Tackling Town Meeting

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By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

Perhaps this is the year, with all of Colchester’s voters using the same polling place for the first time at Town Meeting Day, that the town realizes greater unity behind local budgets.

Town Meeting Day will start with a unifying event — a free community dinner beginning at 5:30 p.m. Monday evening at Colchester High School. School and town officials will join state legislators in informal discussions with citizens during the meal. Diners are asked to bring a dessert for all to share. Following that, presentations on the proposed school district and town budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as a presentation on Vermont school funding, will be held starting at 7 p.m.

Town Meeting Day voting starts at 7 a.m. Tuesday and runs through 7 p.m. Colchester’s village-area voting district will join the bay-area district in voting at the high school gymnasium. The traditional village polling place, the Town Meeting House on Main Street, was abandoned as a polling place due to inaccessibility for people with disabilities and lack of parking.

Colchester voters have defeated the town’s budget proposal at Town Meeting Day in two of the last three years and have been even less forgiving with the school district budget proposal, defeating it in each of the last three years. Voters have approved smaller proposals in follow-up votes.

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Town budget

The town budget proposal of $11.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year shows the smallest year-to-year increase (1.3 percent) in at least the last 10 years (excluding the year the entire town’s property values were reappraised). The increase amounts to $152,605.

Town administrators estimate the increase will bump property taxes by less than 1 percent, resulting in roughly an additional $15 on the annual property tax bill for the average-priced Colchester home ($290,000).

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School budget

The school budget increase of 2.68 percent is also among the lowest in the last 10 years. The budget proposal is $36.4 million, an increase of roughly $950,000 over the current year. The tax impact, while subject to change based on the Vermont Legislature’s deliberations on statewide funding variables, is estimated by school officials to be an increase of 4.2 percent. That would amount to a $77 increase on the annual tax bill of the owner of a $250,000 home (a $92 increase on a $300,000 home, etc.).

The increase would apply to the roughly 40 percent of Colchester homes that do not receive income sensitivity assistance on their tax bills — households making more than $90,000. Households making less than $90,000 receive assistance on a sliding scale based on income.

The primary driver of the increase is the salary increases that are part of the employment contracts with Colchester’s teachers and administrators, according to Superintendent Larry Waters. Salaries and benefits account for 75 percent of the district’s operating expenses.

Special education has a smaller-than-average increase in the proposal of about 1 percent ($82,000). Also, the district is initiating a preschool program that will be mandated by the State of Vermont next year. The local cost of the program is offset by state funds, Waters said.

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Technology and communication funds

The Town of Colchester is seeking voter reauthorization of two funding streams for technology equipment upgrades and communication equipment upgrades in two separate ballot questions.

The technology funding would go toward servers, firewalls, laptops, tablets and software, and the communications funding would go toward an internet phone system and radio systems for police, rescue, public works and parks, according to Town Manager Dawn Francis.

The funds originated in 1999 and 2000, respectively, and have been reauthorized by voters every five years. The request is being increased by $10,000 in the case of the technology fund — from $25,000 to $35,000 — but that increase is more than offset by an $11,500 reduction in technology expenses in the general fund, according to Francis.

The communication fund request is increased by $5,500 — from $20,000 to $25,500 — but the increase is offset by a removal of $5,500 in communications expenses from the general fund, Francis said. The reauthorizations would be for five-year periods.

Local option tax

The Colchester Selectboard is proposing collection of a new 1 percent tax on local retail sales. The tax would apply to most retail items, restaurant meals, hotel rooms and alcohol. It would generate an estimate $1.2 million annually, according to town administrators. Most of the revenue would come from out-of-towners shopping at Colchester’s Costco franchise.

Town administrators have crafted the proposal so that the funding could only be used for voter-approved debt. The town annually pays about $670,000 in debt interest. Using the funds for debt service would reduce the local property tax burden by about 5 percent ($81 annually on the average home), town administrators estimate.

The town would be debt free within five years while also stocking funds away for future voter-approved projects if voters approve the tax. Fourteen other Vermont municipalities have instituted similar 1 percent local sales taxes.

Town Meeting Day 2015

Monday

  • Community dinner, 5:30-7 p.m., CHS cafeteria
  • Budget presentations, 7:30 p.m., CHS auditorium

Tuesday

  • Voting, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., CHS

On the ballot: Town, school budgets; selectboard seat; local option tax; technology, communication fund reauthorizations

See Page 4 for more on the Town Meeting Day issues