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City Councilors Begin Budget Review

Montpelier City Hall. Photo by Carla Occaso.
Members of the Montpelier City Council raised several broad questions as they prepared to dive into the details of a challenging FY25 budget of $17.4 million presented this week by City Manager Bill Fraser and staff. “It’s in your hands, now,” Fraser said. 

Prior to the budget discussion, communications director Evelyn Prim presented the results of a public survey conducted during November to assess priorities among services provided by the city. Clearly topping the list of a dozen city services and programs were Public Works Operations, Public Works Projects, and Public Safety – Fire/EMS.  The primacy of these core services set the tone for further discussion.

Mayor Jack McCullough noted that the budget is challenged by the impact of the July flood, loss of tax revenue, and the ongoing process of tax adjustments currently before the Board of Civil Authority. The initial intent has been to plan a budget that keeps the tax rate within the current 3.2% rate of inflation.  “Are people happy with the target of maintaining a budget within the rate of inflation?” he asked.

Councilor Tim Heney expressed interest in what other members of the council think about the budget process, noting that the city’s primary mission is provision for police, fire, and public works.  Referencing the secondary priorities indicated in the survey, specifically recreation, parks, the senior center, and social justice concerns, Heney said, “I’d love to hear what city council members are thinking.”

Recalling an earlier presentation by the fire department chief, Heney asked, “Why are we looking at replacing a $1.2 to $1.5 million piece of equipment that we’ve known has been coming up for 25 years, but we have no reserves? We lost another fire truck in a tragic fire recently, but I haven’t heard anything about it, other than a brief mention from the fire chief at the last meeting that we’re waiting on insurance . . . but it makes me wonder, do we really need (the replacement fire truck)?” 

Heney went on to question the broader process that apparently guided the budget plan, “cutting a little everywhere.” Specifically, he wondered about the strategy of not filling vacant positions versus the expense for overtime because departments are short-staffed. “I’d rather invest in those key areas of service that we’re currently providing,” he said.

“We can be more strategic about these key public services,” said councilor Sal Alfano. “It gets us to a number, but I’m not sure it’s in an ideal way.  We are leaving those services short-handed. We’re adding overtime, almost $280,000 in overtime.”

Councilor Cary Brown also agreed about focusing on core services, which she said she has been hearing from constituents. Regarding staff cuts, she said, “If we have to make cuts, I would prefer that we find them somewhere else.” She is also open to considering tax increases. “The city council budget is up ten percent. It’s not a lot of money, but we should find ways to cut that.”

Councilor Dona Bate expressed respect for city department heads and said she trusts their assurance about managing programs despite staff shortages. “Overtime is an issue. I know, I brought it up before anyone else. But $280,000 is what, one or two positions with all the benefits? Sometimes overtime is the cheaper way.” she said.  She also said that recreation, the parks, and the senior center are important to the city’s quality of life.

While expressing support for the current staffing level at the police department, based on an in-depth study of the force, council member Lauren Hierl said she would be comfortable with a tax increase in order to provide the community with what it needs right now. 

“What I am concerned about is being penny-wise and pound-foolish, things that are going to wind up costing more down the road,” she said. Hierl and Bate both noted the importance of MyRide, which has been cut in the initial draft of the budget.

Councilor Pelin Kohn also supported the maintenance of the core services. “We need to have a safe town in order to build other things on top of it.” Along with Hierl and McCullough, she said she, too, has heard concern about the proposed cut of the City Page from The Bridge.

McCullough also referenced the results of the survey: “What I was struck by is that people said maintain or increase those services. People want the services we are giving . . . We got a big outcry about The Bridge, but over the course of the year we hear most about public works and the roads.” He recommended bringing in department heads to explain their needs and budget requests, as has been done during the budgeting process in the past.

 Fraser acknowledged that “it’s been a number of years” since department heads have made an appearance to explain their budget requests to the council. Brown said some of the larger departments would be worth inviting, “but not all of them.”

Heney said he specifically would want a good discussion with public safety and public works. 

Fraser replied to Bate’s question about how large the budget increase would be if it were ‘business as usual’ without the cost-of-living restriction. “Up 13%,” he said.

Heney replied that the impact of budget increases is not directly proportional to the impact on taxes. 

“Last year it was an 8.5% increase in the budget, but for our properties that resulted in a 17.9% increase in the taxes paid,” he said.

Regarding the 3.2% increase, he said “It’s not necessarily that . . . when the taxpayer gets a bill, it’s the city and the schools. You have to be cognizant of that,” he added. The FY25 school budget, while not yet finalized, appears likely to require substantial increases in taxpayer funding.

The next meeting of the City Council will be Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024.

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