Norwich Selectboard ponders steep budget increase or deep cuts

By PATRICK ADRIAN

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-05-2023 7:14 PM

NORWICH — As time dwindles to finalize a municipal budget proposal, Selectboard members finds themselves with a dilemma — whether to present voters with a costlier budget than they’d planned or to scramble for roughly $200,000 in cuts.

The Selectboard met Wednesday to discuss the latest revisions to its proposed budget, which will cover 2024 fiscal year that begins July 1.

The $5.9 million spending plan — including $5.1 million to be raised by property taxes — is an increase of nearly $615,000, more than 11%, from the current year’s budget.

The added spending includes $179,000 for employee salaries and benefits — some of which is to fill newly created or vacant positions — and another $137,000 in discretionary funds for department expenses, such as road paving materials or equipment.

Combined with other town spending, the proposal would result in an estimated 13% increase in the property tax rate, or 66 cents per $100 of assessed property value.

Selectboard members, who had initially hoped to contain the budget increase to around 8% — basically an adjustment for recent high inflation — expressed concern whether it is wise to send a spending increase this steep to voters on Town Meeting Day.

Board members noted that there will be other increases, including the Norwich school budget, which is still under review, and a new collective bargaining agreement being negotiated with the Norwich police union.

In an effort to trim the proposal by roughly $200,000, board members spent nearly two hours Wednesday evening reviewing the budget draft for “reasonable” reductions. But this effort proved mostly futile, as only a few of the potential cuts appeared to have consensus support.

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It was noted that some of the suggestions on Wednesday — such as eliminating a full-time assistant director for Parks and Recreation — could end up costing the town revenue. This position, budgeted at $41,700, would be responsible for operating recreational programs that typically generate more than enough revenue to fund the position.

“We haven’t added a lot to this budget, so there isn’t a lot to cut unless we start cutting individual department requests, as opposed to the extra items that we’ve talked about,” Selectboard member Aaron Lamperti said. “I think our options are to either do something like a 6% cut across the board (of all non-salaried lines), which we could then talk about, or to just pass this budget along to the voters to decide.”

The Selectboard plans to vote on a final budget proposal at their next meeting next Wednesday.

The Selectboard has asked Interim Finance Director Joyce Hasbrouck to present a comparative budget that shows the impact on departments if discretionary spending is cut across the board.

A majority of board members indicated they are leaning toward letting voters decide whether to fund the 11% increase, but they still wanted to see Hasbrouck’s work before rendering a decision.

“I just don’t want to be cavalier about passing along a 12% increase, even if it is only a fraction of the (total tax impact),” Lamperti said. “We need to think about a trimmer option, whatever that is going to be.”

Entering this year’s budget process, the Selectboard was hampered by vacancies in key town positions, particularly a permanent finance director and town manager. Hasbrouck took over the interim finance director position a few months ago and the town manager position was vacant for over a month following the Selectboard’s separation with former town manager Rod Francis on Nov. 7.

Brennan Duffy, a former Rutland economic development leader, was hired last month as an interim town manager.

“This has been an unusually difficult year,” Selectboard member Roger Arnold said. “I don’t feel that we entered into this budgeting process with a full toolkit.”

The board also is facing pressure from the residents group, Stand Up For Norwich, to increase the police department budget to include funding for an additional full-time officer.

Norwich Police Chief Wade Cochran, who took over the department in October, had initially requested a department budget of more than $851,000 for fiscal year 2024, a 32% increase from the current year budget.

In addition to increasing salaries, Cochran’s request sought an additional officer position to bring his staff to five full-time officers. Cochran said this would ensure the department’s ability to provide continuous coverage, including when officers are on vacation.

While the proposed budget provides money to increase wages, it does include a fifth police officer.

In a recent letter to the community, Cochran said that as of Dec. 28, there will only be an officer on call during overnight hours due to staffing levels.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at 603-727-3216 or at padrian@vnews.com.

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