Home News and Features Budget Cuts Hard to Find: City Council Explores the Details

Budget Cuts Hard to Find: City Council Explores the Details

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Prior to upcoming public hearings about the city’s challenging fiscal year 2025 budget, the Montpelier City Council is finding that options for budget cuts, other than those already in the city manager’s initial $11,863,353 draft, are not going to be easy to find. 

Seeking more information about how the largest departments of city government plan to handle the cuts pending for fiscal year 2025, the Montpelier City Council received the inside view from department heads for police, fire/emergency services, and public works at its Jan. 3 meeting. 

Councilor Tim Heney requested that City Manager Bill Fraser provide a more detailed version of staffing costs for each department and about the $200,000 district heat operation. Noting that it’s difficult to consider budget options when so many of the numbers are quite broad, Heney said, “We’ve got to talk about this stuff.” Fraser replied that he will make the information available.

Looming Unknowns

While the draft budget is based on what Fraser described as “conservative estimates” of the city’s revenue, owners of flood-damaged properties are in the process of requesting changes to the recently completed reassessment of all properties in the city. In addition, National Life, while not flood-damaged, has requested a multi-million-dollar reduction from the city’s evaluation. All these reviews are in process before the Board of Civil Authority, meaning their impact on the city’s revenue is not yet determined.

Mayor Jack McCullough noted that about 70% of the budget is for personnel. Two of the city’s larger departments, police and fire/EMS, have budgeted for 16 positions in each department, but each said that while 17 would be preferable, services can be maintained with the budgets presented to the council. 

Policing Perspective

Police Chief Eric Nordenson said in addition to 16 officers, eight full-time dispatchers and one and a half parking patrollers are employed by the department. “Ideally, we would have three officers on at night, but we’re going to two for cost savings.” The proposed draft budget also eliminates the canine half of one officer’s duties. 

“What is the impact of being short of staff?” asked Councilor Cary Brown. Nordenson replied that the department was down to only 11 officers in January 2023, but now has 16. One impact of the shortage is “We have to pull a detective off an investigation, of which there have been several this year,” he said. The consequence, he said, is that completing investigations takes longer.

Councilor Lauren Hierl commented that because police work is stressful, she would favor restoring the seventeenth officer position if the city’s revenue improves during the course of the year. Fraser said such adjustments are possible and, recently, necessary when the FY24 budget had to be reduced when revenue fell after the July 10 flood. “We’ve had to cut the current year’s budget back by $1.5 million,” he said.

Both Heney and Councilor Sal Alfano questioned the $300,000 planned for overtime. Fraser replied that because police and fire are 24-hour operations, “overtime is not a consequence of inefficiency.” The cost of a full-time position, including benefits and training, does not provide significant savings, he said. In response to Councilor Pelin Kohn’s question about federal grant programs for officer development, which have been used by the city in the past, Fraser said participation requires a long-term commitment that will not be helpful at this time.

Fire Department Transition

Fire Chief Bob Gowans, who will be retiring at the end of June after 45 years with the department, said one firefighter position will be cut in order to hire a new chief at the beginning of the fiscal year in July. Current members of the department are eligible to apply for the chief position.

Gowans said 85% of the department’s activity is ambulance emergency services, and a priority is to continue paramedic training for EMS staff. Along with scheduling issues, Gowans said the department is researching the possibility of an interim loaner to replace the fire truck lost in the November rk Miles fire. Repairs to the fire house building from flood damage are also underway.

The proposed budget is $2,575,316, an increase of 1.87% over that of the current fiscal year. 

Public Works

The Public Works Department (DPW) has the largest number of employees in the city’s core services: 37. Kurt Motyka, DPW director, said initial requests totaling $2.2 million for infrastructure projects (Recreation, Parks, Cemetery, and DPW) have been cut to $880,611. Likewise, requests for equipment replacement and upgrades from those departments plus Police, Fire, and Finance totaling nearly $3.9 million have been cut to $1.3 million. The Department of Public Works itself is taking the greatest share of the infrastructure and equipment cuts, with requests totaling $2.83 million reduced to $1.09 million in the current draft of the budget.

Noting that DPW likely receives the largest number of calls and messages of concern from the public, Motyka reflected on the challenges of maintaining pavement and the aged system of pipes and sewers. 

“Ideally, repaving would be based on the condition of the asphalt. But the more important question is ‘Will the water and utilities hold up and protect the life of the pavement?’”

Motyka said it’s important to maintain the condition of the good streets, rather than always doing the worst first. A priority for DPW is to establish an enterprise fund through the creation of a stormwater utility and hiring an administrator and a field worker to begin improvement to a long-term problem facing the city.

Possible Restorations?

Councilor Dona Bate noted her concern about eliminating the $40,000 MyRide program that has subsidized transportation for low income and homeless people. She suggested moving $40,000 from the cemetery fund to restore the transportation service.

But because the cemetery is legally a separate entity from the city, such a transfer is not possible, said Cemetery Director Patrick Healy. Fraser explained that while the two organizations have collaborated in budget preparation for many years, the cemetery could put its own line item on the ballot. 

Because of the many questions and requests for additional information, the council scheduled an additional public hearing on Jan. 17. Budget discussions will also be held at the regular city council meeting on Jan. 10 and at a previously scheduled public hearing on Jan. 24. A final public draft of the budget needs approval from the council by Jan. 25 for inclusion on the March 5, 2024 Annual Meeting ballot, according to Fraser.

How to Explore the City Budget

With public hearings planned for 6:30 p.m., Jan. 17 and 24, information about the budget and the services it provides can be found at: city-montpelier-vt-budget-book.cleargov.com/14120/budget-overview/executive-overview

For truly calculating taxpayers, the City Manager’s Budget Overview includes a link to a downloadable spreadsheet that computes the impact of changes or additions to line items.

Department Video Reports: The City Council expressed appreciation for the ten videos about city operations and budget planning for each department. The videos are posted on the city’s YouTube channel: youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBcpzCS9hfyiqrK9vtb3sdlA5XCbFYhUn