By ANDY KIRKALDY
MONTPELIER — State highway funds that Vermont towns had been expecting to head their way last month will be released late this week. But late last week legislators dealing with Vermont’s fiscal crisis cut 15 percent, or $925,000, from the $6.2 million total.
That decision cut the funds, which help the towns maintain their roads, will create local shortfalls that will range from roughly $1,000 in Goshen to $6,300 in Middlebury.
And Rep. Diane Lanpher (D-Vergennes), a House Transportation Committee member, said the status is uncertain for the final of four quarterly highway payments, due to towns in April.
The total of those payments could also fall short of their list value of $6.2 million, Lanpher said.
“At this point the bottom of the decline in state revenues has not been projected, more specifically (Agency of) Transportation revenue,” she said. “Therefore, the April payment is open to all budget adjustment discussion.”
Legislators say the state’s fiscal crisis is not improving. And Lanpher said the problems are being felt painfully in the transportation area of the budget, which she said is being hit by a triple whammy of lower revenues, rising costs for materials and an aging infrastructure that requires substantial investment.
“It will be important for all to understand the dire straits Vermont’s current revenue situation is in,” Lanpher said. “This perfect storm has our roads and bridges in a highly stressed situation. This is all before any economic downturn. It will take much work and commitment to get Vermont back on track.”
Gov. James Douglas had proposed cutting $1.8 million from the total of $12.4 million of remaining payments, a suggestion the Joint Fiscal Committee initially rejected in December. At that point, committee members, both senators and representatives, said they did not want to pass on costs to local taxpayers. Now, a similar cut in April’s payments would bring the Legislature in line with the governor’s recommendation.
The delay in the payments due in December had thrown a monkey wrench into local towns’ budget planning just as selectboards were working to come up with spending plans to be considered on Town Meeting Day and to be published in annual town reports.
Locally, the face value of the 2008-2009 quarterly payments ranges from about $6,900 in Goshen to almost $42,000 in Middlebury.
Now, for example, according to Lanpher, 15 percent cuts for the January payments mean Ferrisburgh will receive about $33,240 instead of roughly $39,100, while Panton will get about $11,400 instead of $13,400 to help maintain its roads.
When informed of the still-uncertain situation, Ferrisburgh selectboard chairwoman Loretta Lawrence said her board would just have to make its best guess on the town’s highway budget.
“We’ll probably discuss that ... and see how everything falls into place,” she said.
The legislature’s Joint Fiscal Committee had held up the funds in December, in part, officials said, in hopes that a federal fiscal stimulus package would allow full funding of the payments.
But when the full Legislature returned, members of both branches decided they had to act quickly to get out the payments, although with the reduction. The Senate voted earlier last week, and the House followed suit on the morning of Friday, Jan. 16.
Lanpher said that Transportation Secretary David Dill on this past Friday afternoon assured her, “Towns would receive their payments no earlier than the end of next week.”