Brandon: Another tough budget year coming up
By Bruce Edwards
STAFF WRITER | January 25,2014
BRANDON — Last year, it took voters four trips to the polls to pass a budget. This year, voters are again facing some tough choices.
Based on the current draft budget, residents are facing a significant jump in their property taxes as the town grapples with a municipal budget that won’t have a surplus to offset expenses.
Of the proposed fiscal 2015 budget of $3.5 million, $2.9 million would be raised through taxes for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
It represents an increase of $565,525 or 24 percent over the current budget of $2.3 million.
Town Manager Robin Bennett said Friday the new budget takes a hit on the revenue side of the ledger.
“They have been for a number of years using surplus to offset the tax rate,” Bennett said. “We’re not in a position to do that any longer and have not been in a position to do that.”
In the current fiscal year, she said the town budgeted a surplus of $175,000. She said that surplus won’t be available when the new fiscal year begins in July.
“We were not in a healthy position to begin with,” said Bennett, who was hired as town manager in September. “Last year, if I had been here I would not have recommended it.”
A citizen Budget Committee met several times this week and came up with recommendations that will be presented Monday to the Select Board.
Janet Coolidge, chairwoman of the Budget Committee, said the current draft budget increase of 24 percent is unacceptable.
“There’s no way this budget will pass,” Coolidge said. “There’s no sense even having a vote because we know it won’t pass.”
She said townspeople realize the budget is going to increase but it has to be within reason. Even a 5 percent increase in the budget might not pass, Coolidge said.
She also expressed frustration that the budget meetings were not well attended.
In their letter to the Select Board, the committee cited several reasons the budget will be a tough sell, including the lack of a surplus, a $130,000 Capital Improvement Plan, “substantial increases” in town administration expenses, and a Recreation Department that is not self-sustaining.
Among the recommendations: Institute a hiring freeze; limit overtime; lease equipment or postpone purchases and implementation of the Capital Improvement Plan; eliminate long-term debt commitments, including consideration of a $500,000 loan for town office renovations; and consider requiring employee health care contributions as part of new union negotiations.
The committee also made the following suggestions to increase revenue: Increase the effort to collect overdue taxes, increase grant applications, update list of property owned by the town to ensure those properties are actively marketed for sale, encourage early retirement, consider having town departments contract services instead of using town resources.
The lack of a surplus to cushion the blow to taxpayers isn’t the only source of income to take a hit. Overall budgeted income is down $236,825 to $579,675. Several items previously included in the general fund budget are no longer included, such as $18,000 in Act 60 reappraisal income, and police forfeiture income, which are restricted funds.
The town is budgeting $38,000 for payments in lieu of taxes, down $17,000 from the current year.
Bennett said the town also will have to fund a police position, which had been paid for through a Community-Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant. With pay and benefits, the officer position will be an additional expense of $56,000, she said.
On the expense side, Bennett has proposed adding a contingency line item for unforeseen expenses, adding another half-time position in the town office (which would in effect create a full-time position), and an increase in the line item for buildings and grounds maintenance.
Changes have also been made to the recreation department budget. Recreation programming costs are now included within the general fund budget for the first time in a number of years.
The overall budget means taxes will be going up. How much is the only question. Bennett said the final budget will be up for debate at Monday’s Select Board meeting, with voters getting the final say in March.
And while the draft budget shows a hefty increase, Bennett agreed with Coolidge that the final figure will likely change.
“It shows a 24.1 (percent increase) but that will be reduced, I’m sure, on Monday,” she said.