by Richard Sheir
On the evening of Tuesday, September 17, 2013, Vibrant and Affordable Montpelier (VAM) held a community meeting to discuss the city and school budgets before they are prepared. Here is some of what was heard at the meeting.
John Hollar, Mayor of Montpelier
City Council and I share a couple of concerns: One of them is the high tax rate in the community and the other is the significant infrastructure challenges. Our tax is the highest in the state. Our property taxes are the highest in terms of median taxes; statewide taxes in Vermont are among the highest. If you put the two together, Montpelier is one of the highest property-taxed communities in the country. Over time, that will have negative effects if we don’t address it. We’ve made significant progress. Our current budget has begun to make structural changes. The budget that we approved was 2.3 percent—0.5 percent is very positive.
The goal of the council is to keep the budget increase at the rate of inflation. Infrastructure investments are critical. We have a five-year plan to reach a steady rate, so we are not losing ground. We need to ramp up our infrastructure to get to a stable plan. The current budget includes $166,000 and will continue for five years. We eliminated four positions, and none required layoffs, and we saw a substantial diminution of services. We can’t cut four positions every year.
Our projections for next year, though preliminary, look pretty positive. With salary increases, increases from fuel and health care, plus $166,000 for infrastructure, we are looking at an increase of 3 to 3.4 percent before we’ve done anything. In my view, 3.4 percent is too high; 2 percent [which is closer to the current inflation rate of 1.5 percent] is closer in my mind to where we ought to be at.
Sue Aldrich, Chair of the Montpelier School Board
Our teachers are paid in the middle of the pack in Washington County after this contract. That is important to note. We are doing a phenomenal job, and we are not spending all that much money on teachers.
Brian [Ricca] told me this week if we do nothing, don’t cut any positions, don’t cut any programs, we will be at about 3 to 4 percent increase on the school-expenditure side—not on the state-funding side. In my mind, that is not too terrible.
Every year there have been cuts. For the last 10 to 12 years, the schools have gone up 2 percent. What that meant was a lot of deferred maintenance, and our teachers weren’t paid middle of the pack. We don’t add things. When we add things back in the budget, we don’t want to lose fantastic teachers. When RIFs [reduction in force] are proposed, people come down to our meetings, and some students cry, and some teachers and parents tell us “do not let this happen,” and those are the times we add money back into the budget. Including instructional assistants, 5.5 FTEs [full-time equivalent] were cut last year. There is a current discussion of moving the fifth grade to the middle school where there is more room.
We’ve made a little headway in terms of health insurance, going from a 20 percent contribution to 15 percent for employees. Last year, we absorbed a 12 percent increase in health insurance. The early projections for this year are between 5 and 6 percent. This number is very soft. As a large employer of over 50 employees, we will not be forced into the Affordable Health Care Act’s Health Exchange before 2017.
I would love to have a citizens’ budget committee, similar to the city’s one last year, to look at the schools. That sounds like a great idea. We had a committee a long time ago like that. I would love to do that.
As of last fiscal year, our capital improvements line was $50,000 for all three buildings. We increased that to $120,000, with only a 1.1 percent increase in the facilities budget. We are going to try and increase it to $150,000 per year, every year.
We pick an arbitrary budget amount and say keep it under this amount. This is what will be happening in our schools. This is when a lot of people come out. They make us see how important those teachers and programs are. The value is so evident. We think to ourselves this budget will pass. More people will be angry with us if we take away these programs. That’s when we so-called put money back.
Brian Ricca, Montpelier School District Superintendent
Vote after vote, our base of support is decreasing, and I would like to increase that again. I don’t have a magic answer. I am willing to do anything to listen to the community.