According to town manager Aaron Frank, the general operating budget for the next fiscal year was the toughest he has worked on in 34 years of government and private sector service. The challenge came in balancing a steady tax rate while adding three weekday daytime firefighters and a town-wide fire chief; two competing goals.
After months of work amongst town staff, Frank and Deputy Town Manager Geoff Urbanik presented the budget for FY21 to the town selectboard at a meeting on Dec. 10, 2019.
The request was handed down by the selectboard following a year of change for Colchester’s fire services. From April to September of 2019, the town worked with Malletts Bay Fire Department and Colchester Center Volunteer Fire company to consolidate services to accommodate the growing need for services and rising costs. In September, both fire departments voted to transfer services over to town management under one town-wide chief by summer of 2020.
In past years, the volunteer departments petitioned the selectboard to hire more weekday daytime firefighters to fill the need when volunteers are unavailable. Fire services currently has 90 volunteers.
The selectboard also requested that town staff do their best to keep the tax rate, “no higher than normal,” recalled Frank.
Ultimately, total expenses are proposed to increase by $1,665 over the current fiscal year, with the total overall budget for FY21 at $12,121,084.
“This budget is slightly better than last year’s,” said Urbanik.
He explained that hiring weekday firefighters, funding additional emergency dispatch employees, and the expected increase in contribution to the Howard Community Center social worker program, were the main challenges to the budget. Forty-four percent of the town budget is allocated for public safety meaning police, fire, rescue, EMS, dispatch, and other services.
He noted that property value in Colchester increased of about 1.18 percent, largely due to permitted construction value, subdivision plats that have been approved, and improvements to buildings and residences. Colchester has the third lowest property taxes per resident in Inner Chittenden County towns at $673; Williston is first at $546 and Essex Town is second at $618.
All long-term debt for the town will be paid off by 2029. The current local option tax (LOT) fund balance as of the end of June 2019 is $3,517,045.
Selectboard member Herb Downing commended town staff’s work on the budget, especially in light of the town’s new responsibilities and added costs for fire services. “We’re doing a remarkable thing... The main focus of the town should be to get the unified fire department up and running,” he said.
“This is a really, really good budget. Onwards and upwards,” said selectboard chair, Jeff Bartley.
A town-wide hearing will be held on Jan. 14 for the public to comment on the budget. It will be put to a vote on March 3, Town Meeting Day.