The selectboard will begin its budget process with a $14.8 million staff proposal that represents a 3.64 percent increase – about $522,000 – over the current year.
Elected officials got their first look at the preliminary budget last week and heard from department heads during a budget work session Wednesday after The Reporter’s deadline. The selectboard will have the chance to adjust that number during budget sessions over the coming weeks.
Because the budget proposal includes the elimination of the highway tax, historically paid for by only town-outside-the-village residents, tax impacts will differ between the two communities.
Assuming a 1 percent growth on the grand list, taxes for an average home of $280,000 would increase about $45 for town-outside-the-village residents and $76 for village residents.
Among the biggest drivers behind the jump are salary and benefit increases, expenses related to aligning the fire departments pay and training policies, and three new proposed positions: a buildings manager shared with the village and two police officers, one of which would start halfway through the fiscal year.
The proposed budget includes several savings from personnel changes: Retirements from town assessor Randy Viens and the finance director Lauren Morrisseau, while a now full-time community development administrative assistant position has shifted to part-time.
Essex Police Department’s budget request is up $31,000, or less than 1 percent of the current budget. The proposal would increase EPD’s sworn officer count from 30 to 32, while reshufflings at the department will cover most costs for this year: The two new patrol officers will be paid with funds previously budgeted for a now vacant Lieutenant position, and recent buyouts of two longtime officers freed up funding for three patrol officers.
The additions will help Chief Rick Garey in his efforts to grow the department’s staffing levels; last budget season, he told The Reporter he needed 17 new officers to be in line with departments covering towns of similar size.
The town fire department budget is up nearly 13 percent, or $66,000, to a total of $575,000. The increases come amid ongoing efforts to align practices and policies between the town and village departments. Essex Town Fire planned to align its pay and training policies effective this week, causing a significant increase moving forward due to the base pay moving from $10 to $15 an hour (though hourly pay for training will be eliminated).
The public works budget, which historically has included administration, highway, stormwater and buildings costs, is increasing $256,000, or 8.16 percent. Cost drivers include salary and benefit increases, higher construction costs to reflect higher costs of materials used during the summer paving program, and an increase to the estimated funding for salt and sand for winter road maintenance.
The town also picks up the tab for the village highway budget, which is increasing $163,000, or 15.7 percent, but the majority of that increase – $131,000 – is the result of the highway tax elimination. The village department’s increase without the transfer is 3 percent over the current year.
Two capital fund transfers that were nixed last year have also been reinstated to typical levels: the highway transfer, which was reduced last year due to anticipated grant funding, and the recreation transfer, which the selectboard eliminated to find savings in the face of a large budget increase.
The selectboard’s budget shows an 11 percent increase. The bump accounts for the recently hired attorney, Dan Richardson, who’s helping the town and village wade through governance-related issues, and increased rate requests from Front Porch Forum ($300) and Channel 17, which doubled its request from $6,000 to $12,000 to offset a drop in cable revenue due in part to cord cutting trends, the organization wrote in a memo.
An executive summary included in the selectboard’s budget documents outlines positive economic indicators, citing a low national unemployment, rising home values, more activity at the Burlington Airport and high occupancy rates for retail (94 percent), officer (86 percent) and industrial (94 percent).
But the summary also says that the town’s annual revenue is about 90 percent property taxes, which means any increase to service levels or costs will inevitably mean higher taxes.
The memo says the town should research ways to diversify its revenue sources, noting one way to do so would be a local option tax, which all its surrounding communities already have in place. The town has found several potential sales tax providers and “may wish to conduct a study on how much revenue could be generated” if a local option tax were to include the village as well, the memo says.
Meanwhile, the staff proposal cuts back on a different source of revenue – the use of fund balance to offset property taxes – trimming last year’s transfer of $150,000 to $100,000.
The selectboard planned to host a budget work session January 2 at the town offices starting at 6 p.m. The budget documents can be found at bit.ly/2VgIQA0.