The City Council is considering a proposed 2019-20 municipal budget that includes a 2.84 percent tax rate increase, although if approved, the tax rate will be higher.

The council heard presentations from department heads in a lengthy breakdown of the proposed $24.57 million spending plan at a regular meeting Monday night. Assistant City Manager Tom Hubbard gave an overview of the proposed budget increase of $880,652, or 3.72 percent over the current spending plan.

But the Pennies for Paths initiative approved by nearly 75 percent of voters in August 2018, will also be funded by an increase in taxes that will kick in starting in July 2019. Voters overwhelmingly approved the plan to raise $3 million over 10 years for bike and pedestrian path improvements to the city’s recreation path network. That tax increase, coupled with the proposed 2.84 percent tax increase that would come with an approved FY2019-20 budget, would create a new tax rate of 4.79 percent as of July 1, 2019, the beginning of the next fiscal year.

When Hubbard acknowledged that the proposed 2.84 percent tax rate increase did not include the Pennies for Paths tax increase, Councilor Tim Barritt said it was important to let the taxpayers know what total increase will be.

“It’s good to have the real numbers out there,” he said.

Cost drivers

Hubbard explained some of the factors in the proposed budget increase, perennial cost drivers including a roughly 7 percent increase in health insurance costs and a 5.5 percent increase in Workman’s Compensation costs. Green Mountain Transit which operates a public bus line in the city, has asked for a $9,772 increase in funding, and the non-profit CCTV local public access television has also asked for a $10,000 increase in funding, from $10,000 to $20,000.

The budget also allots $40,000 for a new Energy Commissioner position, and longtime public servant, engineer, and recreation path advocate Lou Bresee is being hired for that position.

One by one, department heads then gave presentations on their department budgets to the council.

Police Chief Shawn Burke discussed some of the budget increases for his department, including a new $44,000 cost for community outreach, which will enhance the successful partnership the department forged last year with the Howard Center in handling a marked increase in mental health calls.

Burke also mentioned an $8,300 increase under consulting services with Injury and Health Management Services in Colchester. He explained that the department is working with IHMS on body maintenance and how officers wear their equipment.

“It’s particularly important to set up new officers for long-term success,” Burke told the council, saying that officers typically wear 20-30 pounds of equipment and if worn improperly it can negatively affect their performance.

There is also a proposed increase of $4,000 for new detective training, de-escalation training, and crisis and negotiation training.

Interim Fire Chief Terry Francis made a presentation to the council on a department budget that includes funding for two more full-time firefighters.

“We’re really pretty excited about it,” Francis said. “We’re supposed to be averaging about 2,700 hours a year, and they worked 3,200 hours last year. We’ve been pretty busy.”

That’s an understatement. The South Burlington Fire Department logged 3,700 calls in 2018, a new record.

There is a 42 percent increase in the department’s training funds for new recruits and to comply with new state regulations, Francis explained. There are also increases in uniform costs so that each firefighter has two complete sets of gear designed to last 10 years, which is required.

Francis made a point of thanking the owners of Trader Duke’s hotel on Williston Road, which donated six pieces of fitness equipment to the department and the city, free of charge, when they renovated the hotel’s fitness center.

Ambulance service costs were also up, and Francis explained that a $20,000 proposed increase in medical supplies was directly related to the aging population in the city.

“With the graying of South Burlington, we transported 2,100 patients to the hospital last year,” he said. “Of that, 46 percent were 65 or older. Of those, 62.5 percent needed some sort of advanced care. We’re seeing older folks who are sicker now than we ever have before.”

Following the presentations from department heads, the council took on the next agenda item, which was a possible motion and vote to approve the proposed budget. But Councilor Meaghan Emery said she would like to hear an update on contract negotiations with the three employee unions, municipal, fire and police, before voting on the proposed spending plan. The motion to approve the proposed FY2019-20 General Fund budget was tabled until a Jan. 14 city council special meeting scheduled to discuss further plans for a new recreation facility next to Cairns Arena and a proposed creative performing arts center. That meeting will start at 6:30 p.m. in the Green Mountain Room at City Hall.

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