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Middlebury selectboard may cut services to avoid town tax hike

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By JOHN FLOWERS

BRISTOL — Middlebury selectmen will spend the next five weeks trying to put together a fiscal year 2009-2010 municipal budget that features no local tax increase.

Selectmen are seeking to maintain the current municipal rate of 80.6 cents per $100 in property value in deference to Middlebury residents who are struggling through a tough economy. Several local businesses have laid off workers during the past year. Meanwhile, economists on Tuesday predicted a $30 million decline in general fund revenues for the current fiscal year and a state unemployment rate that could soon reach 7 percent.

“We come at this budget in a little bit of a different way, intentionally,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny said. “I think it’s a good change in the process for what is clearly going to be a difficult year, if not two or three years. Because of the difficult financial situation, this leads us toward a budget presentation and preparation unlike previous years … where we’ve set the baseline as ‘maintaining the level of service.’ This is looking at holding the line financially, and a more arbitrary financial limit because of the economic stress that is perceived in the community.”

Middlebury Assistant Town Manager Joe Colangelo on Tuesday spelled out the impact a level municipal tax rate would have on next year’s budget.

First, he noted a projected 1.5-percent increase in Middlebury’s grand list would give the town roughly $6,760,000 in revenues, a sum that would fall approximately $259,496 short of the $7,020,147 needed to maintain the same services that local residents are currently receiving.

The lion’s share of the gap — almost $165,000 — is associated with increases in wages and benefit premiums for municipal employees, hikes that are guaranteed through negotiated contracts.

Other budget drivers, according to Colangelo, include debt service on various equipment purchases and building projects.

Colangelo anticipates the town will be able to apply $134,703 in fund balance from the current fiscal year toward the 2009-2010 budget. That would lower to $124,793 the amount needed to produce a no-new-municipal-taxes budget at town meeting.

The $124,793 represents roughly 1.7 cents on the tax rate, which would add approximately 35 dollars next year to the owner of a homestead valued at $200,000.

Colangelo presented selectmen with a menu of options they could consider cutting, in order to bridge the $124,793 gap. That menu includes a currently vacant patrol officer’s position ($77,000 salary/benefits); a vacant highway department employee post ($77,000 salary/benefits); and a soon-to-be-vacant children’s librarian post ($66,000 salary/benefits).

Selectmen could also consider trimming capital improvements; closing the municipal pool; reducing annual funding allotments for area human service agencies; reducing expenditures for new library materials; or trimming the fire fund (currently 2 cents on the tax rate) and conservation fund (now a penny on the tax rate) — two moves that would require voter approval.

Colangelo explained that staff are unlikely to find a series of smaller, line-item cuts that would add up to $124,793.

“If you want to get to $124,000, if you want to get to a budget that doesn’t increase the tax rate, looking at $1,000 and $5,000 and $500 line items is not going to get you there, and they are probably not going to be the kind of cuts that are sustainable,” he told selectmen.

Colangelo then alluded to the menu he had outlined.

“These are the types of cuts that are sustainable,” he said. “We know we won’t overspend certain budgets if you make these cuts. I think management staff and department heads have looked at the smaller cuts, and this is where we’re at.”

Selectmen encouraged department heads to look at individual savings that could be made within their respective budgets, in an effort to stave off potential program or position cuts.

“I think it’s the overall budget we should be looking at, not what a particular person brings to the community or what it costs,” said Selectman Don Keeler.

Plans call for selectmen to discuss the budget on Dec. 2 with individual department heads, who will tell the board how a no-tax-increase budget would affect their ability to deliver services. Selectmen will use that information — coupled with what they hope will be ample public feedback — to begin setting a budget on Dec. 9. They will attempt to finalize a spending plan on Dec. 16 that will be warned for a Jan. 13 public hearing.

Selectmen will use feedback from the Jan. 13 to make any last adjustments to a final budget that will be decided by Middlebury voters at their annual town meeting on March 3, 2009.

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