Home News and Features Split Council Restores Firefighter Job, OKs Budget – tax rate would go...

Split Council Restores Firefighter Job, OKs Budget – tax rate would go up 4.56%

Montpelier Mayor Jack McCullough, center, presides over a Montpelier City Council meeting Jan. 10. City Clerk John Odum is at his left, and City Manager William Fraser is at his right. Screenshot from ORCA Media.
The Montpelier City Council adopted a fiscal year 2025 operating budget to present to the public after roughly three hours of wrangling Jan. 10. This draft of the general fund budget totals around $17.9 million. Getting there was a lengthy process, though, and came after several split votes resulting in Mayor Jack McCullough casting two tie-breaking votes during the regular meeting in City Hall. Additional public meetings to present this budget are scheduled for this Wednesday, Jan. 17, and the following Wednesday, Jan. 24, at 6:30 p.m. in City Hall. The deadline for the council to submit a final budget is Jan. 25, according to the city website.

Budget talks followed an hour-long public discussion over how to spend the roughly $500,000 the city received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of its obligation upon recently breaking an agreement to build temporary housing at the Country Club Road property. No action was taken on that matter.

As for the budget, before getting to the nitty gritty, councilors heard from department heads who had not presented during previous budget talks. During the Jan. 3 hearing, Montpelier Police Chief Eric Nordenson, Fire Chief Robert Gowans, Department of Public Works Director Kurt Motyka, and others presented information from their departments. Gowans announced he would be retiring in July after 45 years as fire chief. Gowans said his departure would result in the fire department getting rid of one position and would then operate with 16 versus 17 members. But, he noted, the cut would come with a reduction in services.

During the more recent budget hearing on Jan. 10, Parks and Trees Director Alec Ellsworth presented information regarding the parks and trees department. He offered cuts of the full summer youth corps as well as the two Americorps positions. This represents a cut of $65,000 out of a total operating budget of $375,000, most of which is for personnel costs. “It’s a tough year and we are trying to do what we can with that budget,” Ellsworth said. However, his department’s ability to maintain trails and attend to tree issues will be reduced significantly in summer. 

Arne McMullen, director of the recreation department and the Montpelier Senior Activity Center spoke next. He said he would not be filling an opening for an administrative position. He also said he would eliminate the after school program. He cautioned that his department oversees “a lot of aging facilities,” including the pool (built in 1939), the stadium, and the recreation building on Barre Street. McMullen did not mention any cuts to the Montpelier Senior Activity Center, but noted he is trying to increase membership that waned during the pandemic and increase community lunches.

Following their presentations, McCullough asked Montpelier Finance Director Sarah LaCroix to add $178,000.00 into the base budget she had projected onto a screen. That number represented $88,000 to restore the firefighter position previously cut by Gowans, $25,000 into the parks department for the Americorps service members, $40,000 to restore MyRide (the city’s transportation program), and $25,000 for boards and committees to draw from if needed. This increase would bring the tax rate 5.34% rather than the 3.79% increase represented in the base budget. It would add 1.34 cents on the tax rate, and the average homeowner with a home valued at $370,000 would “see a $170 tax increase,” LaCroix said.

This set off a three hour discussion, which ended in restoring the $88,000 for the firefighter position but keeping the rest of the budget as submitted to the council by City Manager William Fraser. But this was after other avenues were discussed by council members who had opposing opinions on what was more important — keeping taxes to a bare minimum or restoring some services. For example, City Councilor Dona Bate made an amendment to keep the base budget but add $40,000 back to fund MyRide. City Councilor Tim Heney balked at having any additions back in. 

“All we are talking about is additions and no reductions here and I just can’t do it,” Heney said, noting that the school budget is going to add a 19.19% increase and that purchases such as replacing the fire truck and fixing an ambulance have to be considered … not to mention the water lines. Heney also advocated for selling the Country Club Road property since it is costing the city more money than it is bringing in revenue.

McCullough said they could consider cuts as well. However, only one person presented specific line item cuts — City Council member Sal Alfano, who asked about cutting $30,000 for repairing the tennis courts and $50,000 from the overtime budget. After multiple councilors presented different ideas about what should or shouldn’t be added or managed, Fraser suggested voting on the base budget and go from there.

Bate amended her motion to remove the MyRide funding and stick with the base budget. The resulting vote was three “yeses” and three “nos” with McCullough voting “yes” to break the tie. Voting in favor were Bate, Cary Brown, and Lauren Hierl. Voting “no” were Alfano, Heney, and Pelin Kohn. 

Following the vote, firefighter Ken Christman warned those present of what it means to eliminate a firefighter position. Christman described some scenarios where either firefighters would not be able to enter a burning building to put out the fire because they would not have enough members, or would have to call mutual aid rather than respond to an emergency ambulance call. He described a situation where a loved one or neighbor would be waiting on the floor as an ambulance was late to arrive.

Brown immediately asked to restore the $88,000 for a firefighter. Her amendment was amended by Kohn, who wanted to offset the expense of the position but did not propose where the money would come from. This amendment did not pass. Ultimately the budget — including the restored firefighter position — passed with Bate, Kohn, Brown, and Hierl voting “yes” and Alfano, and Heney voting “no.” The resulting tax rate impact for this draft budget – the base budget plus the cost of a firefighter – would be 4.56%.Details on the budget-in-progress can be found on the city’s website.