South Burlington Fire Chief Brent addresses the council during all-day budget presentations Saturday, January 10.

Council Adopts Budget, Adds Funding for Public Safety

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Thursday January 15, 2015

The City Council gave final approval to the Fiscal Year 2016 budget by a unanimous vote at a special meeting Monday, January 12. Monday night’s meeting was a continuation of the council’s budget meeting held Saturday, January 10, where presentations were made by department heads in fifteen minute increments throughout the day. Each department had been tasked with preparing a draft budget based on a maximum increase of 3 cents, with level-programming and no additional staff or services proposed.

Following each presentation on Saturday, councilors had an opportunity to clarify information and ask questions. After a budget review and summary presented by Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard, the meeting was opened to the public for discussion. Two community members, Lisa Ventriss and Larry Michaels, each expressed an interest in the city’s ability to support increasing needs for public safety and asked the council to consider supporting staffing increases and equipment needs. Elizabeth Fitzgerald echoed their thoughts in terms of supporting school safety as well. Dialogue ensued as the council examined the possibility of increasing the budgets for the police and fire departments. A continuation of the discussion was set for the following Monday evening.

When councilors came together at the January 12 meeting to finalize the budget, the primary focus of discussions surrounded public safety funding. In the budget proposals reviewed January 10, the council had discussed the possibility of an additional vehicle for the police department. Police Chief Trevor Whipple was on hand to discuss vehicle rotation and how decisions are made to remove one from service. “If the budget goes through as proposed, with one new vehicle,” Whipple said, “we would decide which one comes off the line and look at the bottom of the list first. We’ll adjust to what is approved.” Several cars in the department have been in service since 2008.

After the vehicle conversation, Councilor Chris Shaw asked about staffing. Shaw asked about the impact on high overtime costs if Whipple had an additional officer on staff. Whipple thought it would help, but not reduce overtime significantly, due to schedule rotations. Whipple explained that a full complement of eight officers would be ideal, but he wasn’t about to ask for that. The department, with 42 sworn officers, is two officers shy of working in two full teams of four on duty every shift. Speaking to the lengthy process of hiring and training, Whipple said, “We’re always playing catch up. We’re never at a full compliment. If we lose someone today, it’s nine months until a new officer is here and trained.”

Councilors Meaghan Emery and Shaw posed the difficult question to Whipple: if he had to choose between another vehicle or an additional officer, what would he pick? Whipple said he would choose an additional full-time officer since the overall ‘health’ of the organization is of paramount importance.

The council then asked Fire Chief Brent about the needs of his department. Brent said the department could delay adding additional staff for another year, stating “I would say it can make it another year, but we need to figure out where we’re going after that year.” Brent suggested developing a CIP for personnel and encouraged continued dialogue around the future of public safety and additional service needs.

After considering the total cost of adding a police officer and a firefighter, Chair Pat Nowak stated that she didn’t feel that it was the right time to bring these additional costs to the taxpayers, and while she was in support of the idea, said she couldn’t support the cost of two new-hires.

After considerable discussion over the effect on the overall tax rate, the council unanimously decided to add one additional full-time police officer, based on an estimated $90,000 (the actual number comes in at $87,757.30 for salary, benefits, fit-up, and FICA). This would add a little less than 1/3 of a cent to the tax rate for a total of a 3.15 cent increase over FY 2015. The impact of adding an additional officer on the average homeowner would amount to less than $10.00 per year.

Shaw said, “I asked for it last year (an additional officer) and I’m asking for it again this year...when you consider the flux in the demography of the work’s human resource capital that I strongly believe in.”

Helen Riehle added, “As hard as it is, I would support the 1/3 cent increase. We need to make sure the safety of the community and our constituents are well served.”

Dollar and Cents

With the addition of the police officer, this brings the FY 2016 budget total to $21,153,145.21,which represents a 7.35% increase overall. With $7,880,860.91 in total non-property tax revenues, this leaves $13,272,284.30 net to be raised by property tax, which equates to a tax rate of .4600. The average homeowner (based on a $330,000 home) would see an increase of $103.86 per year, or $8.66 per month. The impact on the average condo owner (based on a $226,000 condo) would be $71.13 per year, or $5.93 per month.

According to a summary prepared by Hubbard, the FY 16 budget includes the following components: $50,000 to the Housing Trust Fund; enables departments to continue their current level of service; meets all bonded debt obligations; funds the recommended amount to the CIP for City Center; funds the new public safety tower as a cooperative venture with CWD; provides the police department with Phase I of a major computer server upgrade, and provides maintenance services for all buildings with HVAC contracts; supposts increases in insurance costs; provides reasonable salary increases in line with cost of living for employees; provides social service funding and support to other entities; and fully funds the Winooski Valley Parks District.

The budget also makes up for the $350,000 that was brought in off the balance sheet to cover expenses in the FY 2015 budget and includes a $155,000 designated reserve for an anticipated tax settlement.

The budget does not provide for any kind of stabilization fund, funding for phase II of the facility assessment, renovations to fire station 2, or any other additional staffing as requested by department managers.

The stormwater utility will see a 2.4 percent increase over last year which equates to roughly $1.80 to the average homeowner for a full year. Sewer will remain at the 2% increase as proposed, an annual increase of $7.46 for the average homeowner. Water, through CWD, will have a 4.93% increase, roughly a $12.27 increase overall, just over $1 per month.

If you’re interested in reading budget details line by line, complete budget information is posted on the city website. Budget books will not be printed and mailed to all residents, as in previous years, but will be available upon request. Public meetings will be scheduled to allow for questions from the community ahead of the March 3, 2015 vote.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent