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Middlebury selectmen work toward town budget goal

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Monday made final its decision to increase town spending to about $8.94 million in fiscal year 2014, a move that will mean a 5.5-cent increase in the town portion of the Middlebury property tax rate to 91.86 cents
If approved by voters in March, the $8.94 million budget will mean a $55 tax hike per $100,000 of assessed value for town property owners.
In December, board members targeted 5.5 cents as the biggest increase they could support (that increase would not include charitable contributions that voters approve on Town Meeting Day). Spending will be driven higher in the next budget by payments on the $4.6 million fire bond voters approved this past March. Board members said the financial situation is also complicated because Middlebury’s grand list showed no growth — they had hoped for a 1 percent increase in taxable property.
But on Monday, the board, Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay and department heads struggled to find the budget savings needed to bring spending into line with that preferred minimum increase.
In December, board members asked Ramsay to find $200,000 in cuts from a draft budget that would have meant a 7.5-cent hike.
Ramsay told them at the start of Monday’s budget talk she would need help to meet that target — Ramsay said she was “just $62,223 short.”
That news triggered 45 minutes of debate and trimming that finally resulted in another batch of cuts that totaled a little less than $39,000. The cuts will leave the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC) and Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) officials disappointed, mean less salt on town roads and fewer materials at the Ilsley Library, and trim a fire department line item.
Selectboard chairman Dean George said board members and officials will look over their numbers and try to find the remaining $23,400 of cuts before a public budget hearing that will be held at the Jan. 22 selectboard meeting.
“My thought is to warn a budget at that rate,” George said. “And for board members to look at items and ask department heads to do the same thing.”
Two of the cuts made on Monday triggered the most debate — road salt and the requests from ACEDC and ACTR.
Selectman Nick Artim initially suggested cutting $30,000 from the $130,000 public works line item for road salt. Artim said in a visit to Syracuse, N.Y., he had seen effective side road snow removal without salt use. He suggested that on some roads plowing might be enough, especially if drivers accepted that they would have to adapt to winter conditions.
“I’m wondering if we’re putting too much salt down trying to create these ultra-dry roads,” Artim said.
But public works head Dan Werner said he was “shocked” by the suggestion, and even called it a “nightmare” scenario.
“Somebody will have to decide which streets don’t get done, and you’ll have to defend it,” Werner said. “It’s not going to be pretty.”
Werner and Selectman Craig Bingham also said they were worried about emergency vehicles responding in a timely manner, and Bingham said property damage and injuries were also a concern.
Selectman Travis Forbes said he has seen enough salt wasted that he believed town workers could use it more efficiently, and ultimately the board decided to cut just $10,000 from the salt budget.
After debate, the board decided not to grant requests from both ACTR and ACEDC officials for $3,000 increases in town support. Selectwoman Susan Shashok said the board should develop a process and establish criteria before simply saying no, but given the budget crunch Selectman Victor Nuovo said the board should say no this year and then establish the process.
Artim argued for saying no given the pressure fire bond payments are putting on spending.
“We could say the reality is we just can’t do it this year,” he said.
Board members eventually agreed, although George said the agencies are certainly worthy of support.
“We do have a limit … We are representing a town with limited resources,” he said. “People are concerned about this (increase).”
Board members are hopeful the situation will be better next year. Five candidates were recently interviewed for the newly created Middlebury business development director position, and Artim said the three finalists will visit Middlebury later this month.
Artim said the search committee rated the candidates highly, and board members are optimistic the position will pay off with grand list growth and higher tax revenue — and a better fiscal picture in 2014.
“They are three quality people. It’s going to be a tough choice,” Artim said. “It’s such an important position for the future of the town … I have to believe it’s going to be a success.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]

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