15 Takeaways from the Town Budget Summit
1/4/21 Selectboard Work Session
by Irene Wrenner
January 7, 2021
January 4th was an all-day work session to discuss the proposed $16+ million Town of Essex FY22 Budget.
Selectboard members rationalized giving themselves a $1,000 raise, increasing their annual stipend to $2,500 each.
K-9 Nova, before heading to Police Academy training
Following the lead of the Village Trustees, the SB considered a $50 per meeting per person payment for all committee/commission members.
They discussed the impact of COVID on revenues and planned expenses, including spending $22,000 for each of the upcoming March and April elections to mail ballots to every voter. A special election about cannabis may also be warned for later in the year.
Overworked staff and neglected tasks will be addressed by an increase in the Salary category, above the customary or contractual increases for all staff, to pay for a full-time Assistant Manager (now part-time); full-time Buildings Manager (now part-time); and new quarter-time Economic Development Coordinator.
Surplus funds from prior years, known as fund balance, total $5.5 million. More than $2 million is available for the SB to allocate at will. Staff were asked: should some of that be set aside or used as contingency funding?
Evan expressed gratitude for reviewing the budget in a single session instead of multiple meetings as was the format in the past. The downside is that board members have less time to ask probing questions of staff and discuss each budget line in detail. It was also easier for the public to attend night meetings. Video recordings of the meeting may be viewed here.
1) Ballot Vote - Unlike all prior annual budgets, this Town budget will be voted on at the polls, not an in-person meeting, per the outcome of the November vote. There will be an informational, remote meeting the day before.
2) The Bottom Line - The proposed budget contains a $550,000 increase, assuming a 1.25% increase in the grand list and the use of $300,000 from excess fund balance. Expect a 3.8% tax increase, if the proposed budget is approved. That translates to a $55 Town tax increase to the owner of an average $280,000 property.
The unallocated and unrestricted fund balance will be allocated on 1/11/21. That amount is $2,027,145, which is enough to cover the entire budget increase, or even to provide a tax decrease, if the Selectboard chose to. These funds and the current fund balance policy have fostered the inside joke among members about it being a “fun balance”.
3) Selectboard Stipend Increase - Two reasons were offered: Chair Elaine Haney suggested too much work and too little stipend make it impossible for all interested persons to run / serve.
Pat Murray claimed not enough seats are contested, citing the most recent election in which two candidates ran unopposed. (Actually, a challenger did file paperwork but withdrew after the deadline.) The proposed solution by Murray: increase the annual stipend from $1,500 to $2,500.
Haney said the optics of such a raise are terrible, but framed the extra money as an accessibility and inclusivity issue.
Andy Watts noted that past increases in the stipend have not increased interest in running. Dawn Hill-Fleury said that the recent vacant SB seat filled by appointment had a dozen applicants.
Based on Watts’ observation and the vacancy experience, it would appear that the burden of campaigning may be the limiting factor – not the small stipend for serving. The doubling in the number of Selectboard meetings from prior years to 52 meetings in 2020 is no selling point, either.
4) Committee / Commission Stipend - Currently, none of the 50 members of the nine Town Commissions and Committees receive a stipend of any kind. The Selectboard considered a $50 per person per meeting stipend.
Watts suggested that, in tandem, they should improve the appointment process with more robust questions and ask the Committee Chair to meet applicants and make recommendations.
Staff anticipate just two-thirds of committee members would take the payment, but if members on all committees chose to, and if meetings were held routinely (many are not), the total liability would be $41,450.
5) Dog License Fee - Town Clerk retracted a prior request to raise the dog license fee, contrary to recent SB discussion.
6) New Service - Town Clerk plans to offer passport services.
7) Village Rolling Stock - $140K was added to the existing $1.3 million transfer to the Village for Highway Maintenance. This increase will support the Village’s rolling stock capital. However this addition is offset by the elimination of the TOV only Highway tax resulting in “a very small impact on the tax rate”. Total increase to Village Highway payment: 16.8%.
8) Police Department - Body cameras and associated software ($47K) will be funded by taxpayers instead of equitable sharing funds (i.e., drug money). Cops will add translation services. Chief anticipates finding more diverse candidates outside Vermont, hence the increased recruiting budget. Nova, the canine cop, is eating more than planned as she grows, so her food budget is growing.
9) Nonstandard Interventions - Our Howard Center Street Team will add service to Milton and Hinesburg. EPD now has a certified De-escalation Trainer, Corp. Rutenberg. More de-escalation training is planned; it will require time off / overtime for replacements.
10) Essex Community Justice Center - CJC saw its caseload grow with COVID because courts were shut down. Winooski just defunded their re-entry coordinator, so their clientele will be served by our coordinator, whose position is funded by the state.
11) Racial Equity Work - another $12K budgeted for Creative Discourse consulting.
12) Summer Construction - paving and stormwater work, $40K increase.
13) Building Repair and Maintenance - $40K increase.
14) COVID Impact - Impact on revenues won’t be known until March. The Finance Director said people found the grace period and lower penalty helpful in September.
COVID-related expenditures include 4 Chrome-books for the library that patrons can check out when library is inaccessible or hours are incompatible. Staff stressed the need to keep in (closer) touch with local businesses, via the Economic Development Commission or otherwise.
15) Merger Hurdle - Perennially silent about the costs of merger when asked, Evan announced that one cost of merger is “not being merged”.
“If merger goes through, we could look at our entire town, and then re-allocate.” Actually, Essex is already one Town, which he manages, in whole or in part, where appropriate. Yet, one department head after another said they had hedged on budget decision-making, pending the March vote.
To be clear, Merger wouldn’t impact the contents of this FY22 budget. If Merger passed in March, FY22 spending would be overseen by the Village-dominated interim board until the end of FY22. That same board would craft an FY23 budget.