Firehouse bill driving Middlebury tax rate up 5.5 percent

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury taxpayers will start paying for their new and upgraded firehouses this year.
At their Tuesday meeting, the Middlebury selectboard approved a 5.5 percent increase in the municipal tax rate for the fiscal year that begins July 1, an increase that Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay attributed mostly to the first payments on substantial updates to the town’s two firehouses.
The Middlebury property tax rate to cover municipal expenditures in fiscal year 2014 is 91.09 cents per $100 in assessed value. That is a 4.73-cent increase over the rate of 86.36 cents for the current year. That means a resident with a $200,000 home will see a $94.60 increase in their taxes.
Property tax bills sent to Middlebury property owners next month will also include the education property tax, levied by the schools.
Municipal taxes in Middlebury will support a town spending plan for 2013-14 of $8,951,760, which voters approved from the floor of the March town meeting. The current year’s municipal spending is budgeted at $8,536,965.
Middlebury voters last year approved $4.625 million in bonding to substantially renovate and expand the fire department’s Seymour Street headquarters and replace the East Middlebury station. The first payment on that station will translate into 3.5 cents on this coming year’s municipal tax rate. The new East Middlebury station opened last October, and the ribbon was cut on the upgraded Seymour Street station on Memorial Day.
The selectboard postponed a discussion of the water and wastewater budgets until the next meeting. Board members said they don’t anticipate any rate changes.
While the budgetary items and commissioners reports passed without a hitch, the board engaged in two lengthy discussions about municipal roads and signage.
The board heard from Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley about his suggestions for addressing speeding on North Pleasant Street, where the speed limit drops from 50 mph as Route 7 traffic enters town to 30 mph where the road becomes North Pleasant as it enters the village. The issue was initially brought to the selectboard’s attention by resident Kathy Wheatley at the March 26 selectboard meeting. Hanley said his department had found that while 85 percent of cars keep within 5 mph of the speed limit, 6 percent exceed the speed limit by more than that, which translates into a lot of cars.
Hanley recommended installing a driver feedback sign in the 30 mph section of the hill, which would tell drivers on a well-lit sign their current speed as compared to the legal speed limit. It would also give the police department video footage of speeding cars, which Hanley said would allow for more targeted speed enforcement. The towns of Ludlow and Hinesburg both use these signs already, and have seen very effective results according to Hanley. He added that more conventional speed limit enforcement is not possible in that particular problem area, as the radar does not work on a sloped and curved hill like North Pleasant Street, and furthermore it is dangerous to stop cars on a curving hill.
Wheatley and the selectboard began to discuss with Hanley possible placements for the sign and also other strategies for slowing cars down like more signs warning of pedestrians and bikers.
The selectboard asked Hanley to check on the cost of a driver feedback sign and to study more the possibility for more signs and possibly changing the speed limit of the road. Hanley estimated the sign would cost the town $6,000 to $7,000, which could be drawn from the capital investment fund.
Ramsay said if the sign is bought it would not be installed until fiscal year 2015.
At the request of Joan and Jeff Forbes, the selectboard had formed a subcommittee to examine the possibility of installing an access-control gate at the head of Abbey Pond Road, which is off Route 116. The Forbes family say that nighttime visitors dump trash in the area and vandalize their adjacent gravel pit, which is home to Case Street Redi-Mix. The committee did not have any specific recommendations because of the complications surrounding the issue, because the National Forest Service, the state of Vermont and the private landowners all had access and land rights.
The board discussed whether or not the gate would have to lock to be effective (and whether the town had jurisdiction to lock a gate without reclassifying the road), since Abbey Pond is a popular hiking attraction. The Forbes family members reiterated that the hikers were not the ones causing problems. The board said it would look into an unlocked gate and see whether the visual cue would effectively deter unwanted guests.
In other action at Tuesday’s meeting, Middlebury board members:
•  Honored retiring zoning administrator and town planner Fred Dunnington with a framed copy of a resolution recognizing him for his 32 years service to the town. Board members praised Dunnington for his hard work, calling him an exceptional colleague and public servant.
•  Took two steps toward bringing a proposed $7.5 million plan to relocate the town offices to a new building a reality (see related story).
•  Adopted a resolution to replace 15 and retrofit 40 historic streetlights in the downtown with LED bulbs. The board agreed to go with Graybar Electronics, whose quote came in at $38,980.

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