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Level city spending proposed

VERGENNES — City Manager Mel Hawley introduced a draft budget to Vergennes aldermen at their May 8 meeting that could again allow them to keep level the portion of the city tax rate that funds municipal services.
The total of the proposed budget — not including fee-supported sewer spending — is $1,727,963, an increase of about $20,000.
Including $28,039 of charitable requests, the total grows to $1,756,002 and would increase by about $17,000 (because of a slight drop in those charitable requests).
The city’s municipal rate, after figuring in tax breaks for disabled veterans and to the Masonic lodge on School Street, has stood at 60.3 cents since 2008.
But Hawley, who will miss time during the budget crunch with elective surgery, has to make an early assumption about the status of the current budget when the fiscal year closes on June 30.
He told aldermen he expects a substantial amount of money to be unspent thanks in part to generally careful budget management, but also due to savings in public works spending after this past mild winter.
“I wish I could predict better than this … but I think we will have a carry-over of at least $100,000,” Hawley said at the meeting.
If that figure hits $117,000, as he believes it will barring unforeseen circumstances such as low delinquent tax collection rates, Hawley said the tax rate would remain level if aldermen made no changes to his budget.
But Hawley also said the budget includes no raises for city employees. On Thursday he said, for example, an across-the-board 2 percent raise would add about $20,000 to the bottom line.
Hawley’s budget also does not include a direct $10,000 subsidy for the Vergennes Opera House, as its board and executive director had recently asked for from the council.
Aldermen could choose to add those items or amend his budget in any way, although typically their adjustments have been minor in the past.
Even if aldermen add items into the budget, it appears the city’s overall tax rate will not increase substantially. According to Addison Northwest Supervisory Union business manager Kathy Corcoran, the Vergennes homestead school tax rate, before any adjustments for the city’s Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) will be $1.235.
That figure is slightly lower than the current rate ($1.2387), and Hawley said the CLA is also slightly more favorable. He estimated the school tax rate could drop by about eight-tenths of a cent for city property owners who are not already eligible for property tax relief.
Still, Hawley sounded a note of caution.
“Let’s say as the city council nears the end of the fiscal year and the projected fund balance of $117,000 is not there. It requires a tax hike, or cuts need to be found,” he said.
Hawley said he also favors, as the city has in the past, putting the carry-over toward infrastructure projects, even after years of level tax rates.
“We have always used a fund balance to offset future taxes. A fund balance isn’t the city’s, it’s the property owners’,” Hawley said. “When we have a good winter, the taxpayer should benefit.”
Within the budget, the largest change continues to be in the police spending, which Hawley proposes to grow from about $488,000 to $499,000. Two years ago, the police department budget was a little less than $453,560.
Most of the change comes in salaries, which Hawley said is in turn driven by the fact the department is doing more work.
“What it is reflective of is calls for service and caseload,” he said.
The proposed administration budget calls for an increase of a little more than $7,000 to $358,477.
The public works department budget calls for a decrease of almost $8,000 to $704,000. Less money for major purchases is responsible for that drop.
“General Expenses” spending, including the city’s share of the cost of the Vergennes Fire Department (it is shared with other towns the department protects), is projected to rise by more than $9,000 to $165,819. Unemployment compensation and fire department line items are the drivers there. The fire department will be spending more to maintain aging trucks, Hawley said.
Hawley is also recommending an $8,000 project at the city pool to create privacy in changing rooms that he described to aldermen as being now almost “prison-style.”
A 2 percent increase in the value of the Vergennes grand list is expected to create an extra $31,400 of tax revenue for the city coffers during the next fiscal year, helping the city to afford more spending and keep taxes lower, Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent

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