Having a piper provide music all over town might seem like a great idea when the proposition first pops up — it would be great for business and they say rats hate recorder music. But when budget season rolls around, it’s another story.
Although that recorder music may make those evenings seem so tuneful, some may feel like their town is being luted. What services and how much they cost is something towns have wrestled with since the invention of towns.
Certainly, Hinesburg is no exception.
The draft budget in Hinesburg projects a spending increase of $400,000 from $4.4 million this year to $4.8 million in the coming fiscal year for an increase in spending of almost 9 percent.
Town manager Todd Odit’s draft estimates the budget would result in a tax rate increase of 3.2 percent or just under two cents ($0.0184). If this proposal is adopted by the Hinesburg Selectboard and passed by March Town Meeting voters, municipal property taxes would increase by $18.40 per $100,000 of property value or $55.20 for a home assessed at $300,000.
The estimated town property tax rate of 58 cents would mean tax on property assessed at $100,000 would total $588.
The selectboard held a public review of the budget Jan. 5 and much of the discussion involved residents questioning how much services the town wants or can afford.
Hinesburg resident Richard Watts asked the board to consider reducing the amount of the police budget. (Watts is director of the University of Vermont’s Center for Research on Vermont, with which this newspapers sometimes collaborates.)
He lamented that with the town switching to Australian ballots there is no time for voters to amend the budget from the floor on Town Meeting Day. Voters will only get an opportunity to vote the budget up or down.
“On a per capita basis. Hinesburg is in about the top 30 of 250 towns, so we spend more per capita on our police services than 200 plus other Vermont towns,” Watts said.
He said a Center for Research on Vermont study shows that Hinesburg spends between $150 to $180 per capita, while “Fairfield, Westford, Charlotte, very different towns, are all under $10 per capita.”
Watts said their research showed that last year Hinesburg was one of the seven towns with the highest increase in spending on police among the 198 towns in the state that were surveyed.
“Is there a reason why we’re in the top tier in the state of Vermont in what we’re spending on police services?” he asked.
Chair Merrily Lovell said it was unfair to compare Hinesburg’s spending on police to Charlotte, a much wealthier town that relies on the state police for police coverage.
“I just want to say that, if you vote the police budget down, it doesn’t mean you’re voting against having police. You just don’t like the budget,” board member Dennis Place said.
Place has been advocating for a smaller police department, which is budgeted for six full-time officers.
Val Spadaccini, who takes minutes for the board and is a town resident, said it is great the police department does things like helping people get into their vehicles when they’ve locked themselves out, but she doesn’t think this level of service is necessary.
“I think we should be taking a little bit more personal responsibility and not having everybody have to pay our tax dollars for it,” Spadaccini said.
Watts said it would be great if the budget showed not only salaries but included the cost of benefits broken down by town departments.
Resident Carl Bohlen, who is also chair of the affordable housing committee, said he would also like to see how staffing levels have changed over time, and perhaps include those numbers in the town report or in the budget.
Lovell said it’s difficult to segregate fire department and rescue department expenses with the town forming an ambulance service that comes under the purview of the rescue department.
Odit noted that many are members of both, making it difficult to divide the salaries by department.
“We can’t say they spent X amount of time just doing ambulance work and X amount of time doing fire work. They’re there as employees of the department to provide the services that department provides between the fire and ambulance service,” Odit said.