Board Reviews Budget Requests, Discusses Town Position

by Doug McClure

WOLCOTT – The Wolcott Select Board heard budget requests from the library, the fire department, and parks and recreation at last Wednesday’s meeting. Vice chair Kurt Klein presented a high-level view of the budget, and both he and Linda Martin talked about the necessity of continuing with a town administrator position in some form after Randall Szott’s recent departure. 

The library’s budget request was $1,800 more than in previous years, primarily for improving its technology and internet access.

Patrons have said that the new depot location for the Glee Merritt Kelley Community Library is an improvement over its previous location in the school. Supply chain shortages have impacted one aspect of the move, however, with the shelving for the children’s section now slated to be shipped in March. The library’s next major programming is the Gingerbread House building on December 18 from 10-12.

The Women of Wolcott (WOW) have begun working on an outdoor “kiddy skating rink” adjacent to the library, with solar motion-triggered lights so people who want to skate after dark can do so, according to Deb Klein. She said that the rink was funded by the AARP grant as part of the community garden, the grant stipulates that funded projects must be usable year-round. WOW is speaking with the library’s Sally Gardner about potentially debuting the new rink at the Gingerbread House event. 

The other departments’ budget requests are the same as last year’s, or less. The fire department is asking for level funding for its $73,050 budget, and Kee Gillen of the recreation committee is asking for half of its previous $2,000 budget, noting in a letter to the board that “we would like to discuss and plan future projects in January 2022.”

Klein presented the wider picture of the budget and said the largest percentage of the town budget goes to the road crew and the sheriff’s department’s services.

He said “I thought it was good for the board to go into the budget process with an overall feel for the budget. Forty-three percent of the overall budget is coming from the highway department, and sheriff’s [department] is second.”

Both Klein and Martin are in conversations with the Lamoille County Sheriff’s Office. Klein said that “reading between the lines,” the typical three percent annual increase might increase to five percent. An initiative to evaluate regional policing was not well-received by Morrisville, he said, and as a result “we’re kind of at loggerheads” with the sheriff’s department over the subject.

Klein said a concern on his mind was that many Vermont towns have moved from listers to assessors. Klein said that “I consider [lister Tom Martin] one of the last great, great listers,” but the reality playing out in other towns was that, as listers retire, finding replacements is nearly impossible and the rates for assessors are around $150 per hour. He said the impact on the town budget could be “really significant” if Martin retires. While Martin has not expressed a desire to retire, Klein said that this was an eventuality the board needed to prepare for.

Klein said the board should consider asking voters to allow the board to establish capital funds for various areas where large surprises could impact taxes. He said he frequently hears from residents that their taxes are too high and having a capital fund with a balance in it to offset major expenses’ impact on the tax rate was prudent.

Klein said that residents say “taxes are high, [and] year after year, there’s double-digit tax increases. That’s not true, but there’s definitely that perception in town.”

Linda Martin pointed out that multiple recent projects, such as the School Street bridge, the Brook Road repairs, and the Town Hill Road culvert, had hit Wolcott with an unbudgeted surprise.

Board member Kurt Billings said that “one time, twenty years ago, when the interest was high enough” the town had “separate savings [accounts] in different areas, and one of our persons that got elected decided it would be the best thing to take it all and use it to cut taxes.”

Martin said that savings accounts and capital fund accounts are very different. Capital funds are only allowed to be used for specific things, and only voters can approve their establishment and purpose. 

She said “that’s why you don’t just set up a savings account, but ask the voters to set up a capital fund where you can only use it for that purpose without voter approval.”

Without a capital fund, unspent money that was allocated to a specific purpose is folded back into the general fund at the end of the year. Expanding on Klein’s desire to make the budget more “forward thinking,” she used the example of the roof on the town offices.

Martin asked “when are we going to need a new roof on this building? We should be prepared for that. We should know when we need to have new roof and start putting money away for it every year.”

Board member Richard Lee concurred, saying “we really have to get on it, it’s going to be to everybody’s benefit in the long haul.”

Klein spoke about budgeting for a person to fill out the town administrator [TA] position Randall Szott recently resigned from. He said that “we absolutely do need a TA, a number of things have been slipping through the cracks… it’s very easy to lose track of things.” Klein cited the example of the meeting about the bridge scheduled for this board meeting being postponed “because of mis-coordination.” He said he and Martin both work 30-35 hours per week on the town’s business, and the budgeted amount of $20,000 for a TA was unlikely to find any takers.

Martin said she saw the position more as a select board assistant which was “not a clerk, but a step up” and “someone with administrative powers.” Martin said the best candidate would be “someone who wants to be engaged in your community, knows your citizens’ needs.”

Klein said that, given the amount of time he and Martin are putting in, “where we are at now is unsustainable. If we drop our hours, I don’t think we could get the job done.” He added that board members change, and future members may not be willing or able to put that amount of time in. The board will continue discussing the parameters for the position, with a framework already in place for that person’s role. 

With voters having given the go-ahead for the town forest, the board got an update on next steps. Kate Wanner of the Vermont Trust for Public Land described multiple scenarios. She suggested that the board strive to get a diverse group of people involved from different communities, from snowmobilers to mountain bikers and the school. 

The board will next discuss the budget on December 15.