Middlebury approves budget and resolutions

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents easily passed all financial requests at their annual gathering on Monday and then went to the polls on Tuesday to help decide a contested race for three Addison Central School District board seats and a $37,794,916 budget to fund K-12 public education in the Addison Central School District.
Local voters on Tuesday also endorsed a series of petitioned advisory referenda aimed at reducing global warming, increasing the use of green energy, and banning the use of single-use plastic bags for carry-out purchases from Middlebury businesses.
Residents made decisions on seven articles at Monday’s town meeting, including the proposed fiscal year 2020 municipal budget of $11,155,400 and a related request to use of $400,000 from the town’s Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund — instead of property taxes — to take on additional capital improvement projects and stabilize property taxes.
It was in 2008 that Middlebury residents established a 1 percent local option tax on sales, rooms, meals and alcohol to help pay off a 30-year, $16 million bond for the Cross Street Bridge. Middlebury College agreed to contribute $600,000 annually to supplement what was projected to be $650,000 in yearly revenues from the local option taxes.
But those taxes have performed better than hoped. The annual yield from those taxes — paid by anyone who shops, dines and stays overnight in town — has been more than $900,000, according to town officials.
Revenues are now exceeding Cross Street Bridge debt and maintenance needs by around $400,000 a year. The total surplus was placed at $2 million last June, officials said.
Therefore the Middlebury selectboard asked residents for the OK to use $400,000 of the surplus this year — $325,000 to pay for extra capital projects, and $75,000 to provide a property tax cushion.
Selectwoman Heather Seeley, who chairs the Middlebury Infrastructure Committee, presented a menu of capital projects that included stabilizing 210 feet of riverbank and paving 2,720 feet of Shard Villa Road, rebuilding the basketball courts at Harold Curtiss Park in East Middlebury, and designing the proposed rehab of buildings at the old wastewater treatment facility for storage space.
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter added residents next year will likely field a bond issue for upgrades to deteriorating water mains in the community, including one that serves businesses in the industrial park off Exchange Street. Carpenter would like to see future local option tax surplus used to pay off that bond debt, rather than property taxes or rate increases.
“We feel this is the area where the town would receive the greatest value,” Carpenter said. “We feel what we’re proposing to do for work this year gets us headed in the right direction.”
Officials explained that without tapping the $400,000 surplus, the tax affecting portion of the proposed fiscal year 2020 municipal budget would be $7,836,854, leading to a more than 6.5-cent bump in the municipal tax rate. Using the surplus would lower the rate bump to around 2.15 cents.
Residents endorsed use of the surplus by a resounding voice vote, but not until after almost 50 minutes of debate.
Some town meeting participants asked if the surplus money might be better used for other purposes.
Resident Annette Jack specifically pointed to downtown merchants who will see lost revenues during replacement of the Main Street and Merchants Row rail overpasses.
“I wonder if you considered the downtown businesses that are suffering so greatly during this bridge project — would $400,000 do anything to help them?” Jack asked.
Carpenter replied he believes the $72 million rail bridges project represents a downtown investment that will ultimately strengthen businesses in the long term.
Resident John Freidin pitched an amendment to the article that would have limited the use of surplus this year to $325,000. That amendment was defeated by voice vote.
Former Selectman John Tenny said the town should take full advantage of local option tax surpluses that have another 21 years to accrue and help pay for deferred maintenance. As the county’s shire town, Middlebury is home to a large number of nonprofits and services that are also used by non-residents who travel local roads and bridges.
“We have a chance to get some of the resources that we need to find to keep town infrastructure in reasonable condition and not be adversely impacting the taxes,” Tenny said. “I, for one, wholeheartedly support this move.”
Resident Victoria DeWind also spoke in favor.
“I could see this money as a way to avoid having to buy bonds that only create extra cost to us in interest,” DeWind said. “If we can afford to buy things with cash, let’s do that. ”
Some residents asked if the selectboard would return each year with a similar request to use local option tax surplus. Carpenter replied he and his colleagues are looking for a long-term infrastructure-investment policy that would combine surplus money with other resources and ideas.
Town meeting participants backed by a unanimous voice vote a fiscal year 2020 town budget of $11,155,400.
Major budget drivers, according to Ramsay, included a $123,250 boost for employee wages and benefits and a $126,000 hike to pay for two new municipal positions, one in the Ilsley Library for its adult services and circulation department, and one in town offices for accounting and grants management.
The budget proposal was also influenced by the increase in capital-improvement funding, a $32,105 bump in equipment repair (to take care of aging vehicles) and $18,325 to replace a police vehicle.
Voters for the most part took no issue with the municipal budget request, though police Chief Tom Hanley was asked to comment on overtime and staffing within his department.
Hanley noted Middlebury, with around 8,600 residents plus Middlebury College, is comparable in size to Milton, which has a larger clerical staff and three more full-time officers than Middlebury, he said, and the current level of 15 officers and one clerical staff members is needed to provide 24-7 coverage.
Hanley added the department budgeted around $160,000 for overtime to ensure coverage if one or more officers are out with injuries or if officers leave the department. Three Middlebury officers have missed time this fiscal year with what Hanley described as “extensive injuries.”
Residents passed the town budget by a decisive voice vote, but encouraged the selectboard to look into more ways to incorporate more renewable energy — including solar — to operate town buildings.
In other action at their annual meeting and at the ballot box, Middlebury residents:
•  Decided a contested race for two three-year spots on the Ilsley Library Board of Trustees. They elected Catherine Nichols (619 votes) and Joe McVeigh (595), while Alice Eckles finished out of the running with 437.
•  Voted 802-237 in favor of directing the selectboard to write a letter to state officials to support a “350VT Climate Solutions Resolution” that urges Vermont to halt any new or expanded fossil fuel infrastructure including, but not limited to, transmission pipelines and electrical plants; adhere to the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan to achieve 90-percent renewable energy by 2050, with firm interim deadlines; and to ensure the transition to renewable energy is “fair and equitable.”
•  Supported, 917-130, a climate solution resolution offered by 350VT that seeks a commitment to, among other things, weatherize town buildings and schools, and install rooftop solar panels on town and school buildings.
•  Voted 949-101 to give $3,000 to Habitat for Humanity of Addison County to support its affordable housing efforts.
•  Supported a resolution, 838-211, to “advise and encourage” the selectboard to enact a new law asking stores to stop giving customers single-use, carry-out plastic bags to take away food or merchandise.
•  Gave permission, by voice vote, to the selectboard to take out a five-year loan of up to $310,000 to replace several municipal vehicles, including a police cruiser and related equipment, dump truck/snow plow and related equipment, and a pick-up truck.
•  Authorized the selectboard, by voice vote, to add as much as $100,000 to an existing loan to pay for second-floor improvements to the Memorial Sports Center, and to extend that loan duration by five years. Friends of Middlebury Hockey group will pay off all loan debt through fees, sponsorships and fund drives for the sports center.
•  Gave a standing ovation to outgoing Town Moderator (and former Vermont Gov.) James Douglas, first elected to that post in 1986. Selectman Nick Artim read a resolution honoring Douglas, to whom this year’s town report was dedicated.
Artim praised Douglas for his “calming demeanor and reassuring guidance at town meeting.”
Former Selectwoman Susan Shashok was unchallenged in her bid to succeed Douglas as moderator.
Middlebury voters also joined other Addison Central School District voters in electing James Malcolm, Betty Kafumbe and Lorraine Morse to the ACSD board (see related story); and approving a K-12 public education budget of $37,794,916 to operate all ACSD schools, including Mary Hogan Elementary, for the 2019-2020 academic year (see story).
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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