Town budget up 2.4 percent

By

The above pie chart shows how Colchester's fiscal year 2018 budget proposal is allocated among departments. The budget represents a 2.4 percent increase over FY17 and will be voted on Tuesday, March 7. (Photo courtesy of Town of Colchester)

The above pie chart shows how Colchester’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal is allocated among departments. The budget represents a 2.4 percent increase over FY17 and will be voted on Tuesday, March 7. (Photo courtesy of Town of Colchester)

The Colchester Selectboard unanimously approved a nearly $12.5 million town budget earlier this month, marking a 2.4 percent increase from the current fiscal year.

After factoring in an estimated 1.14 percent growth on the grand list, the proposed budget will increase the tax rate by .62 percent, or one-third of a penny. At that rate, the owner of a $300,000 house will pay about $10 more annually, according to assistant town manager and chief financial officer Aaron Frank.

“Less than a four pack of Heady Topper,” town manager Dawn Francis quipped. “Our municipal tax rate is going to be less than it was six years ago – that’s unheard of.”

About 1.4 percent, or nearly $174,500, of the total increase is needed to maintain current services, Frank said. The remaining 1 percent would be used to fund additional services.

Much of the increased funding is needed to handle a consistently growing population, Francis said.

“We finally have to actually make some resource allocations that keep up with the growth we’ve seen,” she said. “It’s been slow, incremental growth, but we still need to tackle it.”

The big-ticket items include nearly $40,000 for the volunteer fire department and $50,000 for public works. The latter has seen a 10 percent increase in highway and sidewalk mileage over the past five years without any staffing changes, Francis said.

“That means that those guys are out there for a full eight hours just cycling through the town on a plow route,” Francis said, noting the cost of overtime pay. “If you’re in a prolonged storm, you’re going to have to go back after those eight hours and tackle it again.”

Colchester officials are also budgeting a $4,000 increase for the Special Services Transportation Association and $4,500 for increased programing at the Burnham Memorial Library, a move they hope will better serve the town’s elderly population.

Colchester police will also see an increase under the FY18 budget: $3,400 was set aside to pay for a non-sworn, seasonal community service officer. Public safety makes up the largest portion of the town’s budget, followed by public works funding.

Another $16,000 will buy software called Social Sentinel, a social media-monitoring tool that scans for threats or unusual activity online. The program offers a more cost-efficient way to keep tabs on internet chatter, Frank said.

Indeed, he said it exemplifies the town’s quest to operate in the most efficient manner possible. This year, that effort is perhaps most clearly depicted in the restructured cemetery budget.

Officials cut the entire cemetery budget after employees in the parks department found they could maintain the sites for less. The consolidation eliminated the need for last year’s $20,558 in cemetery funding and still allowed the parks department to decrease its budget by 5.7 percent.

Other cost-containment efforts include an energy audit, restructuring the police fleet to include smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles and an emphasis on employee safety and wellness, Frank said.

The town also saves money by providing emergency dispatch services for neighboring Milton. Under contract, Milton reimburses the town based on its share of calls, wages, supervision, overhead and equipment.

Calls for service have risen from 17,168 in FY13 to 25,551 in FY16, according to a memo provided by Frank. Colchester PD currently has eight full-time dispatchers to handle the load, according to police Chief Jennifer Morrison.

Milton pays for about 40 percent of the services, Frank said, leaving Colchester to pick up the remaining 60 percent. In their proposed FY18 budget, Milton officials have allocated $243,742 to cover their share.

The town also collects non-tax revenue from things like ambulance fees and building permits. The combined revenue sources have grown by 4.9 percent, Frank’s memo said.

Despite the town’s best efforts, Francis said she knows creating an affordable budget can leave some wanting more. Deciding when and how to fund each department’s needs is “a dance,” she said.

While unrelated, she said the town is also always conscious of the school budget, knowing voters often connect the two.

“I can think of six other positions that we desperately need in this organization,” Francis said. “But because of the need to present a budget that the taxpayers can a) afford and b) support, we’re not going to fill those needs [all at once].

“We try to spread the wealth as well as the constraints,” she added.

A pre-Town Meeting Day will be held on March 6. The following day, residents can vote on the budget via Australian ballot.