The town’s fiscal year 2020 budget will raise the tax rate by 2 cents, a proposal officials say simply maintains services, doesn’t grow them.
The $5.98 million tax levy—the amount raised by property taxes—is up 3.9 percent from the current year. The general fund budget, which includes the tax levy and other non-tax revenues, is $7.98 million, a 4 percent increase from FY19, budget numbers show.
Voters will have their say on Town Meeting Day, March 5. If approved, the tax bill for a $250,000 home will be $1,400, an increase of about $52.
That’s assuming a flat grand list next year, town finance director Jessica Morris said. The town simply hasn’t seen much development, a situation town manager Don Turner attributes to the town’s recent two-year moratorium on multi-family housing projects downtown. As a result, the town hasn’t collected as many water and sewer connection fees that can help tamp down taxes, Turner said.
“We do not want to go into projecting an increase in taxes based on some growth when we’d rather be conservative,” he said. “If it comes in a little higher, then we’re gonna be better off.”
The selectboard also learned the town’s hydroelectric dams will likely be devalued another $2 million in FY2020 after losing $8 million in ’19, which drove the tax rate a whole penny higher than initial projections.
These factors influenced the selectboard’s budget approach to cut, cut, cut. It started with department head requests—for legitimate needs, Turner clarified—that altogether totaled a 20-cent tax increase.
Turner and his team trimmed this to an 8-cent bump, and the board cut another 6 cents to land at the current 2-cent proposal, “which is still significant,” selectboard chairman Darren Adams said.
“Again, you’re not getting much more additional services or projects based on that,” he said. “That’s pretty much level-funding.”
Some expenses were unavoidable, like an additional $140,800 in negotiated salary increases and nearly $195,000 in debt payments. Last year, voters approved two bonds to replace aging highway and fire department equipment and to fix two bridges on East Road, and the principal and interest kicks in this fiscal year.
The board attempted to offset this by upping its annual fund balance transfer by $100,000, a move that keeps taxes down but isn’t entirely sustainable, Turner said.
“We’re essentially using a savings account for everyday expenses,” he said. “When your expenses exceed your income, it’s not a good, sound plan.”
A necessary expense this year was for Milton Rescue: With an increasing call volume and primarily volunteer crew, the operation has struggled to stay in service. In response, the board approved an additional $52,900 to the salary line for two full-time paramedics to work 12-hour shifts.
Turner said personnel shortages have kept the ambulance out of service more often in the last year. He’d prefer to keep the crew all volunteer, but as-is, he can’t promise a Milton ambulance will arrive if patients call 911.
“We always managed to push [this] off another year,” said Adams, a former rescue chief. “It’s harder and harder for volunteers to do it alone. They need some help.”
Paving was also a major discussion point. The board debated how much to budget given Turner’s calculation that $600,000 is needed annually to keep up with the paving plan. He recommended level-funding at $300,000.
In the end, the board allocated $235,000 and will present a separate $1 million paving loan to be repaid in five years. Turner said he hears complaints about roads every day and wanted to give voters a chance to consider the issue directly on a ballot item.
“I don’t want to take on more debt, but we have to address these roads,” he said. “If we continue to delay fixing some of these roads, they’re going to cost more to fix.”
Morris, the finance director, said the loan interest adds to the overall cost but is essentially the same as waiting to fix roads down the line.
If voters approve the budget but not the loan, Turner said the town will simply pave as much as possible, even if that means redoing sections that are in the worst shape. He stressed the need to maintain roads once they’re paved with crack sealing and other products. The town is also hoping to land a $175,000 state paving grant, he said.
The board also spent time discussing the numerous funding requests from area nonprofits. The asks totaled nearly $50,000, and after healthy debate, the board trimmed $15,300, showing a hearty preference for Milton-based organizations.
Selectman John Palasik fought hard to fully fund the Arrowhead Senior Center, which requested $10,000, while board chairman Adams argued against giving anything to the VNA, which asked for $5,000. (In the end, the seniors got $9,000 and the VNA none.)
Milton-based groups—Milton Artists’ Guild, Groovy Lunch Bunch, Milton Community Youth Coalition—were all level-funded with the exception of the Milton Family Community Center, whose donation increased from $5,670 to $10,000 to support the struggling elderly and disabled transportation program.
“Every group that has come before us … is worthy of receiving financial assistance,” Adams said. “But the question becomes should it be with taxpayer money?”
Donations shouldn’t come at the literal expense of other demonstrated needs in town departments, all of which faced tough budget conversations this year, Adams said.
As the proposal stands, the town is not investing heavily in capital needs, he said. The board budgeted $230,000 for FY20—mostly because voters just approved those two large bonds—but there are always more, like the public works garage that’s seemingly been pushed to the back-est of burners and the long-desired indoor recreation facility.
“Those types of things are always on the radar, but we can’t make taxes so unaffordable that people can’t afford to live here,” Adams continued. “It’s tricky, and you do end up costing people more money by putting off projects such as those.”
Turner said this year’s proposal simply maintains town operations, but even that comes at cost. Adams said the key is focusing on growth to make the tax rate more tenable.
“It’s really difficult to balance, but if we can bring in the economic development, that makes our penny worth more” he said. “That’s where our focus should be.”