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Middlebury hones town budget, current plan reflects 3 percent tax increase

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Jan. 7 will attempt to further reduce a proposed 2014-2015 municipal budget of $9,223,799 that would require $6,605,869 in property tax revenue, reflecting a $240,924 increase (3 percent) compared to this year’s spending plan.
The draft budget, according to Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, maintains current municipal services and does not reflect any new programs. It would drive the need for an approximately 3-cent boost in the municipal tax rate, which currently stands at 91 cents per $100 in property value. But Middlebury officials note there are other expenses that will affect the municipal tax rate for the tax year that begins next July 1. They include:
•  A penny on the rate to pay for the town’s share of the Middlebury Business Development Fund (BDF). The town, Middlebury College and the local business community jointly subsidize that fund. It is primarily used for paying Middlebury’s business development director, Jamie Gaucher, whose main task is bringing new businesses and jobs to Addison County’s shire town. Middlebury voters have agreed to maintain the BDF for five years, at which point the program will be re-examined.
•  Two cents on the rate for the fire equipment fund. The Middlebury Fire Department maintains the fund to allow for future, major capital purchases for the organization. The fire department last winter agreed to lower the town’s contribution to 1 cent on the rate for this fiscal year, given the financial impact of the fire stations improvement bond last March. That contribution is to go back up to 2 cents for next year.
•  The potential addition of 2 cents on the rate for Middlebury’s payback on a new municipal building and recreation center. Those two buildings are currently being planned, one at a site off Creek Road (the recreation center) the other at 77 Main St. (the town office building). Local officials are working on a deal through which Middlebury College would pay the town $5.5 million in exchange for the land at 94 Main St. on which the current municipal building and gym sit, as well as a building lot on Cross Street. The town would use $1 million to clear 94 Main St. and relocate the college’s Osborne House from 77 Main St. to the Cross Street lot. The remaining $4.5 million would be applied to the estimated $6.5 million construction costs for a new, 11,500-square-foot recreation center and a 9,400-square-foot municipal building. As envisioned, Middlebury taxpayers’ share of the project would be $2 million, which would require 2 cents on the tax rate to pay debt service on a 20-year bond.
These expenses, coupled with the current municipal budget draft, would produce a fiscal year 2015 municipal rate of 97 cents per $100 in property value. That’s a 6-cent bump compared to this year’s tax rate.
Middlebury officials are not comfortable advancing a town budget requiring a 6-cent increase, which will come on top of a bump in school-related taxes. The UD-3 school board last week approved a 2014-2015 spending plan of $17,064,779 for Middlebury Union middle and high schools, reflecting a 2.89-percent increase in the bottom line. It’s a spending plan that, based on current state aid to education figures, reflects a 9.9-percent increase in Middlebury’s homestead education property tax rate based on its share of the UD-3 budget.
CUT AND MAINTAIN
Middlebury’s overall property tax rate will also be influenced by the Mary Hogan Elementary School budget, which won’t be decided until mid-April.
“As always, it will be a challenge to find places to cut and still maintain services,” Ramsay said.
The challenge is particularly difficult this year because much of the municipal budget increase is being driven by fixed costs, according to Ramsay. The increases include:
•  An increase of 2 percent in cost of living for wages, as well as some other labor adjustments for a total of $40,974. That figure, according to Ramsay, also reflects five additional hours per week for the Middlebury Community Television coordinator that is reflected in the Ilsley Library budget and a bump of $10,000 in wage adjustments for the fire department.
•  An increase of $56,600 associated with employee benefits, reflecting cost of living adjustments and changes in enrollment.
•  A rise of $43,678 in capital improvements. This number, according to Ramsay, reflects — among other things — the replacement of thermal imaging cameras for the fire department; $16,000 toward construction of a sidewalk on Exchange Street; and culvert work on Creek Road and Cady Road. Also included in the capital improvements budget is $6,000 for a speed measuring sign for North Pleasant Street.
•  $7,000 to reflect the added expenses of holding state and federal elections in 2014.
Ramsay noted the proposed municipal budget assumes the Battell Trust will again donate the equivalent of a penny on the tax rate to cover what has been an annual contribution to the town’s conservation fund. The nonprofit Battell Trust derives rental income from hosting a telecommunications tower on Chipman Hill.
The selectboard needs to approve a municipal budget by the last week of January in order to meet publishing and warning deadlines for town meeting on Monday, March 3, when the spending plan is to be decided by voters.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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