Budget approved by Select Board

MANCHESTER - The Select Board has approved the final draft of the town's nearly $4.7 million municipal budget, which now goes to the voters for ratification at March town meeting.

At a select board meeting held Jan. 23, the select board approved the budget for fiscal year 2015, as well as the warned articles to be voted at Town Meeting. Overall, spending is down roughly $23,000 in the 2015 fiscal year budget. However, property taxes are expected to rise due to a changing mix of non-property tax revenue.

Town manager John O'Keefe said in an interview, the largest factor in the rise in taxes this fiscal year is the reduction in use of operating tax payer relief reserve funds.

"Between the last three years, you're going from $140,000 to $30,000 [money from the operating tax payer relief reserve funds], an almost 79 percent decrease" he said.

One article which may draw discussion at Town Meeting would call for special warned articles seeking more than $2,500 in municipal funds to pass muster by direct voting at the polls.

Article five of the warning states, "Shall the Town vote on appropriations authorized under 24 V.S.A. 2691 (aid to social services) that are greater than $2,500 by Australian ballot?"

O'Keefe said this article was added due to the increase in voted appropriations since 2002.

"If you look at voted appropriations in 2002, we were at $16,000," he said. "We're now at $220,731."

Voted appropriations, he said, have increased 1,390 percent, while the town budget has increased about 3.5 percent each year. The annual rise in the town budget is close to a cost of living increase.

O'Keefe said the main reason for the rise in voted appropriations was the Mark Skinner library. Since 2003, he said, their voted appropriation has risen roughly 11 percent a year on average.

Linda McKeever, president of the Mark Skinner Library board, said they are grateful that since they became a public library in 2003, the taxpayers of Manchester have always, without fail supported their requests for funding increases.

"Our last increase was in 2011, for 3.8 percent, and because of the economic downturn that has affected our town, we have not asked for a dollar more in the past three years, even as this adversely affected the level of service we are able to provide," she said in an email. "The library will continue to request only what it feels is sustainable for the Manchester taxpayer and for us to provide a reasonable level of library services to the community."

While voted appropriations have been on the rise, Town Meeting attendance has fallen. Linda Spence, town clerk, said at least three times as many people vote as do come to Town Meeting. Participation at last year's Town Meeting was only 4.9 percent of 3,347 registered voters in Manchester. "It [voting by Australian ballot] isn't weather dependent, there is early or absentee balloting available for anything that's on the Australian ballot, you can call and have them mailed to you, you can have them brought to your house by the justices, you can stop in the offices, for about six weeks up to the election," Spence said.

O'Keefe said this may be because only 38.8 percent of Manchester residents are native Vermonters, as opposed to roughly 40 percent of Bennington County residents and 51 percent of Vermont residents.

"Political scientists and pollsters will tell you is the amount of time you spend in town will dictate how politically active they are in that town during the election process, whether that's running for office, voting, volunteering for boards," O'Keefe said.

Before adding this article to the warning for Town Meeting, O'Keefe and Spence consulted with the Vermont Secretary of State's office, to make sure what they had in mind was legal. The office suggested three solutions to their question about Australian ballots: adding just the budget, specific questions or all the articles. O'Keefe suggested the select board consider what is now Article 5 of the warning: Appropriations over $2,500 be voted by Australian ballot.

"For the larger items, what it would allow is a larger percentage of voters, to vote on those [warned articles]," he said.

The article states the qualifying appropriations would all be categorized as social services, so money for the marketing committee in article 10 would not qualify, even though it is for more than $2,500. It would cover organizations like the library and the Retired Senior Volunteer Program.

Ivan Beattie, select board chairman, said this measure of taking larger appropriations and voting for them by Australian ballot has come up in the past, but now is important to change.

"I support this, I don't like it but I support this [change from Town Meeting to voting by Australian Ballot for large voted appropriations]," he said during the select board's meeting last Thursday.

Beattie said he did not like the idea that the discussion and changes made to appropriations would be lost at town meeting. Article 12 on the warning asks the town to approve the public safety study about the consolidation of service for Manchester and Dorset. There is already a meeting group in place and they've met twice - with at least two more meetings before Town Meeting. There is a $20,000 line item in the budget to hire a consultant to create a study for the working group to consider.

Also on the warning is $198,000 for the library and $100,000 to build a salt shed. Money for the salt shed, as well as $150,000 for the purchase of an ambulance to lease to the Manchester Rescue Squad would come from the Capital Improvement and Contingency Reserve Fund.

A question was raised about the liability surrounding owning an ambulance. The lease agreement has not yet been finalized, but O'Keefe said the rescue squad would assume any liability. Two reasons were cited for the town's decision to purchase the ambulance.

"This discussion we're having right now around public safety consolidation, the rescue squad is apart of that and we're not sure what's going to come out of that...each year the rescue squad continues to lose money as well...someday the rescue squad may not be able to meet its expenses and we wanted to make sure we're protecting a major piece," O'Keefe said. "The other thing is, it would set a terrible precedent of using the reserve fund to fund outside interests. So by owning the ambulance, it protects the town."

Articles 8 and 9 would authorize up to $6,000 for Fourth of July fireworks and up to $4,000 for up to two street festivals. Both articles would allow the town to match sponsorships and donations up to the appropriated amount.

Article 1 asks the town to authorize the elimination of the office of Lister and will instead replace the three with a qualified assessor, appointed by the town. In accordance with state law, this will be voted by paper ballot.

Other appropriations include, $15,000 for the marketing committee, $420 for the Vermont Center for Independent Living, $500 for the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, $1,000 to the Collaborative to support substance free events for middle and high school youth, $1,500 to Support Neighbor to Neighbor, $1,811 for the Community Action in South Western Vermont, $1,850 for the Project Against Violent Encounters, $2,000 for the Center for Restorative Justice, $2,000 for the Greater Northshire Access Television, $2,4000 for Bennington County Habitat for Humanity, $2,500 for the Tutorial Center $3,250 for the Retired Senior Volunteer Program and $4,000 for the Southwestern Vermont Council on Aging.


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