Vergennes considers slight rise in property tax rate

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at their June 9 meeting reached consensus on a 75-cent municipal tax rate, a decision that, if made final by their June 30 deadline to set the city’s 2015-2016 budget and tax rate, would mean a 2.5-cent property tax increase.
Mayor Bill Benton said discussion focused more on what would be fair to ask of residents than on specifics of the draft budget presented by City Manager Mel Hawley.
In late May, Hawley presented a $2,213,085 budget draft, an amount that if aldermen adopted would mean a 6 percent spending increase of about $125,000 and higher rate than 75 cents.
Both Benton and Hawley said during interviews later in the week that the preliminary budget, which includes initial requests from city department heads, will need trimming to meet the council’s 75-cent goal.
“We started talking about reasonable increases the public could accept and could still maintain basic services and infrastructure,” Benton said. “And that’s what the number was. So he (Hawley) is going to go back to the department heads and look at everything and try to hone it down to somewhere in that ballpark.”
Benton said aldermen are confident in Hawley and the department heads to meet that challenge before the council’s June 23 meeting.
“The best-of-all-possible-worlds budget request was a huge amount of money, if we were just to go with what the requests were,” Benton said. “I don’t know if it’s our role as a city council to nickel-and-dime and make individual cuts.”
Hawley said, as he expected when he presented the preliminary draft, he would be rolling up his sleeves.
“It was pretty clear from the majority of the council at the table that they do not want the rate higher than 75 cents, and that means I have some work to do,” Hawley said.
Hawley will be helped by what now appears to be a roughly $100,000 fund balance that will remain unspent from the 2014-2015 budget when the books are closed, although that number is smaller than 2014’s $140,000 fund balance. Aldermen used $118,000 to offset taxes a year ago.
On the other hand, Hawley said the city’s grand list of assessed property has shrunk by about $100,000. He said a new state law reduced by 30 percent the assessment of 10 properties owned by the Addison County Community Trust, a home burned, and Comcast telecommunications lines are now taxed at a lower rate.
In all, Benton agreed Hawley would have to wield a sharp pencil. 
“There’s no question about it, that Mel’s got his work cut out for him,” Benton said. “I told him yesterday that if we could hit 75 cents I would be very, very happy.”
In the meantime, the June 9 vote to pass the Vergennes Union High School budget clarified the city’s school tax picture. Including the elementary school budget and capital fund measures already passed for both schools, Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials project the Vergennes residential school tax rate will rise by about 6.6 cents to $1.4814.

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