Chester tax rates decline; water tank, pipeline contracts awarded

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2016 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a busy meeting on Wednesday night, the Chester Select Board set this year’s tax rate, heard a report from the town’s outside auditor, approved hiring several  contractors for master planning and for work on the water system, made three Development Review Board appointments, got updates on the Chester 250 celebration as well as title work on the Yosemite Firehouse and decided to place 1766 stickers over the founding date of the town on three welcome signs.

Tax rates decline with property market; auditor urges accounting changes

Outside auditor Ron Smith discusses his report on the town's books for 2015 and makes recommendations for the future

Auditor Ron Smith discusses his report on the town’s books for 2015 and makes recommendations. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

The board set the tax rates for 2016 at $1.9545 per $100 of assessed value for residential property and $2.0182 for non-residential property. This represents a nearly 6 cent decrease from last year’s rates of $2.0128 and $2.0723 respectively.

The drop is due to a calculation that uses a ratio of the sales prices of properties to their assessed value. Since Chester’s last assessment was in 2008 at the height of the real estate market and current sales prices are lower, that ratio pushes final tax rates down. Thus a $200,000 primary residence with no non-residential uses would get a bill for $3,909 this year compared to $4,025.60 last year. Individual tax bills differ depending on uses and additions from year to year.

Ron Smith, of audit firm RHR Smith and Co., outlined his 70-page draft audit of the town’s books, in which he recommended creating surplus funds of 30 to 90 days of cash flow for the general fund and for Chester’s water and sewer funds.  Smith said that raising water and sewer rates was the right choice and that whatever surplus policy is adopted should be specific to Chester’s situation. But he added, the town must be able to mathematically justify the numbers.  “It gives credence to what you are trying to do,” said Smith.

Creating such surpluses could mean setting aside unspent funds at the end of the year, instead of rolling it into the next year’s budget to keep taxes lower.  Town Manager David Pisha said that the town has always done that but it has meant it has no reserve, forcing it to borrow during shortfalls and unforeseen circumstances.

In addition to helping with cash at tight moments, Smith said that policies for fund balances are something that can help a municipality get better bond rates. He encouraged Chester to look to the private bond market in addition to the Vermont Bond Bank to see if it can get better rates from competitive banks. Smith said the town could save .5 percent to 1 percent by bonding privately.

Chester resident and CAES School Board chair Marilyn Mahusky noted that Smith also audits Chester-Andover Elementary School and that the school district rolled a portion of its surplus each year into a capital improvement fund. “That put a roof on the school without borrowing,” said Mahusky. Smith pointed out it’s easier for a town to set aside funds than it is for a school district.

Smith also told the board that it would be a good idea to move to accounting on an accrual rather than a cash basis and to change over from a cumbersome and labor intensive set of Quickbooks accounts to a municipal accounting software package such as those available from the New England Municipal Resource Center. Smith said that streamlining the accounting, including the number of dedicated bank accounts, would make the town’s business more transparent.

Town Clerk/Treasurer Deb Aldrich said the town is already using the software for dog and marriage licenses as well as water and sewer billing. “We have it all but the fund accounting package,” said Aldrich.

Smith went on to say that fears that accrual accounting would mean added taxes to catch up with a change in fiscal year were unfounded but that the process should be undertaken deliberately and not rushed.

Master planning consultant chosen

Executive assistant Julie Hance explains the process for choosing the master planning consultant

Executive assistant Julie Hance explains the process for choosing a master planning consultant.

Pisha and executive assistant Julie Hance explained the process for selecting a master planning consultant for the Village Center Master Plan. Nine firms had responded to a request for proposals and the winning proposal was submitted by SE Group of Burlington.

Hance told the board that municipalities that had worked with SE Group were impressed with the experience. She added that one of the hallmarks of the company’s method is to concentrate on getting people in the community to come out and participate rather than having “another document created by the same 100 people.”

In addition to studying the needs and desires of the community, Hance said SE Group would audit the town’s website and zoning and create a marketing plan. “I would not be surprised if we got a whole new look to zoning,” said Hance, who noted that current zoning looks back to its creation in the 1970s.

“It sounds like a whole town plan,” said board member Arne Jonynas, “not just the village center.”

Hance said she would have a contract to sign for the next Select Board meeting and warn it in the agenda.

Water contract bids awarded

Pisha advised the board that Dufresne Group engineers have reviewed the bids for the 330,000-gallon water tank and transmission pipe to be installed on the former O’Neil Sand and Gravel land behind the high school and asked the board to award the contracts contingent on an approval of the amendment to the property’s Act 250 permit.

The board awarded the transmission line job to Haluch Water Contracting of Ludlow, Mass., on a bid of $375,210. The tank was awarded to DN Tanks of Wakefield, Mass., on a bid of $1.15 million. Hance told the board that Naomi Johnson of Dufresne had estimated another 6 to 8 weeks for the process after which contracts could be signed.

In late January, the town applied for an amendment to the existing permit. Act 250 Coordinator Stephanie Gile issued an “incomplete” letter, and asked for more information and for responses from the state geologist and from Fish and Wildlife. On Thursday, Gile said nothing has been received as far as she knew.

Yosemite action, Chester 250

Frank Kelley and Tom Hildreth report on the final schedule for the Chester 250 festivities

Frank Kelley and Tom Hildreth report on the final schedule for the Chester 250 festivities.

Just hours before the meeting, the town received an update on a “quiet title action” from town attorney Jim Carroll, who told the board by email that in searching the title for the Yosemite Firehouse, heirs of Joseph Richardson have been found who may have a claim on the property. His firm is pursuing their “acquiescence” in clearing the title.

The board also unanimously renewed the Development Review Board terms of Harry Goodell and Phil Perlah and added Frank Bidwell as an alternate.

Frank Kelley and Tom Hildreth, dressed in matching dayglow T-shirts, updated the board on the events being presented for the Chester 250 celebration.

Former select board member Bill Lindsay renewed his request for a change of founding date on three “welcome to Chester” signs on Routes 103 and 11 from 1761 to 1766. DeBenedetti asked if an applique of 1766 that could be put over the 1761 date would suffice and Lindsay said it would. Pisha will look into it.

Wind project impact, Open Meetings seminar

Pisha said he had been contacted by someone in Grafton about making a presentation to the board on the effects that the proposed wind project in Grafton and Windham would have on the Town of Chester. Wendy Knoble of Grafton Woodlands Group, which opposes the project, confirmed on Thursday that her organization has been contacting neighboring towns and would send representatives to present information on how wind turbine parts will be transported through the area if the project is approved.

Board member Dan Cote suggested that the board invite Bob Flint, executive director of Springfield Area Regional Development, to speak about economic development on a regular basis. Several members agreed, suggesting monthly or quarterly visits.

DeBenedetti said that he thought the board was doing fairly well on complying with the state’s Open Meetings Law but felt that repeating the seminar put on by Garrett Baxter of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns would be advisable. The board agreed and it was suggested that the board open the session up to select boards from surrounding communities. DeBenedetti  thought this could also defray some of the $400 fee that VLCT charges for the session.

Aldrich asked the board to set a meeting date to recognize those people who have served the community for many years but were unable to attend the recent ceremony in Marlboro put on by the office of Secretary of State Jim Condos.

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