15 Takeaways from the Village Budget Summit
by Irene Wrenner
December 17, 2020
The Village Trustees met remotely with Staff to discuss budget items in a day-long work session on Wednesday, December 9th.
Consolidation of municipal functions continues. Even so, no staff are being cut, so no money is being saved on personnel. In fact, the Unified Manager is now hiring for one of the six positions he reported needing in late August.
As more Village budget items shift to townwide taxpayers, outcomes may become less predictable. For example, if the Town Budget fails at the ballot box, what will happen to items the Village is counting on, such as the $1 million in highway funds it receives from the Town?
By ditching the in-person Town Meeting for budget approval, in exchange for a ballot vote, many more voters will have the opportunity to express their feelings about officials’ decisions, whether budgetary, or merger-related, at the ballot box.
During the seven-hour session, lots of figures were disclosed, but possibly more was revealed by the officials’ candid comments.
1) The FY22 budget increases on-call wages for EJ firefighters to $15.50 per hour. Number of calls is down with COVID keeping people off the road and vehicle mishaps down.
2) Retention and aging out are two staffing challenges for EJ Fire Department. Incentives they brainstormed included benefits (childcare at EJ Recreation & Parks) and amenities (workout room) to help volunteers fit fire service into their busy lives.
3) Apparently residents and the library have a glut of books to sell. Hence the need for a new storage / venue for a perpetual book sale.
4) Unified Manager Evan Teich is looking ahead to building new, combined facilities, and he warns that 10-acre parcels of land are hard to come by. We may need to re-purpose land and buildings we already have, including the Tree Farm. Meanwhile, we must ensure buildings don’t fall down due to neglect.
5) Several municipal buildings have roofs needing repair or replacement. Pumps are needed for the pool house. Village Garage is in desperate need. Also, much more money for water / sewer / sanitation infrastructure is needed and not set aside right now.
6) Trustee George Tyler, a strong advocate for merger, cautioned against centralizing everything, assuming a yes vote on merger. That could be awkward in, say, 20 years if things don’t work out.
7) The Village website is so cumbersome to manage that staff want everything transferred to CivicPlus, the Town’s web platform. Trustee Raj Chawla regretted “sounding like the curmudgeon”, but Trustees do not want to give up a site that’s easy for visitors to use.
Tyler: “I know I sound like a stick in the mud. We created our website for the convenience of the public. There’s no comparison with the Town’s website. Heart & Soul asked us to set it up like that. Staff’s ability to add more stuff isn’t my concern.”
No Trustee expressed concern for the cost to maintain a completely different hosting platform for the Village than the Town's.
Flagship of the Village of Essex Junction's Fleet: the Super Sucker 5000
8) Chawla repeated his assertion from another meeting that “software doesn’t solve process problems.”
Rather than buy CivicClerk software, he’d like minutes and agenda issues to be resolved offline.
9) Another $7,000 will likely be spent to mail Village election ballots in April to every voter.
10) The SuperSucker 5000 vacuum truck needs replacing in FY22. A US manufacturer couldn’t be found. This will exclude the Village from using Federal grant money to purchase a new one.
11) Tyler: Just like the EJ School District, we may want to spend money we have tucked away on our own things before the merger effective date. Teich: “I’m not necessarily looking for a vote that would get that statement into the minutes.”
12) Trustees wish to double the stipend for the Trustees, Planning Commission, and ZBA in the Village. Chawla believes that’s still not enough. The Trustees spend “an awful lot of time, not sure what the difference is” compared to the Selectboard, who get $500 more annually. One difference: Town budget is 3x larger.
The Trustees also floated the idea of a $50 stipend per meeting to appointed members of other committees: the cost of a babysitter or picking up dinner that night. This may make it easier for citizens to participate.
13) Consensus was that, regardless of the merger vote outcome, the number of board meetings won’t go down anytime soon.
14) Chawla would like to see Recreation Capital Expenses transferred to the Town. Sarah Macy reminded the Trustees that the Selectboard just took on a $140K Town Budget increase toward paying for a Transfer to Village Rolling Stock expenses.
Teich says Chawla’s question is “fraught with danger, given what we are dealing with in March. These issues will be solved with a YES vote on Merger. A NO outcome will require a different conversation with the SB on how to achieve equity without merger.”
Chawla pulled back on his ask for Recreation money. “I don’t want to put a kink in anything related to March. Not thinking about the Rolling Stock Transfer, sorry.”
15) Assuming zero grand list growth, the FY22 budget as proposed would increase Village taxes by $12 annually per owner of the average $280K residential property.