Hance seeks savings in Chester budget

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

In a review of  Chester’s financial picture, Town Manager Julie Hance told the Select Board that the town is holding off spending as much as possible so that it would not have to draw on its tax anticipation note or TAN.

Town Manager Julie Hance explains her strategies for controlling costs and budgeting for next year

The note is like a line of credit that municipalities draw on through the year until tax revenues come in. Hance also noted that she does not intend to use the TAN for capital expenses.

Last year, the town converted from cash to accrual accounting and the software is now generating balance sheets. The board looked over the first quarter sheet and Hance told them that the town’s auditor would be participating in the June 6 meeting to teach them how to read a balance sheet.

Hance said that she and the heads of town departments have been looking for savings — including not buying equipment. However, they decided to go ahead with purchasing two items —  a police cruiser and a backhoe — because the prices were significantly lower than they were budgeted for. The town will, however, forego having the dump body for a new truck painted blue, which will save $10,000. So savings on these three items totals $60,000 from the capital budget.

While she said she hopes to produce a surplus for the current year, Hance said she wants to start next year’s budget as early as the second meeting in July to identify priorities so she can work with department heads on a “zero based” budget, which strips out existing numbers and so they can put a spending plan together from scratch.

“It’s a good way to go over things to see if there are savings in there,” said board chair Arne Jonynas.

Hance said that, looking at the vehicle maintenance bills, she was wondering if there was a savings benefit to having an in-house mechanic to work on the town’s vehicles. She noted that there would be upfront costs including a lift and computer equipment, but that she would do an analysis of the benefits, which might include stretching out the useful lives of the town’s trucks and police cruisers.

“There are a lot of towns across the state of Vermont that have an in-house mechanic, a lot,” said Hance. “So let’s run the numbers and let’s look.”

Hance also spoke about taking a fresh look at the town’s benefit package to improve it while containing spending.

Board member Jeff Holden said he has been pleased with the direction Hance is going and that other department heads are also enthusiastic. Holden is the superintendent of the town’s Water and Sewer Departments. Holden also noted that while penalties and interest on water bills are being held in abeyance, the money is still due and users should continue to try to make payments or the bills will pile up.

Covid-19 impacts town government

When the town got word that its highway employees were not considered essential by the state and that they should stay home, Hance said she furloughed them to keep their health insurance intact and the crew went on unemployment.

“Public Works was out on furlough for two weeks, but now they’re back,” Hance told the board, noting that the furlough resulted in a $14,000 savings for the town.

Hance said the town departments were following the directions from the state including keeping temperature logs of staff as they report to work each day. Town Highway workers are being checked by the ambulance crew while Health Officer Amanda Silva checks the Town Hall workers. Police log themselves and everyone working for the town has masks.

Library employees

Saying that finding and keeping qualified employees at the Whiting Library is made more difficult by not providing benefits, Whiting Library Trustee Ed Grossman asked the board if it would make a contribution as a stipend to the newly hired director to help her purchase health insurance.

Library Trustee Ed Grossman speaks to the need for benefits to keep good employees

That led to a discussion that’s been had many times before as select boards have maintained that the Whiting Library is not a municipal library and so its employees are not municipal employees. Hance said that several years ago the town had asked its lawyer for an opinion on this and he concurred with the select board. The state’s Department of Libraries disagrees noting that while the library has its own board and policies, the Trustees are elected by town voters and are town officials.

Hance said she would review the lawyer’s opinion and some of the budget lines from the monies the town appropriates for the library and meet with Grossman. The board scheduled a special meeting for Friday, May 8 where it decided to repurpose $1,500 from the library appropriation for the stipend if the library would match that.

Tables on the Green

Free Range owner Jason Tostrup explains the idea of serving food outdoors on the Green during the pandemic

Jason Tostrup of The Free Range and Scott Blair of The Southern Pie Cafe asked the board to consider allowing them to put some picnic tables on the Green to help them weather the restrictions around the Covid-19 pandemic.  Several board members expressed some concerns around maintaining the area, including trash disposal but board member Leigh Dakin said she would welcome more information on how Tostrup and Blair would handle it.

“There are some people who are concerned about opening the door to something like this,” said Jonynas citing some of the work done on the Village Center Master Plan. “But in these times – so hard for our small businesses in town and we would like to support them – if we could get some more information, we could take a look at it and go from there.”

“I think this is a time to be proactive and give it a trial rather than sit back and have no businesses on the Green,” said board member Heather Chase. No action was taken.

Memorial bench for Suzy Forlie

A photo rendering of what the bench would look like next to the Public Tomb.

Chester Townscape members requested that the board allow them to place a granite bench next to the Public Tomb on Main Street in remembrance of Suzy Forlie. Forlie was an active member of both the Townscape group and the Chester Historic Preservation Committee, which advises the town on the care of its historic public buildings.

The request noted that the work would be done by landscape architect Scott Wunderle using some of the town’s stockpile of granite curbing. In the past Wunderle has used the granite for a walkway at the pocket park at the end of School Street and in front of the information booth on Main Street. The board quickly approved the request.

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