MANCHESTER >> The Select Board finalized a $4.9 million budget it will place before voters at March town meeting last Thursday, one which calls for the creation of a new police investigator position and finances several road paving projects which have been deferred in the past.
The proposed budget voters will be asked to approve represents an increase of $258,768 from last year's budget. Based on initial estimates, the municipal tax rate would rise by slightly more than two cents, from 21.6 cents per $100 of assessed property value to 23.8 cents, based solely on the proposed budget and not taking into account additional appropriations voters may authorize during town meeting. If approved as is, the tax impact on the owner of a $300,000 home would be about $71.
If adopted as proposed, without adding in the additional articles that will be voted off the floor at the municipal portion of town meeting on Saturday, Feb. 27 or by Australian ballot on Tuesday, March 1, the proposal would represent about a 5.5 percent increase from the current fiscal year's budget.
Terming the budget one with "several moving parts," Chairman Ivan Beattie noted at the start of what turned into a more than two hour review of proposed municipal spending plan last Thursday that it was hard to manage the budget down to a level tax rate without harming services.
Over the course of the meeting the board cut out about $145,000 in proposed spending which included repaving the parking lot at the town's public safety facility and another paving project at Deer Meadow. But those reductions were offset to a degree by the decision to give a thumb's up to adding a new police officer and creating a new police investigator position. That investigator will likely come from within the existing ranks of the department, and a new patrol officer hired.
The new police investigator position has been prompted to a degree by what the police department sees as a uptick in crimes such as burglaries and thefts associated with drug trafficking, primarily heroin, said Police Chief Michael Hall. However, the investigator will not solely be tasked with helping solve drug-related crime, he added.
"We've lost ground on our ability to keep up with doing investigations and the related crimes associated with that," Hall said during a phone interview Monday. "My goal was to get that re-established so we can have a better investigative follow up."
The police department used to have such a position, but it was whittled away over time and those duties handed off to regular patrol officers. Adding the investigator would represent the first increase in the police force in 24 years. The department would grow from eight to nine members as a result, if the budget is approved, Hall said.
The budget will also break out the operating expenses of the town — such as salaries, benefits, and energy costs — into a separate vote from the capital expenditures, which generally refer to infrastructure or longer term improvements, said Town Manager John O'Keefe.
The general rule of thumb is that capital fund projects include "anything that lasts more than three years and costs more than $10,000," he said.
The final operating expenses budget, which will be determined through a floor vote, comes to $4,417,188. The capital expenditures — which include paving for Center Hill, Spruce Street, one mile of Richville Road, the Town Hall access road and parking lot, Town Clerk records preservation, replacing an aging pickup truck for the Department of Public Works and additions to the police and fire departments equipment reserve funds — call for $554,500 in local money.
The budget also includes $25,000 for a continuing town marketing initiative, which board members justified on the basis that it was primarily targeted on boosting the town, and not the surrounding region. Entirely separate from that, and in addition to it, the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce, which expects fold itself into a new organization to be known as The Partnership later this year — reflecting a collaboration or partnership between all 17 municipalities in its membership area and its private sector members — will also be seeking $25,000 from Manchester voters via a petitioned article to be decided by Australian balloting on Tuesday, March 1. The total amount the chamber is hoping to raise for the initiative from all the various municipalities is $75,000. The money is intended to assist the new organization with a two-pronged destination marketing and economic development strategy, said Berta Maginniss, the executive director of the chamber.
The money would allow The Partnership to more aggressively promote the area at larger travel shows than has been possible up to now, she said.
The chamber's leadership arrived at the revenue numbers they will be seeking from each town by parsing their population, Grand List, and rooms, meals and alcohol tax numbers, she said.
During Thursday's meeting, Tim Scoggins, the chairman of the Shaftsbury Select Board, also made a plea for $4,000 in financial support from Manchester. This money would be added to a fund to help push forward the creation of a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, or CEDS, an effort to build on a report delivered last December by a committee set up by the state legislature to analyze the economic condition of Bennington and Windham counties. The report concluded the southern Vermont tier faced some major challenges around demographics and an aging and numerically declining population, affordable workforce housing, and retaining its economic vibrancy. The CEDS would be a next step in galvanizing some action and possibly additional supporting federal revenue in the wake of the report. Scoggins told the Select Board that Bennington had agreed to put in $15,000 and Shaftsbury would be donating $3,500, numbers based roughly on each town's population. That led to his request for $4,000 from Manchester, he said.
"What I'm hoping is that we can get enough of the local towns ... to pick up the gauntlet that's been thrown down," he said. "More important than the dollar amount is the symbol that it would show that Bennington (county) gets it — that we're going to move to regional coordination."
The select board however, offered instead some "in-kind" services such as personnel versed in economic development, rather than cash.
By meeting's end the select board had made about $90,000 in cuts and transfers from a prior year's surplus to the draft they started with.
The town's floor meeting portion of Town Meeting will start at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, in the gymnasium at Manchester Elementary Middle School. Voting by Australian ballot will take place at Town Hall from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 1.