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Middlebury will apply surplus to budget ask

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury residents at their annual meeting on March 6 will field a fiscal year 2024 municipal spending plan of $12,921,448, representing an 8.3% increase compared to this year. 

And while the $8,553,380 tax affecting portion of the spending plan reflects an 8.5% bump, town officials have made a few revenue adjustments — including dipping into the town’s local option tax surplus fund — that would limit the pain to a 4.5-cent (or 5.2%) increase in the municipal property tax rate.

The town tax rate will rise from the current 82.3 cents per $100 in property value to 86.8 cents, if the budget is OK’d by Middlebury voters next month, according to Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay.

“It is a level-service budget,” Ramsay told the Independent. “Like everyone, we were hit with a number of inflationary increases, wages, benefits, cost of fuel, cost of equipment. We’re also funding a couple of special capital improvement projects, in addition to our usual ambitious suite of projects.”

Those special projects include:

• $160,000 for ongoing planning — including preliminary design work — for a major makeover of the Ilsley Library.

• $50,000 for planning and site stabilization related to the planned realignment of the Court Street/Monroe Street/Charles Avenue intersection in front of the high school. In order to make that realignment possible, town voters will be asked in a separate request to allow the selectboard to use up to $295,000 from the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund to buy (and remove) the former Maverick Gas Station at 82 Court St.

Ramsay explained that Charles Avenue — which serves Middlebury Union High School and the Patricia Hannaford Career Center — would be realigned a short distance south so it’s directly across from Monroe Street, across Court Street.

The two special projects are the main drivers of the 2023-2024 capital budget of $1,653,455, which represents an increase of $92,870 compared to this year.

Except for the capital improvements, the proposed FY24 general fund budget increases involve items largely outside of the town’s control, Ramsay noted.

For example, budget drivers include a cumulative $260,000 bump in town employee wages, an anticipated $206,100 surge in employee benefits expenses, an anticipated 18% hike in health insurance premiums, a $23,000 jump in expected fuel costs for police and department of public works vehicles, a proposed $92,870 increase in capital improvements spending, and a $103,968 bump in debt service.

“We did very little on the expenditure side. The department heads submitted nice, tight budgets with no new initiatives,” she said. 

The proposed 4.5-cent tax-rate hike is in keeping with what has been a recent trend of below-inflation annual increases in the Middlebury municipal budget. The town’s proposed FY24 tax rate is just 6.6 cents more that the FY21 rate of 80.2 cents.

“For FY2022, in particular, we held the line on the budget as it was early in the pandemic; at that time, we pulled back everywhere we could to actually lower the budget a little bit,” Ramsay said, referring to the drop from 80.3 to 79.6 cents.

And once again, Middlebury’s local option tax reserve fund is coming to the town’s rescue at budget time.

Middlebury launched its local option tax in 2008 to help pay off debt on the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project. The 1% taxes on rooms, meals, sales and alcohol is projected to generate around $1.1 million next fiscal year, according to town officials. Middlebury College also agreed to contribute $600,000 annually to help draw down the 30-year bridge bond. 

Thus Middlebury is expected to have $1.7 million with which to pay down debt and maintenance on the Cross Street Bridge next year, which would be roughly $809,000 more than needed. The town will keep that surplus in its general fund and use it to reduce the impact of fiscal year 2024 capital improvements on property taxpayers, according to Ramsay.

ALSO AT MIDD MEETING

Middlebury’s town meeting business will include more than fielding a municipal budget. The Independent later this month will provide details on town meeting agendas of each Addison County community. In the meantime, here are some of the other items Middlebury voters will field on March 6 and 7:

• A proposal to apply up to $228,496 from the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund to help offset the tax impacts of the FY24 capital improvement budget, including $135,636 in debt service for renovations to one of the former Middlebury wastewater treatment plant buildings that will be used by the police department.

• A request to bond for up to $3.5 million to finance an additional municipal water tank on Chipman Hill. Another article on the warning asks voter permission to use $1 million from the Cross Street Bridge Reserve Fund to help finance the tank project. The Independent reported on the water tank project in its Jan. 26 edition.

• A proposal to change the town charter to make the town treasurer an appointed position, rather than elected.

• A suggested change in the town’s property tax payment. Taxpayers currently pay their property taxes in three installments. The selectboard wants to change that to two equal installments for FY24, due on Nov. 15, 2023, and March 15, 2024. The Independent on Jan. 5 published an op ed from the town explaining the rationale behind the change.

John Flowers is at [email protected].

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