On Dec. 30, the time for New Year’s resolutions to improve health and habits, the Duxbury Select Board resolved to get town finances in order.
The board, working with the budget committee, finished a draft of the town government budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1. It added a $200,000 line item to deal with a $156,000 deficit left over from fiscal 2019, plus a possible deficit for the current budget year.
The board also proposed a $30,000 reserve fund to deal with future storm damage, like the kind that cost the town $31,622 last April and May.
For the fiscal 2021 budget, $225,000 was earmarked for grant-driven projects — $60,000 for the local share of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to deal with the April and May flooding, and $60,000 more for repairs after the Halloween flood.
“It’s a tax rate thing. It’s going to hurt a lot but it happened this year. Why drag it on for too long?” said board member Dan Schillhammer.
Board member Mari Pratt said the changes will help avoid further mishaps and will stabilize taxes.
Board member Jerry McMahan said the $200,000 deficit fund will raise taxes by about 10 cents per $100 of property value, or $200 for a $200,000 home.
These new numbers bring the Duxbury budget to just over $1.3 million, but that may not be enough to cover the deficit problem because David Specht, the town treasurer, said the current budget could be $200,000 in the red.
Specht blamed bad budgeting practices, which the board hopes its new approach will cure.
“The budgets, in my view, over the past few years have not been presented properly,” Specht said. “Historically, we showed total project costs,” referring to grant-funded projects, “but it never showed the taxpayers that 20 percent has to be paid by taxes.”
“(For 2020) we left it out completely, which was a mistake in the other direction, and said we’d handle it with getting the grant in and the expenses out and use the unencumbered funds to balance it … and that was a bad decision.”
“(The 2021 budget) is more like I understand the way Moretown does it; you’ve got a budget line item for expected expenditures, … That’s what we have to cough up after expenses and grant money, and that’s what affects the tax rates.”
“So that should zero out,” said board member Kevin Garcia.
“You’re still on the coffer for that ($225,000), which is more than we’ve budgeted for previous years,” Specht said, “so that’s going to come with some sticker shock, but I think this is the clearest, most honest way to present it.”
“Just look at the May damage,” said select board assistant Jon DeLabruere. “You’ll have a $300,000 budget deficit, because we didn’t budget anything for that.”
Pratt said the town had taken a loan in anticipation of receiving grant money, “so that’s already paid for in a sense.”
“No, it’s not,” Specht said. “We haven’t gotten the grant money and we’re $30,000 in the hole for that.”
Millions in grants
A $300,000 culvert repair is among 12 grant-driven projects that are either underway or under consideration in Duxbury.
Road reconstruction and stabilization, culvert replacement, and other infrastructure projects are eligible for a variety of state and federal grants. Grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency cover 87.5 percent of project costs, and grants through the Vermont Agency of Transportation cover 80 percent.
The total estimated cost of these projects is almost $3.3 million. Seven are under way, costing just under $1.5 million, and Duxbury will pay almost $280,000 of that. It’s a lot of cash for a town of about 1,300 people.
In the wake of the Halloween flood, that number will likely grow. Federal aid is being sought, but the town’s share of any grants will be 12.5 percent.
DeLaBruere said he read an article about flood work in Cambridge — reported by the News & Citizen, sister newspaper of the Waterbury Record — that involved an improved bridge, a huge culvert and other flood-resistance projects designed to move water downstream without causing heavy damage.
Everything worked during the Halloween storm; flooding was minimal.
“So as we do get better, and more resilient, we’re hoping this this does happen less,” DeLaBruere said.
DeLaBruere is preparing a slide show for town meeting voters so they will understand what’s being done where and why.
Duxbury is dealing with three straight years of storm damage that wasn’t budgeted for, Specht said. The town should have a budget item to account for the effects of climate change, he said.
The board agreed the town needs a reserve fund to cover inevitable but unpredictable storm damage. But with $250,000 allocated to grant projects and $200,000 to precious deficits, the board thinks it will be a hard sell.
But there may be some slack. Specht said road crew benefits are down $30,000 from the previous year. So, the board proposed putting $30,000 into a reserve fund for storm damage, with the intent to add to it annually.
One big unknown from the April flood is the Morse Road culvert project, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace. DeLaBruere said FEMA denied because the culvert wasn’t damaged enough, and VTrans also turned it down. FEMA did pay for temporary repairs, but a replacement is a much bigger job than Duxbury wants to finance.
“You don’t want to predict or wish damage, but we’re hoping that it, in a future event, gets blown out,” DeLaBruere said.