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Surge in workers’ comp raises Bristol police spending

BRISTOL — Residents of the Bristol Police District will likely be asked to approve a double-digit hike in taxpayer funds used to pay for the department budget in the coming fiscal year.
Town officials cited a dramatic surge in the cost of workers’ compensation coverage as the reason for the 17 percent increase.
“We had multiple claims and what happens when you have multiple claims is it affects your insurance mod,” explained Town Administrator Therese Kirby. “In the past we had enjoyed a credit — we’d get a credit on our bill of three grand or something — this year there was an extra charge of $19,000.”
As Kirby, Police Chief Kevin Gibbs and others work up a 2017-2018 police budget proposal, total spending is currently being figured at $462,361, with a net to be raised by taxes of $425,261. On Town Meeting Day 2016, voters approved a police department budget of $415,999, with a net to be raised by taxes of $363,049.
The proposed 2017-2018 budget represents an 11 percent increase in spending and 17.1 percent increase in the amount raised by taxes.
Front and center in the upsurge is the jump in workers’ comp — a budget item that’s unbudgeable. The 2017-2018 budget allots $49,570 for workers’ comp payments. That’s a $41,370 jump over last year — and roughly seven times higher than average costs over the previous four fiscal years of $7,300 annually.
Similar to when an individual gets a speeding ticket and their car insurance goes up, the higher premium bracket will stay with the Bristol Police Department into the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Kirby explained, according to the terms set by the town’s insurer.
“We’re in this bracket for three years. Then at the end of three years if we don’t have any more claims it will drop back down,” she said.
Bristol gets its workers’ comp insurance, as do most Vermont towns, through the Vermont League of Cities and Towns Property and Casualty Intermunicipal Fund, known as PACIF.
How best to meet the surge in workers’ comp premiums drew intense discussion at the Bristol selectboard’s Jan. 9 meeting.
“The budget’s up only one line really, but it’s huge,” said Selectman Joel Bouvier. “That $49,570, that workmen’s comp, we can’t argue that.”
In response, the selectboard whittled other expenses off a budget proposal that Kirby described as lean already.
At last Monday night’s meeting, proposed spending was $466,473. By Thursday it was even further trimmed to $462,361.
“You can easily compare this budget to last year’s budget and see that there’s very little increase in any of the line items and that the police chief and the selectboard did their best to level fund as much of the budget as possible,” said Kirby. “They combed through the budget and certainly did what they could.”
Struck from the budget, for example, was an improvement to the garage doors where police park their cruisers. Salary increases were downshifted from 2.9 percent to 2.5 percent.
The unexpected jump in workers’ comp has already socked-it-to police spending in the current year. The department budgeted $8,200 and has had to pay out $19,665 thus far. In July payments were at the anticipated and budgeted for amount of $5,100. In January the bill for premiums catapulted to $14,566.
Like all municipal entities, the Bristol Police District carries over an undesignated fund balance from the previous fiscal year (the budget surplus left over) to cushion the unexpected. Towns are advised to keep their undesignated fund balances at around 5 percent of the total budget to be fiscally responsible, Kirby said. On June 30, 2016, the Bristol Police Department’s undesignated fund balance was at $17,872 — and that amount will likely need to be tapped to keep the current year’s budget in the black.
“Currently the police budget is running a deficit, but with under-spending other expense lines and possibly collecting unbudgeted revenues, it is too early to predict the outcome of the budget,” Kirby said.
One bright spot came out of a Thursday meeting between the police department and the Addison Northeast School District, which reinstated the agreement between the district and the department for Bristol police to provide security checks to Mount Abraham Union High School. This new agreement means that the department can hope to bring in the $6,000 from services to MAUHS it had budgeted for in the current fiscal year, which will help keep it in the black. The agreement also brightened the revenue picture for 2017-2018 and changed the MAUHS Contract revenue line in the proposed Bristol police budget from $1,600 to $8,000.
Nevertheless, the selectboard is cognizant that the 17 percent jump could be a tough pill to swallow.
“Four of the five selectboard members live in the police district,” said Kirby. “So they certainly understand the burden that a 17 percent increase places on district residents and felt that they controlled everything they could that was within their control. While the workers’ comp insurance is unfortunate, there’s nothing that we can do at this time to reduce that premium.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at gaenm@addisonindependent.com.

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