $10,000 to reflect, in part, that the largest proportion of the organization’s clients hail from Middlebury. The ACPCC served 538 Middlebury residents during fiscal year 2011, according to Bailey.
Bailey added the ACPCC is also trying to pay its fair share, noting the organization pays full property taxes — $6,200 — on its 18 Elm St. apartment complex for first-time renters. The ACPCC provides services to young families and children with an emphasis on reducing teen pregnancies. Addison County has the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the state.
The selectboard acknowledged the ACPCC had made its case for more support, but decided to phase in the organization’s proposed increase over two years. The board will propose at this year’s town meeting that the ACPCC be given $7,000, with the figure to be hiked up to $10,000 in 2013.
In other action on Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard received some more details on a proposed Middlebury Business Development Fund (MBDF). The fund would be used to hire a local economic development director who would be charged with helping local businesses grow while attracting new enterprises and well-paying jobs.
Residents at town meeting will be asked to add a penny on the tax rate for the next five years to help bankroll the fund. That approximately $72,000 each year from the town would be supplemented by an equal contribution from Middlebury College and another $31,000 to $56,000 from the business community and private investors for a total annual budget of $175,000 to $200,000. That fund would pay the salary of the economic development director, travel and other expenses associated with reaching out to businesses in such fields as health care, tourism, agribusiness/specialty foods, specialty manufacturing, foundations and environmental and alternative energy technologies.
The fund and director would answer to a five-member board featuring the town manager and another town of Middlebury representative, two Middlebury College members; and fifth member mutually agreed to by the other four members.
The selectboard would have final oversight over the Business Development Fund budget, according to organizers of the initiative.
Better Middlebury Partnership President Donna Donahue and local businessman Jim Robinson vowed to further refine details for the Middlebury Business Development Fund prior to town meeting.
“The very basic (intent) is to produce good jobs close to home,” Donahue said.
Critics of the proposal have voiced concerns about the annual cost of the fund, and the salary/benefit package of the director. They have also suggested that the goals of the fund could be accomplished by beefing up the Addison County Economic Development Corp. office.
Donahue said the economic development director would “not duplicate what (the ACEDC) is doing; it would be complementing what they are doing. It is bringing resources to bear that they don’t have at this time.”
Organizers of the Middlebury Business Development Fund will next meet in the Ilsley Library conference room at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 9.
Selectmen also unanimously approved the posting of signs warning “school zone” and a 30-mile-per-hour advisory on Exchange Street in front of the Bridge School. The signs, recommended by Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley, are in anticipation of Vermont Hard Cider Co.’s planned construction of a new 87,000-square-foot manufacturing plant near the school. The new plant is expected to boost traffic along Exchange Street near its intersection with Route 7. Selectboard members agreed to consider traffic studies and a lowering of the speed limit if the signs do not produce slower traffic in that area. The current speed limit in the area is 40 mph.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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