BENNINGTON — The Bennington Select Board has finalized the town’s 2024 fiscal year budget that will appear on the ballot at Town Meeting.
The 2023 total budget was $14,850,780 and the 2024 proposed budget is $16,084,940. It’s a 8.31 percent increase.
Jan. 14 was the final meeting where the Select Board heard budget proposals from departments in the town. At this meeting, the board heard from the Bennington Fire Department, Bennington Police Department and the Bennington Rescue Squad.
Decisions and approvals by the Select Board are not final. The proposed budget must be approved by the voters at Town Meeting.
The Fire Department was represented by Police Chief Paul Doucette, Fire Chief James Wright and Deputy Chief Jeff Santarcangelo. Doucette said he worked closely with the Fire Department to come up with, what he called, a “fiscally responsible” budget.
The Fire Department’s goal for 2024 is to find more volunteers. The department is a volunteer Fire Department, and only some volunteers, like the chief, get an annual stipend.
The stipend hasn’t been increased since 2018. The department asked for a $500 increase for each volunteer who receives a stipend — increasing the stipend budget by $1,500.
Doucette asked the board to consider the rising gas prices and personal vehicle wear-and-tear when considering the requested increase in the stipend.
The stipend increase was approved by the board almost immediately.
The Fire Department requested the funds to replace four sets of gear, which will cost about $22,000. The gear will go to firefighters who enter structural fires.
They also would like to replace eight radios that are 20 years old. This will cost $24,890, because prices have increased post-COVID.
An additional $25,000 was also added to install heat pumps to save money on energy and become more energy efficient.
If approved, the fire fund budget will increase from $427,200 to $428,080.
Doucette and police Lt. Camillo Grande presented the Bennington Police Department budget to the board. Doucette said 2022 was “challenging,” because the department is short-staffed, and there has been an increase in violence.
The Police Department will focus on recruitment and retention in the upcoming year. It’s “important that we take a serious look at recruiting,” said Doucette. To aid in that endeavor, he sought a 10 percent increase in the department’s salaries.
The Police Department also would like to upgrade 12 radios for $32,000. That will provide half of the department with upgraded radios. Doucette said the older radios “aren’t cutting it,” especially in the areas of town with poor cellphone service.
The department also would like to replace two police vehicles, but the equipment in the vehicles is increasing in price.
The vehicles being used are hybrid, but require a lot of maintenance. There are other options, but Doucette said it’s difficult to find any vehicles available for purchase.
Ford also sent out a warning that the hybrid vehicles should not be on the front lines — although that is what the department is using now. The warning was because of excessive maintenance involved with hybrids.
Doucette is confident that he will be able to determine what vehicle is best, especially if Ford fixes the current issues with the hybrid cars.
The Police Department’s budget for 2023 was approved at $4,268,100, and if approved will be raised to $4,639,960 for next year.
BENNINGTON RESCUE SQUAD
Executive Director Art Groux and board of directors members Brian Peat and Brian Murphy represented the Bennington Rescue Squad at the meeting. Groux said the squad is “coming off of an extremely busy year.”
In 2022, the Rescue Squad responded to “record numbers of 911 calls,” and 2023 is on track to exceed that, said Groux.
The Rescue Squad also has had problems recruiting new members. Although they have tried to look for applicants out of state, those willing to work in Bennington have nowhere to live, said Groux.
Since the squad has responded to so many 911 calls, it doesn’t have time to respond to transfer calls. This is problematic because transfer calls, transferring patients from one place to another, is how it makes money. The Rescue Squad does not get paid for 911 calls.
The increase in emergency calls is because of an “increase shift of normal care into the 911 system,” because of limited at-home care staff, said Groux.
During the squad’s presentation, some members of the Select Board expressed their discontent with the squad.
Board member Jim Carroll said he would like the squad to do more due diligence and seek out other resources when it comes to funding.
Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins it is a “private EMS service,” and she expressed frustration with the squad, because the board only hears about the organization’s problems during budget season.
If approved, the Bennington Rescue Squad’s budget will increase from $206,250 to $226,875.
At the end of the meeting, the board went through line items that have increased, and either approved or denied them in open session.
The Bennington Rescue Squad’s increase was approved under the condition that it makes a quarterly presentation to the Select Board and speaks to the board about appointing a Select Board liaison.
The 3 percent increase for the Bennington Free Library was approved. Board member Tom Haley mentioned that the library seeks out a lot of additional funding outside of the town.
The budgets for Lake Paran, not including the weed removal, and the John G. McCullough Free Library were level-funded and approved.
The board decided no action would be taken to fund the $16,500 weed removal in Lake Paran.
The Select Board also increased the salary of the town manager from $118,560 to $124,490, the town clerk from $92,705 to $97,340 and the town treasurer from $15,920 to $17,240.
The board approved the budget with the inclusion of the approved increases at this budget meeting.
The 2024 town budget is available for viewing on benningtonvt.org, and it will be on the ballot at Town Meeting.