Select Board Whittles Down Budget

by Doug McClure

HARDWICK – The Hardwick Select Board began its December 3 budget discussions following news that the State of Vermont projected an education property tax rate increase of up to 9% next year. The board attempted to offset the increased tax burden by reducing its draft budget.

Parks and Recreation (P&R) proposed a level-funded budget for FY2022. P&R Coordinator Susanne Gann noted that the $26,426 budget put forth from the department decreased from $27,054 after Ceilidh Galloway-Kane reviewed its youth budget. Gann said FY2021 and the tail end of FY2020 were less than budgeted due to impacts from COVID-19, but by the time FY2022 budget kicks in next July, “we’re hoping that people are going to want to come out and recreate.”

After the recreation budget was reviewed, the draft budget for FY2022 still showed a 3.35% increase. Select board chair Eric Remick said, “I’m feeling like that’s a pretty hefty increase in a pandemic year.”

Vice chair Elizabeth Dow asked how much it would take to bring the number down a percentage point, which was approximately $40,000. The board also expressed concern that the draft budget reflected a projected revenue increase of just 0.68%.

Business Manager Casey Rowell noted that budgets had already been reviewed by those requesting them and finding places to cut would be difficult. Town Manager Shaun Fielder said reviewing every item in the budget would be time consuming and unproductive, and proposed reducing each line item proportionately.

The board discussed areas from which to pull $40,000 from the budget. Rowell spoke to public works’ Tom Fadden and reduced the line item for salt by $5,000. Fadden said the number was an educated guess and completely dependent upon winter weather conditions in Hardwick.

Board member Ceilidh Galloway-Kane asked if it were possible to reduce the police department budget, which represents nearly a third of the town’s budget, to under $1,000,000. Rowell dropped $2,000 from the police department’s gas budget but stated that the actual amount spent is subject to external factors such as gas prices.

Board members asked why Hardwick Police Department’s (HPD) overtime had increased from the previous year despite the fact that HPD is now fully staffed. Rowell said the number was formula-based.

Rowell has been phasing in the amount the COPS grant offsets payroll expenses over successive budgets to avoid a drastic change in the expense when that grant runs out. That grant was awarded in 2017, but not used until 2019 as HPD did not find an officer for the position until then. The COPS grant amounts to roughly $60,000 a year in revenue and approximately 16 months remain in the grant. Rowell said she was nervous about making a more dramatic adjustment to FY2022 because the number would come back up in a future budget.

Remick said the board has an option to “draw down” the town’s fund balance, explaining the purpose of maintaining the fund balance is to have a Rainy Day fund, and “maybe it’s a rainy day.” Dow asked if that might be a good strategy to achieve the 1% reduction while advising residents of the reason for doing so.

After Rowell’s adjustments to line items, the draft budget increase stood at 2.44% or an increase of $84,457 to $3,549,577 — just under 1% less than the first draft of the night.

The budget adjustments also impacted revenue, as the Greensboro police contract, which was approximately $268,000 in FY 2021, is based on a percentage of the HPD budget.

For the entire draft budget, the projected revenue was up $5,059 to $1,094,738; an increase of 0.465%, with the Greensboro police contract representing the most significant decrease. The FY2021 budget had a revenue increase of 1.98% and the FY2020 budget 1.77%.

The board will revisit the budget at future meetings.