Town officials spent most of Friday, Dec. 20, hammering into shape a preliminary municipal budget for fiscal year 2015 during a day long select board meeting. Final approval of the budget that will be presented to voters at March town meeting is expected to occur sometime in mid-January.
At this point, the draft budget calls for spending to decrease from $4,722,259 to $4,696,023; a difference of $26,236. However, town revenue has not gone up. Instead, it has declined from $2,219,560 to $2,098,900. Part of this is because last year the town received a grant from the state to help cover the cost of a large paving project.
The current municipal tax rate in Manchester is $.2199. The new tax rate will not be known until the grand list is finalized, John O'Keefe, town manager, said. The grand list should be finalized sometime in April.
Among the items that came under scrutiny during the day-long budget discussion were special requests from representatives of the Manchester Rescue Squad and the Mark Skinner Library. Both organizations recently came before the select board and asked for additional financial support. During the budget meeting, the select board decided to have both organizations petition the town to add their additional funding as a warned article at Town Meeting.
Linda McKeever, president of the library board, was not surprised that the library would have to submit a petition for the additional $44,800 they hope to obtain in additional municipal support, but was pleased that the select board incorporated an amount of money - $153,200 - directly into the budget money they have had to petition for in the past. They will have to petition for the additional $44,800. McKeever said the library is grateful for the town's support and hopes the residents will once again demonstrate they share the library's belief that hey provide a valuable resource to the town.
"We appreciate that the select board has built into this year's budget the same amount that we have requested for the past three years to help finance our day to day operations," she said in an interview. "We interpret this as a vote of support for the contribution that the library makes to our community." The library has held its requests for municipal support steady at the same level for the past three years to help ease the pressure on the town's municipal tax rate, but has reached the point where that is no longer financially feasible, she said. They will take steps to start a petition drive for the additional funds, she added. The Manchester Rescue Squad will receive $5,000 in support from the town, but will petition for an additional $32,356. Ben Weiss, president of the Manchester Rescue Squad said he thinks the select board is in a position where they do not want to raise taxes and the rescue squad respects that. However they have a plan for an ambulance fund that requires help from all their service towns.
"I think the select board will would be in favor [of the funding] provided that the tax payers are in favor of it," he said in an interview.
When discussing this extra support and if it would be put in the budget, O'Keefe asked the question if the rescue squad is an essential service, then why is the town not providing it. If the resue squad were a munincipal service and not a non-profit, then they would be apart of the town budget, like the fire department. They would not have to petition for additional funds.
The select board decided the town should not give the rescue squad this extra money, without voter consent, partly because they want to see the outcome of public safety study and working group.
"It's tough to say yes to one and not the other," O'Keefe said. "There is a strong feeling among department heads [that their budgets have been cut] but yet the library and rescue squad are getting new buildings and vehicles."
A sum of $20,000 has been allocated in the draft budget to pay for a public safety consolidation study, announced last week at a special combined meting of the Manchester and Dorset select boards.
When discussing this study, O'Keefe said if the Manchester was to get their own town-run rescue squad, that they could charge other towns for use of the dispatch services.
The police department budget is currently at $88,600.00. However, Hall would like the town to purchase a new cruiser, he said, which costs about $38,000. There is an additional line item added this year to police wages. This summer, one of the police department's officers will be attending an FBI training for mid-career officers. This is a program that deals with management of police departments, as opposed to tactical training.
During the day-long budget meeting, Manchester Police Chief Mike Hall said he would not be surprised to see the study recommend more police officers, regardless of a recommendation to consolidate services or not.
At one point during the discussion of police department's budget, select board member Lisa Souls asked Hall if Manchester was prepared for a mass shooting, specifically in a school setting.
"Vermont has a mass shooter response plan in place ... any available agency send their people there," he said. "I don't know if you can ever be prepared for an event like that [but] we have a plan and know what we have to do."
Ivan Beattie, the chairman of the select board, said it would be irresponsible for Manchester to think they were insulated from an event like school shooting.
When the fire department budget was discussed, they reiterated what Hall said. Philip "Grub" Bourn, fire chief, said the department would respond and create staging areas to help in an even of this nature. The fire department budget has gone up this year, from $42,650 to $47,700. This is mostly due to fuel costs and equipment and vehicle maintenance.
Even though the budget has gone up, Bourn said the department has been able to raise $26,000 from their pancake breakfasts to help buy needed gear.
The parks and recreation department saw a cut in their budget, from $124,100 to $108,250. The revenue for the department has also dropped. Revenue is currently at $141,500 and is projected to fall $5,750 this year to $135,750 mostly with pool pass and swimming lessons. The board asked if there was any way to create more revenue and the idea of charging Burr and Burton Academy for use of parks and recreation grounds and facilities was discussed.
General town expenses have gone up from $844,434 to $882,158. This includes the $20,000 for the public safety study.