On December 28, 2017

Rutland budget showdown is underway

By Alan Keays, VTDigger

The city’s Board of Aldermen cut a bit deeper but big-ticket items survived a marathon budget session.

The board Wednesday night adopted a proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year totaling $21,393,763, a figure that will now go on the ballot for voters to decide on Town Meeting Day, March 6.

The 2019 budget is up 5.8 percent, or about $1 million over last year, officials said.

The board went into the meeting Wednesday night having identified about $40,000 in cuts. The board ended the night after several hours of debate having to cut a bit more. The final cuts totaled about $75,000.

The meeting Wednesday night was the culmination of a process that started in early November when Rutland City Mayor David Allaire presented his first proposed city spending plan since taking office in March.

Board committees spent the past several weeks holding meetings to review budgets for various city departments. The board, according to the city charter, can only cut from the mayor’s proposed budget and can’t make additions.

Among the bigger cuts the board made Wednesday night included $25,000 from the $175,000 contingency account and $25,000 from the $225,000 line item for overtime in the police department.

Alderman Christopher Ettori made several motions to cut items from the budget, with little success. He said the mayor’s proposed budget lacked “creativity,” putting the board in the position of having to make difficult choices to avoid hitting residents with a tax hike they can’t afford.

“I don’t think the taxpayers can handle this kind of increase,” Ettori said.

Alderman Tom DePoy often joined Ettori in the call for spending reductions.

“If we’re going to make some cuts, let’s do it,” DePoy said in apparent frustration after several of the proposed efforts to trim the budget failed to gain support. “If we’re not, let’s pass it and let the voters decide.”

Other board members said the proposed cuts would impact vital services taxpayers expect the city to provide or hurt the municipality’s fiscal future.

Alderman William Notte at one point called it a “bare bones” budget, while Alderman Gary Donahue said he couldn’t find very many, if any, places to cut in the spending plan.

“I think the mayor did a heck of a job,” Donahue said.

The board started the night taking a swing at the proposed 3 percent pay increase for non-union employees, a figure included in the budget to keep pay levels in line with union members. Ettori called for cutting that increase to 1.5 percent, which would have a resulted in a savings of about $35,000 from the 3 percent figure.

Notte said he did not support the reduction, saying that he didn’t want to “penalize” employees who are not in the union, or discourage workers from considering moving into leadership positions that are not unionized.

Ettori’s motion failed, as did a second one to limit the increase to 2 percent, which would have been a savings of about $23,000. That left the 3 percent pay raise for non-union employees in the budget.

A more than $140,000 expense for a new five-ton dump truck with plow was next in the crosshairs, with DePoy making the motion to remove it. “Hopefully, we can get through a decent winter snow event with what we have right now,” he told his fellow board members.

Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeffrey Wennberg said the new truck would replace one that went on line in 2000 and maintain the city’s fleet of eight trucks. The commissioner said replacing the 17-year-old truck would keep the department on an eight -year replacement schedule. “We need eight trucks just to keep up with inch-an-hour snowfall,” Wennberg told the aldermen, “and that’s not even getting into the neighborhoods.”

Notte spoke in favor of keeping the plow truck in the budget, saying that the three key city services taxpayers expect are public safety, fire protection and plowed streets.

Most of the board agreed with Notte, and the motion to cut the plow truck went down.

The biggest proposed cut of the night was moved by Ettori, trying again on a proposal he pitched at the committee level to remove $325,000 from the $692,000 line item to fund the city’s pension liabilities.

“We have to look at something,” Ettori said of the areas in the budget available to cut. “If we don’t look at this, there’s not much to look at.”

Notte opposed Ettori’s hit on retirement benefits, calling it a fiscally irresponsible move that would lead to a “trainwreck” for taxpayers in future years. He called on the board to stick to a plan adopted a year ago to address the underfunded pension.

Alderman Tim Cook sided with Notte. “If we don’t follow through on this, we’re going to have a big problem down the road,” Cook said.

DePoy joined Ettori’s call for the need to look somewhere for cuts, and this was one of the biggest items in the budget. “When does it stop?” DePoy asked, adding that taxpayers can’t afford budget increases of more than $1 million each year. “That’s just not sustainable.”

The motion for the $325,000 cut failed, as did another one from Ettori to trim $125,000 from that same line item.

Photo courtesy of VTDigger
David Allaire

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