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Wages, benefits driving Middlebury spending

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard after Thanksgiving will begin its review of a fiscal year 2022 municipal spending plan that features an almost $300,000 increase being pushed by fixed and contracted costs.
Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said those “major drivers,” totaling $298,854, include:
•  An anticipated $70,292 increase in contracted salaries for municipal employees. That bumps the current payroll number of $3,624,213, up to $3,694,505 for the budget year that begins on July 1, 2021, and lasts through June 30, 2022.
•  An increase of $17,900 to $1,346,500 in employee benefits.
•  An estimated $29,000 in Worker’s Comp insurance expenses, raising the total number to $216,500. Ramsay associated much of that projected increase to “ongoing poor accident experience coming largely from police officers being injured in the line of duty.”
•  A $20,000 bump in property & casualty insurance up to $140,000.
•  A $133,856 payment due on a voter-approved bond for rehab of buildings at the former wastewater treatment plant off Seymour Street. Those buildings are being salvaged to provide storage for municipal equipment, largely for the police department.
•  $3,956 associated with debt for the East Middlebury flood resiliency project. This is part of work within the Middlebury River to prevent future flooding during storm events.
•  $47,000 due to the recent town wide reappraisal of Middlebury properties.
•  A $5,000 budget increase requested by the Better Middlebury Partnership, which, among other things, is working to fill numerous storefront vacancies in the downtown.
Altogether, the $298,854 in fixed/contracted increases will add around 3 cents to Middlebury’s municipal tax rate, which currently stands at 80.3 cents per $100 in property value.
The selectboard could try to mitigate that increase through cuts to other parts of the spending plan. Or they could decide that this is the year to allow the town budget more breathing room. The board has, in recent years, held increases to 3% or below.
“We’ve been fortunate, through a number of opportunities, to be able to keep the budget percentage (increase) low,” Ramsay said. “Department heads have submitted some bare-bones budgets, but there are a number of factors that increase every year. It’s going to be a tight year.”
The Battell Trust, which oversees a vast tract of donated public forestland near Middlebury Village, has generously helped reduce the impact of the municipal budget on local taxpayers. The trust has donated around $55,000 annually to build Middlebury’s conservation fund. Local taxpayers would have to cover that cost if it weren’t for the Battell Trust’s contribution. The trust is able to donate the money thanks to proceeds from a rental agreement for the Chipman Hill Tower that stands on the Battell property.
Ramsay has laid out the following timetable to finalize an FY2022 budget that will be put to the voters at town meeting next March:
By Dec. 2, a first draft of the spending plan will be posted on the website and distributed to the selectboard.
The board, on Dec. 8, gets its first budget overview, including the major drivers and a review of general administration, library, public safety, public works, recreation and human service agency funding requests.
Officials on Dec. 15 will continue to review departmental budget requests, after which the board will warn a special budget hearing for its Jan. 12 meeting. The board can finalize a budget for town meeting after that Jan. 12 hearing.
Middlebury voters this past March passed an FY21 municipal budget of $11,503,680 that required a 1.3% increase in property tax revenue. That action was taken from the town floor at the annual meeting. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the FY2022 budget might be voted by Australian ballot next March, in order to avoid a large public gathering that could contribute to spread of the virus. The selectboard will soon decide on the voting method.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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