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Middlebury sets virtual budget hearing, vote

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Jan. 12 will hold a virtual public hearing on a draft fiscal year 2022 municipal spending plan of $11,724,999. If endorsed by voters it would add 2.23 cents to the current municipal tax rate of 80.3 cents per $100 in property value.
The 2.8% increase would continue the Middlebury selectboard’s recent track record of maintaining a stable municipal tax rate.
“The past couple of years since the reappraisal, we’ve been pretty much flat with the tax rate,” Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said. “We had projected slight increases, but due to growth in the grand list and the application of fund balance, we’ve been able to keep it flat.”
The municipal budget doesn’t include public school expenses. Addison Central School District voters will decide a preK-12 spending plan on March 2 (see related story on Page 1A).
Ramsay said the budget town voters will field this March simply maintains the services Middlebury residents currently receive. It preserves the 52 full-time and about 10 part-time positions now on the municipal payroll, performing tasks within the public works, water-sewer, police, parks & recreation, library and administration departments.
“All the department heads did a great job coming in with bare-bones budgets, with no special requests in the operating and capital budgets,” Ramsay said.
It’s a spending plan that, from the get-go, was asked to absorb $298,854 in fixed and contracted costs. Those costs include an anticipated $70,292 increase in salaries for municipal employees, a projected $17,900 increase in employee benefits, a $29,000 surge in worker’s comp insurance expenses, a $20,000 bump in property and casualty insurance, and a $133,856 payment due on a voter-approved bond for rehab of buildings at the former wastewater treatment plant off Seymour Street.
At the same time, Middlebury has seen a decline in revenues — around $60,000, Ramsay explained.
“It’s due to the state of the economy and the interest rate being offered by the banks — zero,” she said. That’s in contrast to the more than 2% interest the town was receiving for funds on deposit last year, she noted.
Also, Middlebury officials aren’t anticipating growth in the grand list. When the grand list grows, it creates more taxable real estate and thus lowers the property tax rate.
The Independent asked Ramsay if the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on town finances. She pointed to Middlebury’s 1% local option taxes on rooms, meals, alcohol and sales as an area she and other town officials would “be keeping a close eye on.” The pandemic — and the downtown tunnel project that shut down Main Street and Merchants Row for 10 weeks this past summer — affected people’s shopping habits and resulted in several businesses either closing or going on hiatus. And online shopping trends continue to pose a challenge for retailers.
Middlebury’s local option tax receipts during the third quarter (July-September) of 2020 were within $200 of the third quarter of 2019, according to Ramsay. But local option tax receipts for the second quarter of 2020 (April-June) were 75% ($208,714) of what they were during the same quarter in 2019 ($279,168), she noted.
In 2008 Middlebury voters adopted a local option tax to pay the town’s share of debt and maintenance for the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project. Middlebury College is underwriting $9 million of the costs. Revenues from the local option tax are proving more than sufficient to pay down the project debt and expenses.
More details about the proposed 2021-2022 Middlebury municipal budget can be found at townofmiddlebury.org.

AUSTRALIAN BALLOT
While the pandemic hasn’t really affected the budget, it will affect the manner in which the spending plan will be fielded by local residents.
Typically, Middlebury residents vote on the municipal spending plan at their annual town meeting, held the first Monday in March. This has allowed individuals to question spending priorities and propose budget amendments from the meeting floor. But the COVID-19 pandemic will preclude such a meeting, so residents will — for the first time in modern history — decide their municipal budget by Australian ballot.
Along with town spending, Middlebury residents will also use ballots to decide a proposed loan for the purchase of replacement vehicles and equipment, the date(s) on which property taxes will be due, and a cannabis-related referendum.
There will be an informational meeting — likely on Feb. 22 — prior to the Australian ballot vote on the town meeting articles that are usually decided at the annual gathering.
Residents will, as usual, vote on their school budget and local elections by Australian ballot on the first Tuesday in March.
The cannabis referendum, forced by a citizen petition, reads: “Shall the town of Middlebury permit the operation of cannabis retailers and integrated licensees which are licensed by the state of  Vermont pursuant to Act 164 of 2020, subject to such municipal ordinance and regulation as the selectboard may lawfully adopt and implement?”
Ramsay promised a virtual informational meeting to discuss the cannabis article.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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