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Council eyes police spending, tax rate

VERGENNES — Police spending — especially $110,000 for two new cruisers — dominated a Tuesday Vergennes City Council meeting devoted to the next city budget and municipal tax rate, both of which must be adopted by July 1.
The council is working from a $2.3 million draft budget submitted by Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley that he calculated, if adopted, would require a 9-cent hike in the municipal tax rate from 75 to 84 cents.
Those numbers do not include school tax rates, which Addison Northwest Supervisory Union officials said the state should release soon.
The council will meet at 6 p.m. on this coming Tuesday to make final a budget and tax rate for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
During this past Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Bill Benton said the possible 9-cent increase “scared us a little bit.” Council members did not discuss their tax-rate goals during the meeting, but Benton afterward outlined a target.
“I would like to see it under 80 cents,” Benton said, adding, “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Hawley offered some hope, both at the meeting and on Wednesday. At the meeting, he said a favorable delinquent tax picture was helping the year-end fund balance (savings and revenue from the 2015-2016 budget) that the council can use to offset the tax rate.
“Delinquent taxes affect our fund balance,” Hawley said on Wednesday, because he can project the collection rate on taxes owed and treat the projection as revenue. A year ago, he said, about $40,000 went uncollected by a deadline after which the late taxes cannot be counted as revenue.
This year, Hawley said at Tuesday’s meeting, the number could be half that, with every $22,000 in revenue or budget cuts saving a penny on the rate.
“The number is going in the right direction,” he said.
Hawley’s tax rate estimate also assumes aldermen will apply about $60,000 of the fund balance to keep the rate down. He didn’t say on Tuesday where the fund balance might end up, but hinted it might be more favorable.
On Wednesday, Hawley was asked if aldermen could expect to have more than $60,000 to use.
“Sure, absolutely,” he replied.
On top of the cruiser spending, the police budget is also being hit by the loss of $70,000 in grant funding for the department’s detective. Police spending in the draft budget rose $171,000 to $936,668.
Council members on Tuesday focused on saving money on the cruisers by postponing purchasing one of them until next year or by financing their purchase rather than paying cash up front.
Police Chief George Merkel and Hawley said the cruisers were necessary, although after selling a 2010 vehicle they said was a lemon their purchase would bring the department’s vehicle count up to six.
“That’s going to reduce the cost of maintenance beneficially and start to get the fleet back to where it needs to be,” Merkel said.
Hawley described the 2010 cruiser as “toast,” with another 2011 vehicle not much better.
“You’re not going to have six cruisers for very long,” he said. “One of these cruisers is going to die.”
Benton said the council needed to be able to justify why a department covering less than two square miles needed so many vehicles.
Hawley said the department’s qualifications and specialized work demands it, noting Merkel uses a 2007 cruiser, while the department’s detective, commercial vehicle enforcement expert and canine officer all drive their own vehicles.
“If everyone was just an officer, you wouldn’t need five vehicles. This isn’t that kind of department,” Hawley said.
Talk turned to the financing options, and Hawley said it might be “possible to turn $100,000 into $45,000” through financing, meaning a potential savings of 2 or 3 cents on the tax rate.
The council had earlier reached consensus on the administration, public works, fire department and recycling budgets. Other budget areas in the draft show modest increases except for public works, which contains a small decrease.
The city sewer department is funded separately by fees. Hawley proposed and the council backed an increase from $87.50 to $96 per quarter, an amount equal to $34 per year, in the base rate for most residential and commercial uses.
The total of the rest of Hawley’s proposed budget came to $2.3 million. The Independent erroneously reported that amount as a $1.848 million draft general fund budget in a June 16 article. That smaller amount is the amount of money needed in local tax revenue to support the draft $2.3 million budget. The Independent apologizes for the error.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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