Police, public works costs drive $1.83 million city budget draft

VERGENNES — The Vergennes City Council last week got its first look at a draft 2013-2014 city budget, one that City Manager Mel Hawley prepared and said could mean the second increase since 2008 in the tax rate devoted solely to paying for municipal services.
Aldermen will make the final decision on the budget and the municipal portion of the tax rate by the end of June. That portion of the tax rate does not support school spending.
Hawley’s proposed general fund budget — he called that “proposed with a small p” because of its preliminary nature — calls for spending of about $1.83 million, up by a little more than 5 percent from the current budget of roughly $1.74 million.
Driving the draft budget up are increases in police and public works spending.
Overall, Hawley said his budget draft calls for an increase in police spending of 15 percent ($76,000) from about $507,000 to roughly $583,000.
Each $22,000 of new spending requires almost a 1-cent hike in the tax rate to pay for it, he said.
Police Chief George Merkel is asking for a $42,000 all-wheel-drive vehicle for his department. At the same time, Hawley said a federal grant that is funding the department’s sixth fulltime officer is “winding down,” while interest payments on the $1.45 million construction loan for the new police station will also appear in the upcoming fiscal year.
Public works spending in the draft is set to rise by about $20,000 due to paving, sidewalk and stormwater projects — the last notably on Monkton Road.
Administration and fire spending is either down slightly or level in his draft budget, Hawley said, while the sewer fund is solid and he foresees no need for higher sewer rates.
Meanwhile, a drop in the city’s grand list of assessed property is putting pressure on the Vergennes municipal tax rate. The grand list has decreased in value because of how state law requires commercial and nonprofit rental property to be appraised. Assessments for Green Mountain Power property and the Armory Lane senior housing project both dropped, Hawley said.
Hawley also at the May 28 council meeting was projecting a smaller 2013 cash carryover than in 2012 — $50,000 from $95,000.
Hawley said assuming aldermen chose to use that $50,000 carryover and they adopted the budget as proposed, he estimated the city’s tax rate could rise by about 6 cents from its current level of 62.33 cents.
That rate rose by 2 cents in 2012 after standing at just a little more than 60 cents since 2008.  
But after running more numbers by Thursday, Hawley was hopeful this year’s carryover might be more in line with last year’s. He made it clear that the amount of the carryover remained a moving target, and that aldermen will make the final call.
“I’m optimistic our fund balance will be more than $50,000, but we still have a month to go,” Hawley said.
Hawley’s draft budget does not include money for the Vergennes Opera House or the Vergennes Partnership, which aldermen have backed in recent budgets.
The Friends of the Vergennes Opera House recently asked aldermen for at least $10,000 in their streamlined budget, and on May 28, it was the partnership’s turn.
Executive Director Tara Brooks and board President Kevin Rooney said the partnership board is evaluating whether Brooks should work 20 or 30 hours a week, and whether to ask the city for $15,000 or $27,000.
The partnership is bouncing back from a couple lean years, they said, and they and Hawley re-emphasized the point that the partnership or a similar organization is a requirement of Vergennes remaining a Vermont Designated Downtown.
That status makes the city and downtown property and business owners eligible for Agency of Commerce and Community Development grants. Those grants have paid for half of the cost of the past decade’s several combined sidewalk and handicap-access platform projects on Main Street.
Hawley spoke on May 28 to the importance of the partnership. He said the positives go beyond downtown financial pluses.
“The partnership does not benefit only downtown property owners and businesses,” Hawley said. “The entire city benefits.”
But he and aldermen sought more fundraising from the partnership, noting its budget only called for $10,000 in revenue from membership dues, corporate sponsorships and business and property owner donations.
“I do wish the revenue stream was more equal,” Hawley said.
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly noted, as Rooney and Brooks pointed out, the one membership drive the partnership did exceeded its goal of raising $2,500 by more than $1,100, and asked why more such efforts had not been undertaken.
Rooney said more maybe could have been done, and that membership drives were planned for this summer and fall. But he also said partnership officials believed it was important for the organization to establish credibility before asking for money after it “pretty much came to a screeching halt” a couple years ago.
He and Brooks ticked off a list of recent partnership efforts, including providing required data to state officials, writing a successful grant for work in front of the Methodist Church, joining in the planning for a toddlers’ park next to the city pool and for branding the city as a bicycle touring destination, attending a downtown networking meeting in Montpelier, holding a St. Patrick’s Day event, upgrading its Facebook page and website, helping to plan the recent recreation and downtown forum in the Vergennes Opera House, and holding a tax credit informational meeting for downtown property owners.
Aldermen said they would consider the request. One possibility floated was that Brooks might answer directly to City Hall if aldermen were to pick up most of the tab.
“There should be a lot of control over it at that point,” said Mayor Bill Benton.
Hawley said on Thursday aldermen could fund the organizations without asking taxpayers to pick up the tab: Enough money will remain in the city’s Water Tower Fund even spending the $100,000 earmarked for the new police station.
“We have $100,000, and we will collect $100,000 in the ensuing fiscal year,” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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