BENNINGTON -- Faced with few discretionary options in the highway fund and buildings and grounds, Select Board members asked to explore financing some truck purchases during a Saturday morning budget meeting.
The amount of paving and sidewalk reconstruction included in Bennington's proposed fiscal year 2014 budget is basically equivalent to last year's completed work, according to Town Manager Stuart Hurd, although voters last year approved a portion of the work as a separate line item at the ballot box. Hurd said voter support last year demonstrated residents were willing to pay for those improvements. Select Board members said they were happy with the amount of work completed.
As discussed, the draft spending plan budgets a little more than $655,000 for highway projects, estimated to reconstruct about six miles of town roads. Sidewalks along Gage and Silver streets are included, but approximately $115,000 of paving and sidewalks along Bradford and Safford streets was removed and offered to board members as optional work, or a separate ballot item.
A habitual topic for discussion, there was no consensus to remove or downsize three budgeted trucks for the highway department (two double-axle with dump bodies) slated to replace trucks purchased in 2004. "All of those trucks are substantially used," Hurd said.
Highway Superintendent RJ Joly said increased maintenance on those plow trucks had totaled between $8,000 to $15,000 per vehicle over the past year; a cost he said was hard to justify and mostly rust-related.
"Are all those trucks being constantly used?" asked board member Jason Morrissey, to which Joly said each plow-capable vehicle was indeed in service during winter storms to keep up with a three-hour plow schedule.
Board member Christopher Oldham said vehicle purchases were a perennial topic and difficult to justify to constituents. Board member Greg Van Houten said at the same time road conditions were the most common complaint. Morrissey introduced the possibility of financing smaller truck purchases to spread the cost over several years, which Hurd said would be looked into.
Highway fund expenditures increase 7 percent as budgeted, which includes $50,000 set aside for reserves, but the actual tax impact is estimated to be 1.8 percent after expected grant funding. (If that revenue is not received, those projects would not move forward.)
Morrissey also asked for further discussion about a new skid-steer loader budgeted at $50,000 -- a stark increase he said from the town's current one that cost $9,805 when purchased in 1995. "Do we really need the $50,000 machine?" he asked.
Under the recreation department, the town has budgeted a new seasonal outdoor maintenance person, fencing at the recreation center, a new roof and bathroom work for the upper Willow Park pavilion, and a replacement truck that was delayed last year. "I would say it's necessary," said Larry McLeod, town facilities manager, responding to a query about that truck. "This truck gets regular use." In addition to hauling, McLeod said the truck also plowed town lots including Willow Park, the recreation center, senior center, and the Stark Street playground. Without the vehicle, highway plowing would be affected, he and Joly said.
"When you (use a truck to plow) it really beats the front-end up, it really beats the transmission up," Hurd said.
In the general fund, $5,500 of seed money in an economic development line item will be pooled with other groups like the Better Bennington Corp. and Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce as a "combined effort" according to Community Development Director Michael Harrington. The money is slated for print marketing and promotional items. "It needs to be collaborative," said Harrington.
"Sometimes the focus is on the sizzle (and) not the steak," said Morrissey later, indicating the "steak" of economic development was the town budget and fostering a "clean, economical place to live."
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