No property tax hike, but increases in recycling, water, and sewer fees; capital projects, vehicles purchase on the horizon for future years
Burlington’s interim city manager has unveiled a proposed spending plan that calls for some $69.3 million in outlays from the city’s general fund – an increase of about 17 percent over the city’s current annual budget.
This prospective budget, which interim manager David Cheek debuted to the city council on Monday, ultimately relies on existing revenues to cover most of the proposed increases in the general fund’s expenditures.
Perhaps most crucially, the budget envisions no hike in the city’s property tax rate, banking instead on an anticipated increase of 3.5 percent in the community’s tax base to cover the suggested outlays.
Cheek’s plan also proposes to nix a contentious new fee for fire inspections that the city introduced a year ago to fund a new way of calculating the workweeks of firefighters. In his explication of this particular item, Cheek noted that roughly one-third of Burlington’s businesses have already incurred this fee because of the timing of their inspections in the fire department’s three-year rotation.
“So, the third of the people who had been charged would get a reimbursement out of this year’s budget,” the interim manager went on to suggest during his presentation to the council.
Cheek went on to concede that his proposed budget will require the city’s residents to pay more for a couple of municipal services. He noted, for instance, that a new contract that the council recently approved with the city’s recycling hauler will cost Burlington’s residents an extra $1.1 million in the new fiscal year. Cheek also proposed a hike of 2 percent in water and sewer fees to sustain the standalone fund which the city uses to operate these two utilities.
Aside from the proposed increases in these fees, Cheek’s budget relies largely on natural growth in existing revenues to make ends meet in the new fiscal year.
Thanks to robust returns in both sales and property taxes, the interim manager believes that the general fund can accommodate about $6.8 million in outlays over and above the current year’s sum of $62.5 million. He told the council that a lion’s share of this increase would go toward the staff level pay raises that its members approved during the second half of the current financial cycle.
“The big change this year,” he declared, “is that we are investing in our employees with the pay raises that have been passed.”
Cheek noted that, thanks in part to these mid-year raises, the city’s police force is expected to incur some $20.1 million in outlays during the new year – making it by far the costliest department that’s sustained by the city’s general fund. The interim manager nevertheless added that this budget-busting figure could prove substantially lower due to the police department’s ongoing problems with retention and recruitment. Speaking to this point, the city’s police chief Brian Long confirmed that his department currently has 31 vacancies among its sworn officers and another eight openings among its civilian staff members.
In addition to his budget recommendations for the new fiscal year, Cheek presented the council with some longer-term financial considerations based on his conversations with Burlington’s municipal staff.
Future capital projects, vehicle purchases
Among other things, Cheek warned the council to brace for some $26.5 million in outlays on new vehicles in the coming five years. Cheek also presented a five-year plan for capital projects that featured an even more jaw-dropping price tag of $247.9 million. The interim manager nevertheless urged the council not to read too much into the particulars of this five-year plan – as in the case of his $46 million estimate to “Renew Maple Avenue,” which drew chuckles from several members of the audience.
“Some of these numbers are really just back of the napkin or grab a big number out of the air just to get it in there,” he said. “But it never hurts to get that stuff out there.”
Cheek went on to present “some more stuff” that he “made up” in response to the council’s recent murmurs about a potential bond package to pay for some big-budget capital projects. The interim manager shared a hastily scrambled proposal for $55 million in bonds that he said could fund eight big-ticket ventures, ranging from a new recreation center on the city’s west side to a hypothetical interstate interchange with Tucker Street.
As with the specifics of his five-year capital improvement plan, Cheek admonished the council to take this proposed bond package with a grain of salt.
Burlington’s interim manager was more in earnest, however, about a budget surplus that he said he anticipates in the current financial cycle.
Cheek acknowledged that, at last check, the city was on track to end the fiscal year with about $10.5 million in unspent revenue. He added that this surplus doesn’t include some $3.6 million in excess cash that the council had previously redirected toward a number of “deferred” maintenance projects. In either case, he urged the council’s members to give some serious thought to how they can spend these additional funds.
Cheek’s advice was reiterated by Peggy Reece, the city’s finance director, who urged the council to expend this money “sooner rather than later” because much of it comes from temporary infusions of federal pandemic relief that have enabled the city to pocket some of its own, previously budgeted funds.