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Middlebury fire department may be asked to accept fewer tax dollars

MIDDLEBURY — Town officials want to know if the Middlebury Fire Department would be willing to receive $72,000 less into its equipment savings account next year as a way of relieving stress on a tight 2013-14 municipal budget.
It was around two decades ago that Middlebury began the process of earmarking two cents on its tax rate each year to raise money for major fire equipment purchases in the future. It is a policy that has allowed Middlebury to forgo floating bond issues for the purchase of fire apparatus such as pumpers and ladder trucks.
That fire equipment reserve fund will contain around $780,000 by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. Meanwhile, the Middlebury selectboard has been working to hold down a 2013-2014 municipal budget proposal that is being influenced by a lot of fixed costs — including the first debt service payment on the $4.625 million bond to upgrade the two Middlebury fire stations. That first payment will add 3.5 cents to the municipal tax rate that currently stands at 86.2 cents.
The selectboard wants to craft a 2013-14 budget that would keep next year’s municipal tax rate increase to 5.5 cents overall. A penny on Middlebury’s tax rate raises roughly $72,000.
The board on Tuesday reviewed an additional $29,060 in cuts and revenue adjustments to its latest budget draft, which produced a spending plan of $8,951,760, of which $6,360,945 would need to be raised through property taxes. It’s a proposed budget that achieves the goal of holding the municipal tax rate hike at 5.5 cents, but at the expense of some items that town staff and board members didn’t want to sacrifice. Among them: $3,000 in funding for Addison County Transit Resources (ACTR) that would leverage additional state and federal money.
“I’m concerned about not funding programs (at the expense of) huge leverage,” said Selectman Dean George, who is also an ACTR board member.
Selectwoman Susan Shashok countered that other nonprofit programs could also use more funding and that the fair thing would be to divide equally any found money.
Resident Mark Mooney told the board it should look to the fire department to find a little temporary budgetary relief. He suggested the board ask the department if it would agree to sacrifice — for next year only — one of the two cents on the tax rate that is used to fortify the equipment reserve fund. This, he said, would still net the fund $72,000 for future equipment purchase while giving the selectboard an identical amount for flexibility in crafting the 2013-14 municipal budget.
Mooney said he supports the fire department, its equipment fund and the fire station upgrades, but believes “it makes sense” in a tight budget year to reduce the town’s contribution for one year to what he said was a healthy balance of $780,000 for equipment purchases.
Selectboard members on Tuesday were intrigued by Mooney’s suggestion. They also acknowledged the extent to which the fire equipment reserve fund had allowed the town to avoid bonding and were unsure whether Mooney’s idea might require a special article on the March town meeting warning.
“I would prefer to see this come as an initiative from the fire department … as opposed to us imposing this on them,” George said.
“I think it’s worth a look,” Shashok said.
Town officials are expected to float the idea to fire department leaders in advance of a special meeting they will hold on Tuesday, Jan. 29, to finalize the budget and town meeting warning. That meeting will be at 7 p.m. at the Municipal Building.
Meanwhile, Middlebury Fire Chief Rick Cole said on Wednesday that he would have to discuss Mooney’s suggestion with the department’s membership before taking a position on the idea. But he noted the department is facing a major equipment purchase this year — replacement of the force’s 20-year-old ladder truck. Such vehicles can cost around $1 million, according to Cole.
“The fund (balance) does look good right now, but when all of a sudden you have to buy a new piece of equipment…” he said, indicating how the increasing costs of fire apparatus can quickly deplete an account.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.c

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