More people, more services. More services, more money. That’s the basic formula that will determine Stowe’s operating budget next fiscal year.
Last year, the estimated cost of running Stowe crossed the $13 million mark for the first time, after steadily inching toward that over a handful of budget cycles. Now, it’s likely to cross another threshold: $14 million.
Town manager Charles Safford, in his budget presentation to the selectboard last week, said in the nearly 15 years he’s been in the job, the town has “by and large” been able to keep budgets within the rate of inflation and cost of living. That might not be possible with the meteoric increase in the town’s population and continuing popularity as a marquee tourist town.
“I think we are at the point where we need to get a little bit ahead, so we don’t fall too far behind,” Safford said. “With the increase in population and visitors, and demands from people desiring to live here, there’s a corresponding need for the municipality to adjust what it needs to be in a position to provide.”
Numbers are still considered preliminary until the town selectboard signs off on the budget at the end of the month and forwards it on to voters for approval on the first Tuesday in March, but the administration has been crunching the numbers for months, and the process is much closer to the end than the beginning.
What does a $14 million budget pay for? For the most part, people.
Almost two years into the pandemic, the sight of a help wanted sign in a business window or in a newspaper employment ad is a familiar one, and now communities across the state might as well be hanging those signs on the front of town hall.
According to Safford, economic inflation coupled with a demand for good employees is resulting in higher wages across the board.
Per union contracts and town personnel policies, the town’s unionized employees are budgeted to receive a 5.4 percent increase. That’s the same percentage increase in the consumer price index as of October, which is a key indicator of economic inflation, according to the most recent town budget summary.
Those salary increases aren’t the only expenses that affect all of Stowe’s administrative departments. Insurance costs are going up, fuel costs are higher and Stowe Electric Department is considering a 5 percent rate increase.
In addition to the estimated $14 million budget, the town is considering asking voters to approve spending $1.25 million for a new ladder truck for the fire department, using the leftover money from the $3.2 million bond approved in 2018 to bury the town power lines. The current ladder truck is 30 years old.
A historic increase in expenses comes with a historic increase in the number of people who call Stowe home, whether part time or all the time. The 2020 census data released last summer showed the town’s population went up 21 percent compared to a decade ago, and that census was taken in the early stages of a pandemic that drove people to Vermont in droves and continues to, long after the nationwide headcount was stopped.
“While Stowe still has a small-town feel, it, as (public works director) Harry Shepard says, has the infrastructure and some development patterns of a small city,” Safford said.
More people, more revenue
A million-dollar increase in expenses doesn’t mean taxpayers will be on the hook for all seven of those extra digits.
With all those people flocking to Vermont to buy homes, Stowe’s grand list — the sum value of all the taxable properties in town — is estimated to increase 3 percent. In years past, a 1 percent grand list increase was considered decent.
That extra taxable property is estimated to raise an additional $300,000 in tax revenue to offset the increase in expenses.
After estimated revenues are applied, the net budget increase is pegged at $874,000, an increase of 8.8 percent. If the numbers remain the same, homeowners could expect to see a 5.65 percent increase on their tax bills.
As noted, a significant driver in the budget is increased salaries and benefits for town employees. But the budget also aims to pay its volunteers more.
The town is moving toward a model where firefighters and emergency medical services who volunteer get paid for when they get called out to a medical emergency, a car crash or a structure fire.
Safford said all the extra residents and tourists spells more calls for the first responders, whose numbers have been dwindling for years.
“We’re asking a lot of our volunteers,” Safford said. “There is a statewide trend, if not a national trend throughout rural America of a decline in volunteerism in general, and emergency management volunteers in particular.”
The fire department, particularly, is hampered by a lack of bodies, and the budget calls for a 67 percent increase to that department, with two full-time positions added and volunteer pay boosted from $11.75 per hour to $18 per hour for volunteers ($25 per hour for officers).
Interim chief Scott Reeves — who took over after chief Kyle Walker was fired in December — said some of the new housing developments in town are much bigger and denser than in the past, posing new challenges to firefighters.
Couple that with an exodus of a few seasoned veterans, Walker included, and there’s not as much institutional knowledge.
“You look at the volunteers and the amount of training that they really need to continue, when you’re talking about muscle memory, and you’re saying, ‘Hey, we meet twice a month, and how much training can you really get in?’” Reeves said.
With all the extra burden on the town and the subsequent need for more volunteers, the town is proposing to bring on its first human resources manager. The new administrative-level employee would take some of the work off Safford’s plate and focus on the usual HR things — training, best practices with hiring, evaluations and corrective actions; keeping policies up to date; and helping resolve employee issues.
The manager would be paid $75,000.
The administrative budget also significantly bumps up contingency funding, from $10,000 to $135,000. Safford said that’s in the face of inflation pressure but also in anticipation of reopening union contracts.
“It is hard to be nimble with no financial capacity to address emerging needs,” the budget report reads.