The Essex Selectboard has warned a public hearing for a $14.73 million Town Meeting Day budget proposal that shows a $370,000, or 2.58 percent, increase over the current fiscal year.

The final offer raises the town’s tax rate by 1 cent, or 2.03 percent, resulting in an increase of $28 over the current fiscal year for the owner of a $280,000 home, according to finance director Sarah Macy.

The selectboard unanimously approved the budget offer on January 14 after a series of work sessions. Members hosted a public hearing and planned to officially warn the March vote on Wednesday after The Reporter’s deadline.

The budget increase is about 1 percent lower than what town staff originally proposed due in large to the selectboard’s decision to keep the highway tax, a .9 cent tick on town-outside-the-village residents that will raise about $165,000 this year. While a majority on the board supported its removal, members felt they should wait and see how the merger talks play out.

Budget increases include salary and benefits, expenses related to aligning the fire departments’ pay and training policies and three new positions: two police officers, one which would start halfway through the fiscal year, and a part-time buildings manager.

Despite the new officers, the Essex Police Department’s budget request is up only $31,000, or less than 1 percent, thanks to funds previously budgeted for a now-vacant lieutenant position and recent buyouts of two longtime officers.

Staff originally proposed the buildings position be full-time, noting the person would be in charge of nearly 30 municipal buildings with a combined square footage of over 130,000, but a majority of members felt the town should wait and see if it actually warranted the investment. The move represented one of several sticking points during the final work session last week.

“We need this person yesterday, or 20 years ago,” selectwoman Irene Wrenner said. “This is dire.”

Selectman Michael Plageman echoed her view, saying the selectboard owes taxpayers a fiduciary duty to take care of what they own.

“I don’t think part-time does that,” he said.

But Elaine Sopchak, Andy Watts and Max Levy preferred the wait-and-see approach, with Sopchak noting some department heads already perform some of their own maintenance duties, so asking them to continue the status quo “is not exactly a hardship.”

“They will not be devastated,” Sopchak said. “They will be disappointed, but there are disappointments in the budget process.”

Municipal manager Evan Teich didn’t wade too far into the debate, telling members, “At the end of the day, it just needs to get started.”

Notable changes to the original staff request include the town picking up all costs for the building manager position instead of just a portion, and a $50,000 transfer to the village vis-a-vis half the clerk’s salary and benefits.

The latter arrangement creates a 70-30 split of clerk employee-related costs with the village, helping trustees reduce their budget increase to sub-4 percent, and represents a continued push to achieve tax equity between the two communities.

Brief discussion centered on whether town staff should strive for more tax equity each year, with some members again hesitant to accept any further village costs prior to finishing merger talks.

The selectboard and trustees expect to see a report next month outlining some potential governance options – the first step toward full-on merger talks – and while no date has been picked for a town-wide vote, officials remain cognizant that November 2020 represents their best chance to get the most voters to the polls.

Before voting to warn the budget, members touched on what’s fast becoming a perennial sticking point: the use of fund balance, or surplus money left over from the prior fiscal year.

After years of using fund balance to offset the tax rate, town officials wish to wean off the practice because they say it leads to unpredictable tax rates year-to-year. This year’s budget shows a $100,000 fund balance transfer, a $50,000 reduction over the prior year, to tamp down the tax rate increase. Staff suggested the number could be even lower next year.

A selectboard policy revised in 2017 says members can assign fund balance to a specific purpose. But any undesignated funds beyond 15 percent of the general fund budget – enough to keep the town running for eight weeks without revenue – must be returned to taxpayers. What the policy doesn’t say is when that must occur.

Selectman Watts has staunchly advocated for the board to not hold onto the money and last week proposed to increase the revenue item in the FY2020 budget by $18,000 so the unassigned fund balance is right at 15 percent. That money has already been designated for taxpayers, he said, so he’d prefer to get it over with so members “don’t have any temptation” to re-allocate it for other uses – what he called a “run-around” to the policy.

Watts has repeatedly pushed for the move to no avail, once voting against the town’s tax rate over his colleagues’ unwillingness to budge, and again received little support this time around. Several members said while they agree the money should go back to taxpayers, this wasn’t the right time, once again citing the potential merger. Teich, meanwhile, said the money should be used for high-end capital needs, not for artificially deflating the tax rate: “You can do whatever you want, but we have yet to be able to put $100,000 into a roof at Memorial Hall, although you’ve been at it for years,” he said.

In agreement, selectman Plageman offered his own pointed rebuke.

“I stand on my five years of earlier opinions. I don’t think this is a good idea,” he said of Watts’ request. “Put [the $18,000] toward something that we’re in dire need of. I can pick out about five things. It’s spit in the ocean.”