Voters have a chance next week to weigh in on the selectboard’s fiscal year 2020 draft budget proposal of $11.7 million, which represents a 2.7 percent increase over the current year.
The draft budget includes both capital and operating budgets and would raise the tax rate by 1.34 percent based on an assumed grand list growth of 1.36 percent. That would raise taxes for a home of $250,000 by about $18, according to town manager Aaron Frank.
Half of the operating budget’s 2.4 percent increase would maintain current service levels – accounting for inflation and private sector cost increase – while the rest would bring additional services to the town, Frank said.
One notable increase is a 5.3 percent bump to the fire department budgets that includes an extra $36,750 required to match a federal grant program helping the town fund three full-time, weekday firefighters, Frank explained. The grant allows the town to spread the cost of employing the three firefighters over five years to decrease the burden on the tax rate. Frank noted the Malletts Bay Fire Department was denied the grant earlier this year but received feedback to increase its chances for next year.
The draft budget also includes an increase of about $76,000 to fund a new highway and path maintenance worker in the public works department – a response to the town’s recent growth in amount of bike paths and roads in new residential neighborhoods, Frank said.
Other increases include contributions to the Essex Community Justice Center ($16,200), for its community social workers ($20,000) and transportation for seniors and persons with disabilities ($10,000).
The capital budget, meanwhile, would increase by 1.3 percent. Projects planned for the upcoming fiscal year include renovations to Airport Park, paving three miles of roads, replacing a 20-year-old police boat and other department vehicles and facility repairs.
Frank said these capital projects are approved in advance by voters and any increases are due to increases in labor costs and other factors the town must take into account to ensure enough funds are available for the capital plans.
Residents are asked to comment on the budget during a public hearing at the selectboard’s Jan. 8 meeting, starting at 6:30 p.m.
Frank said the proposal was created after a series of meetings with the selectboard, department heads and staff members in November. He said the town has a history of stretching the budget where it can to be the most efficient while still providing services residents need and want.
“I feel that creativity comes a little bit from scarcity,” Frank said. “If you don’t have money poured on you, you have to figure out, ‘OK, what’s the best way to do this?’”
He said staff reassess budgets and expenses every year to make sure departments are using funds efficiently to keep the town’s tax rate low. He noted out that this year’s rate is actually lower than it was in FY2012, which he said is a testament to the town’s focus on non-property tax revenues, such as the local option tax, to help pay off debt. The tax rate is currently the fourth lowest in the county, he added.
“It would be better if it were lower, but I think it’s a decent rate for the services that were provided,” he said. “I think we’re delivering a good value for what we’re charging.
A full rundown of the proposed FY20 draft town budget is available at www.colchestervt.gov. The public hearing will take place on the third floor of the town offices on Tuesday, January 8 at 6:30 p.m.