Thursday February 01, 2018
If one thing was evident from watching the city and school budgets being presented consecutively at the steering committee meeting, it is that both entities had completed complex tasks in their goal to arrive at numbers that balance the services residents expect at a cost the community will support. The city and school each have their own respective budget pressures that go beyond simple increases in the cost of living. On Wednesday January 24, the challenges were spelled out in no uncertain terms, as members of the city council and school board met as a joint body to share perspectives on key budget topics.
For the city, major cost drivers include significant projects/requests of the CIP (Capital Improvement Program), a pension contribution increase of $290,000, health insurance increases of 12 percent, and reductions in revenue items coupled with a grand list growth of only ¾ percent. There were numerous items that had to be cut from the budget in order to come in at a tax rate increase of 3.84 percent. Initially, the council considered a budget that represented a 3.44 percent increase, but several councilors felt this was cutting services a bit too much, especially in the area of fire safety. The jump from 3.44 to 3.86 includes $21,000 restored to the undesignated reserve, airpack maintenance added for fire personnel, $25,000 added to paving and $10,000 added to road striping. This option eliminates an IT hardware upgrade and replacement jackets for the fire department, and keeps costs at the decreased funding level, not at the level which was requested. In addition, the contribution to the City Center Reserve Fund was decreased from $860,000 to $750,000.
The 3.84 percent figure does, of course, meet all of the city’s contractual and bonded debt obligations, continues support for the Housing Trust Fund at $50,000, provides some support for the CIP, funds the annual assessment, and supports other entities such as Green Mountain Transit. However, given the increase in the budget and the small increase in the grand list, the city will just be able to continue its current level of service.
In order to address these continuing concerns moving forward, the city will be looking at what positions could be eliminated and is thinking ahead to the negotiations that are coming up with all three bargaining units. Lean process, the principle often applied in the manufacturing world to maximize resources while eliminating waste, is well underway in terms of evaluating the city’s payroll operations. In addition, concepts around shared services and regionalization will also be pursued this year and presented to the council for their feedback.
The school district has faced their own set of budget challenges this year, mainly in trying to anticipate potential education funding changes and pressures coming from the state. Of the five factors that go into determining the property tax rate, only two are under the district’s control: proposed expenditures, which are up 0.85 percent and estimated revenues, which are up 0.04 percent. The equalized pupil count, the Common Level of Appraisal, and the yield are all set by the state. Given these factors, the district aimed to keep their budget conservative, with only a few additions, including two contingency teachers to plug in where growing class sizes necessitate. The administration’s recommended budget came in at a 1.74 percent increase, but that has been bumped up to 1.96 percent with the additional contingency positions, for a budget total of $49,686,166.
In the past, the district has carried part of their stewardship funds in the operating budget, which is somewhat unusual if one looks at other districts in the area. The stewardship plan was created to keep up on improvements to the district’s aging facilities, some of which contain equipment that is 30 years past its useful life. While the district has typically put about $450,000 to $550,000 toward stewardship annually, it has not been enough to keep up with the plan that was created. Although the most pressing needs, those that would pose safety hazards, have been routinely addressed, others have been left unattended )and some of those will be addressed by a bond proposed by the district.
Article III will seek voter approval for a bond of $950,500. The idea behind bonding for certain expenses is to spread the cost of these items over a 20-year period so there is more inter-generational equity. The bond will cover $325,000 toward athletic facility improvements including a bathroom at Munson Field, $150,000 toward library infrastructure that is necessary since the exit of the community library from its leased space in the high school, and $425,000 for various stewardship and security upgrades across all five schools. Keeping these items out of the regular operating budget will allow more work to be done over the course of the year while spreading costs out and not artificially inflating South Burlington’s cost per equalized pupil which currently sits at $15,401.
The district has also kept in mind their work on goals related to master planning and visioning which have included a facilities needs assessment at the middle and high schools, noise testing at Chamberlin School which will occur in the spring, and demographer’s reports which will be reviewed at the next board meeting in February. The future of South Burlington Schools as well as the evolution of City Center and their respective needs will be largely influential in how budgets develop going forward and both entities agreed communication with each other and the public will be of utmost importance.
For more detailed budget information, please see the city website at www.southburlingtonvt.gov and the district website at www.sbschools.net.
SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent