Wednesday December 19, 2012

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- The town's tax rate will increase just over 3 cents, or 3.36 percent, if the budget presented Monday by Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd to the Select Board is approved as is.

The budget is composed of three separate pieces -- the general fund, highway fund and fire fund. The combined tax rate of all three, for residents living in the village fire district, is 0.948 cents per $100 of assessed property value. Residents living in the Bennington Rural Fire district will have a different tax rate based on the rural fire district's budget.

When broken down into three separate funds, Hurd said the general fund shows an increase of 3.8 percent over the current budget. The highway fund is up 10 percent. The fire fund, meanwhile, is down 3.3 percent.

The numbers include payments on borrowed money for repairs to the town's recreation center and for funds that may still be paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The town is seeking reimbursement from FEMA for emergency work completed after Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011.

"The budget includes interest payments on the rec center. We'll begin to pay off that bond of about $610,000. It also includes $66,000 as the first interest payment on the $4 million disputed FEMA monies. If FEMA comes through with us before tax rates are set, the board can obviously reduce the tax rate because we won't have to pay that money out," Hurd said.

The budget also includes funding to cover a 10 percent increase in health care costs, 2 percent wage increases and a contingency amount to allow the Select Board to determine how to treat wages for non-union employees.

"We were all given bonuses last year, not technically a raise in base pay. I've been advocating for the board to make that a base pay increase since they negotiated the 3 percent base pay increase with the union last year," Hurd said.

Additional big ticket items include the replacement of two police vehicles, two large dump trucks and a pickup truck in the highway fund.

"All of those things obviously drive the cost up and, ultimately, whether we as staff would agree with it or not, I'm sure the board will look at those equipment purchases and try to determine what do we really think we need, as opposed to what is desired. We have tried to follow the capital plan that has been adopted by the board," he said.

Hurd said the 10 percent increase in the highway funding is not all from money to be raised by local taxpayers. Some of the increase includes state or federal funds. Funding for projects within the highway fund are about level with what voters approved last year, which included a separate ballot item of $250,000 in additional funding.

"You come down to, when you look at a budget like this, what are you going to do? Are you going to cut project costs or are you going to cut equipment costs. Those are the two areas that I suspect the board will give the hardest look and make a determination. I mean, obviously, the voters think we ought to be doing projects," Hurd said. "That article last year was overwhelmingly approved, and that itself led to 3 cents on the tax rate."

The Select Board is planning at least three special budget meetings in January to review and possibly revise the proposed budget.