Vergennes officials eyeing 9-cent hike in tax rate

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen are leaning toward a adopting a city budget that will call for a 9-cent increase in the municipal tax rate, of which 7 cents will pay for the Vergennes police station.
The new rate aldermen discussed on Tuesday and at their June 10 budget workshop is 72.5 cents, up from the current 63.5-cent rate that pays solely for city services, not for schools.
Aldermen said outside of the 7 cents devoted to the new Main Street police station, the remaining 2 cents of the hike would mean a 3-percent increase equal to that of the rate of inflation.
Aldermen must make final the city’s annual budget and the tax rate by June 30 and are expected to do so at their Tuesday meeting next week.
Vergennes has a city-style government in which residents do not vote on municipal spending, and instead the council adopts budgets. Voters did support, however, the bond that funded the new police station and will be reflected in the upcoming budget and tax rate.
The expected council decision will mean an additional $95 in taxes per $100,000 of assessed value during the 2014-2015 tax year.
According to June 3 council minutes, Vergennes officials expect the city’s residential school tax rate to rise from $1.26 to $1.44. Residential taxpayers will see an increase of $180 per $180,000 of assessed value in the coming year in school taxes, but those eligible for rebates would see relief in the following years.
About two-thirds of Vergennes homeowners were eligible for rebates in the most recent year for which data is available.
City Manager Mel Hawley said the current budget plans and tax rate hinge on having a budget surplus of about $120,000 at the end of the current fiscal year, and that he is confident in that projection.
In recent budget discussions, aldermen said no to a request by Police Chief George Merkel to a new all-wheel drive vehicle that would carry the department’s truck scales and offer police better traction in the winter.
Now Merkel is exploring obtaining a used SUV from the Department of Motor Vehicles at little or no upfront cost. Aldermen said they will made a decision on Tuesday whether to spend money fitting up such a truck if Merkel can get it cheaply enough.
Alderman Renny Perry said revenue earned from ticketing overweight vehicles could pay for fit-up expenses, but aldermen agreed it was better to wait until next week, when they would have more up-to-date cost information.
Aldermen also debated whether to double the city’s donation to the Vergennes Partnership from $7,500 to $15,000, with the extra money coming from the Water Tower Fund.
Perry and Alderman Lowell Bertrand spoke for the extra funding, noting the city must have an organization like the partnership to remain a Designated Downtown. Being a Designated Downtown means Vergennes has earned many grants to support its downtown sidewalk and handicap-access projects, and business and property owners are eligible for tax credits.
That funding is critical for the partnership’s health, said Perry who also reported the partnership board had a productive recent meeting.
“If we don’t fund that $15,000, that all is going to stop,” he said. “And if it stops, we’ll have to start it all over again.”
But most aldermen said the partnership had not worked hard enough to raise its own money and had not communicated well with city officials.
Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly said “different leadership” might be necessary for the partnership. She also pointed to the ongoing process sparked by the recent Vermont Council on Rural Development’s Community Visit to Vergennes, one that might create a new group or director to oversee the city’s economic future. Donnelly suggested spending the money next spring instead.
“Why are we doing it this year?” she said.
Other aldermen said the partnership should be more accountable to the council. Alderman Randy Ouellette said executive director Tara Brooks had not recently reported to aldermen.
“We haven’t seen Tara in at least six months,” Ouellette said. “I’d like to see the results.”
Aldermen finally agreed with Mayor Bill Benton, a former partnership president, that they would fund at the existing $7,500 level and within the next six months increase funding if the partnership took steps to reorganize its board, create a job description for its director, and report on its progress.
“I would say they really do need to earn it,” Benton said.
In other business on Tuesday, aldermen:
• Heard from planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett that a public hearing will be held at 7 p.m. on June 30 on a proposed update to the city’s municipal plan. Haggett said there are no major changes to the document, but the update includes new information on such things as city history, education, the police station and the recent community visit.
• Gave a public assembly permit to South Water Street residents who want to hold a block party from 3 to 7 p.m. on July 27. Organizers said they hope to build community spirit and that they plan food and music.
• Agreed to spend $600 from the city pool fund to help the Vergennes Swim Team buy three new lane lines. Team organizer Michelle Eckels said the team would soon need to replace the remaining four lines, but would try to raise the money over the next six to eight months. The team will ask for more support next winter if it cannot raise all the money, she said.
• Heard from Hawley that two open houses will be held at the new police station, a formal one from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 26, and a second session from 5 to 7 p.m. on July 30 for those who cannot attend the first one.
• Heard a reminder from Alderman Michael Daniels that the city’s annual Youth Fishing Derby will take place this weekend and will include a Saturday afternoon barbecue, a Saturday night concert by Matteo Palmer and a Sunday awards ceremony at American Legion Post 14.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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