Home Uncategorized City Council Pondered Budget Cuts – January 17

City Council Pondered Budget Cuts – January 17

Photo by Carla Occaso.
The second public hearing about the FY2025 budget for the city of Montpelier brought more discussion on Jan. 17 but no further modifications to the draft prepared by the city manager in December despite several earnest requests from residents and community organizations. That left the proposed municipal tax rate increase at 4.7%.

The FY25 General Fund Budget totals $17,830,144, an increase of $447,043 (2.57%) from the comparable FY24 spending plan. 

Finance Director Sarah LaCroix noted that while the draft budget is designed to keep increases in the property tax rate at or below the current rate of inflation, some factors on the revenue side of the process are still uncertain. “The National Life appeal of its assessment would decrease the grand list by $18.7 million and increase the tax rate from 4.7 to 6.2%,” she said.

The reality that the school tax rate increase could be as large as a 19.2% also loomed over the council proceedings. Based on the proposed school budget and municipal budget tax rates, overall tax bills could rise over 12% next year for those not protected by income-sensitivity property tax credits.

Although District 1 Councilor Dona Bate proposed rescinding the $88,000 item for an additional firefighter position that had been added by a close vote of the council in early January, the 3–3 tie vote failed when Mayor Jack McCullough abstained from breaking the tie, leaving the item in the draft budget for now.

Budget Comments

Stephen Whitaker commended the Department of Public Works for recent snow-clearing efforts and recommended full funding of the department, “so they don’t have any excuse for not doing their best and showing us what they are capable of.” Whitaker recommended that other additions to the budget be put in a prioritized ‘wish list’ that will be funded if we get some relief from the state.” 

Whitaker also said that the city’s administration is overstaffed at the top and mentioned that is a concern frequently expressed in the individual comments made in the budget-related survey the city conducted during November and early December. 

Fraser later explained that the flood-related funding of several million dollars being sought from the legislature in collaboration with Barre would be applied to the current budget year, which has a $1.5 million recission as a result of revenue loss from the July flood, not the next year’s (FY2025) projected budget.

The current draft budget also includes a $65,000 cut in the administration office, but it has not been decided just where those cuts will come, Fraser added.

Budget Restoration Requests

Marek Zajac, currently serving a second term as an AmeriCorps service member at the Parks and Trees Department summarized his concerns about the AmeriCorps program, after 20 consecutive years of serving in Montpelier, being cut from the proposed FY25 budget. 

Speaking as a resident and an individual, Zajac outlined the broad and diverse activities his service to the city has involved, including building and maintaining infrastructure, culverts, plowing, cleaning outhouses and dog waste bins, removing dangerous trees and limbs, and fighting the emerald ash borer invasion. He has worked in the community garden and helped with food preparation for lunches at the Senior Activity Center and Meals on Wheels. Last summer Zajac managed the Youth Conservation Corps, who were critical to the flood response.

Jake Brown, chair of the cemetery commission, requested restoration of $40,000 in the FY25 budget. The cemetery commissioners are concerned that further delay to the restoration of the Chapel-Vault will make repairs even more expensive in the future. Responding to the questions raised by the council, Cemetery Director Patrick Healy said the Commission has applied for Historic Preservation grants in years past without success, noting that other projects in Montpelier have won the grants. “The marble Chapel-Vault is probably $1 to $2 million to fully restore,” Healy said. The commission has set aside $80,000 to be used in the eventual restoration of the 1905 Chapel-Vault.

Cemetery Commissioner Therese Mageau reviewed the consequences of losing the $40,000 from their budget. “It’s a shoestring budget. We rely on prison labor to do much of the work during the summer months; we have a three-quarter-time director, and one full-time, year-round employee who belongs to a union. If we lose the money it’s going to result in overtime for the two existing employees, which won’t make for a savings.”

Because the cemetery has its own charter, the commission does have the option of petitioning to have its budget appear separately on the Town Meeting Day ballot but are undecided about doing so. 

Northfield Street resident Dan Jones suggested Town Meeting be postponed until sometime in May, as Barre City recently decided. “We need an adaptable means of addressing the shifting economic and environmental changes we are facing,” he said, encouraging development of five- and ten-year horizons for future budgets, “So we can see what we’re investing in for the future, not just what we’re managing for the coming year.” Jones anticipates a coming economic contraction, meaning some desirable projects are no longer realistic. 

Fraser replied that in Montpelier the date of Town Meeting cannot be moved without a change in the city’s charter, which would require a public vote, not a vote of the City Council. “Barre’s charter is set up differently,” he said. 

Jones suggested creating an emergency shelter at the Main Street Middle School. “We also need to be creating long-term plans for maintaining sewer and water systems with an adequate schedule of how it will occur, not on a year-to-year basis.” He is also concerned that “The city has failed to reach out for financial resources, even when offered by officials in the state Agency of Natural Resources. We also need to take another look at the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) function. 

Phill Dodd, co-president of The Bridge board of directors, asked the council to restore the city’s monthly paid column to the budget “because I believe it provides a useful and cost-effective way to communicate with all of Montpelier’s residents. It’s mailed for free to every household and business in Montpelier. In contrast, we have 13 houses on my street and the [Times Argus] goes to only three of them.” The Bridge has offered to reduce the city’s contract for the 12 advertorial insertions from $14,400 to $9,600.

Next week, Jan. 24, at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall, will be the final opportunity for public comment about the FY25 budget. It is also the deadline for the council’s approval of what will be presented to voters at Town Meeting on March 5.