Chester town budget underspent so far this year

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

With 75 percent of the year past, the town of Chester had spent about 65 percent of its annual budget, having hit the brakes earlier this year when it looked as though the Covid-19 pandemic would result in delayed or delinquent property tax collection.

Plenty of distancing at last Wednesday’s meeting. Photos courtesy of SAPA TV

At its Oct. 21 meeting, Town Manager Julie Hance told the Select Board that the town was not purchasing much and only doing “the bare necessities.”

“We weren’t sure what tax collections would look like from the beginning,” said Hance, noting that department heads have been very creative in finding ways to get things done while minimizing spending. “They’ve done an amazing job.”

The report shows that as of Sept. 30, the town had spent $2.53 million of its $3.9 million budget. That does not include $38,241 in voted articles approved at Town Meeting. According to Hance, all of those — except the donation for the town’s fireworks in July — are paid after taxes are collected in September.

Among the departments with the largest savings so far this year are Public Works and the Fire Department, which have spent 64.15 percent and 36.86 percent of their budgets respectively. The Whiting Library has spent just 16.83 percent of the $101,000 that the town allocated to it, but traditionally it gets its funding of $78,000 in November.

Town Manager Julie Hance praised the efforts of department heads in keeping spending low in response to the pandemic

Hance also presented a draft for several categories of the 2021 General Fund Budget including Administration, Listers, Planning and Zoning, Town Hall and Revitalization. Revitalization includes a number of initiatives including upkeep of the historic buildings the town owns, website maintenance and marketing.

She noted that each department head was asked to throw out the assumptions for last year and work from zero in building a budget request.

Board members asked just a few questions but agreed that they appreciated the notes that accompanied many of the revenue and expense lines. At the next Select Board meeting, Hance will have a draft of the budgets for Fire, Police and Ambulance.

Board member Jeff Holden, who is also the superintendent of the Water and Sewer Departments and a part-time police officer, praised Hance for holding regular meetings with department heads in which everyone is able to understand what is happening outside each person’s area.

Employee healthcare questions

A large item in every budget is the health care package for town employees which currently covers 100 percent of expenses including co-pays and drugs. This coverage has been a sticking point for the board in the past with members wanting some contribution – if only minimal – by employees.  As the discussion of health care began, Holden recused himself and left the board table.

Board member and town employee Jeff Holden recused himself from the discussion of benefits

Board chair Arne Jonynas said there had been discussion about this in the past and he wondered if Chester was typical of towns in terms of  offering full benefits and that Hance had found that out of 100 or so towns she looked at, 51 offered 100 percent benefits and that was a major factor in getting and keeping employees.

Hance said that she had been working on an assessment of where Chester stands in comparison to other municipalities in Vermont.  “The first thing I looked at was what do we spend on our employees and see how that fits,” said Hance who noted that in speaking with auditor Ron Smith, she learned that a number of municipalities have labor and benefit costs as 70 to 80 percent of their budgets. Hance noted that Smith said that “Chester running at about 62 to 63 percent is well below the average.”

Board member Lee Gustafson thought Hance’s analysis of benefits was helpful saying ‘I’m happy with it.’

She also compared a VLCT survey of 128 eight towns on salary levels and while a number of employees are on the high end because of the length of time with the town, Chester is still “sitting below average.” Nevertheless, she ran a number of cost scenarios with consultant Suzanne Swanson and concluded that what the town is doing now is the least expensive, most cost effective way to go if you are going to provide full benefits.

After some discussion of employee contributions and other ways of providing health care, board members

Board member Lee Gustafson said he thought Hance had provided the information the board needs to make good decisions and that the choices made have been good ones. “I’m happy with it,” said Gustafson.

Speed limits and traffic

The subject of speed limits around the town has come up in meeting after meeting in recent months, with the board authorizing speed studies on High Street and River Street as well as Andover Road. And Church Street continues to be a problem as people – including the drivers of heavy trucks — continue to use it to bypass the Depot.

The studies of High and River streets are done with strips on the road, but Andover Road was supposed to be done using the town’s portable radar sign, which is no longer functioning.  The Southern Windsor Regional Planning Commission will conduct a two-week study on Andover Road using the strips.

Hance said that Police Chief Rick Cloud told her that officers are increasing the amount of time they spend out running radar each shift, with one to two hours per person per shift going toward speed enforcement.

In other business

Arthur Smith, the grant coordinator for Department of Justice funding of a Vermont Elder Justice Project, gave a presentation on elder abuse. He noted that by 2030, an estimated 25 percent of Vermonters will be age 65 or older, making abuse of elders a larger issue. He noted that the older a person is, the greater the chance of that person having dementia.

And finally, the revised wayfinding signage plan for helping visitors navigate Chester will be on the Nov. 4 Select Board agenda.

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