Debt Is Prime Topic At Bethel Town Meeting

Photo from The Blue Diamond Gallery

Bethel voters will consider how to respond to a recently discovered deficit, at Town Meeting on Tuesday, March 6 in the Whitcomb High School gym, beginning at 10 a.m.

Bethel’s budget is complicated this year.

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During a February 26 informational meeting, selectboard member Chris Jarvis noted that a lot has happened in this past year, including identifying that past budgets have not been accurate, and that taxpayers’ money was not being used efficiently. Uncollected revenues have also been a burden on the town’s economy. The proposed budget information was divided into three sections for transparency’s sake.

Town Manager Greg Maggard and Finance Administrator Therese Kirby have combed through past budgets, and it has become clear that budgets over the last decade were not realistic, with documentation showing that the town consistently overspent the budget.

This year’s operating budget (the portion without the articles addressing human service, ambulance, fire department expenses, and the line of credit) was built with this in mind, they said.

Employee benefits alone account for an $82,000 increase, which is mostly health insurance. The town has engaged a new insurance company which is providing comparable insurance at a reduced rate. Jarvis cautioned that there will be premium increases in 2019.

The selectboard also added money to the legal budget. The board will now get monthly updates on department-specific budgets and department heads are reviewing their budgets monthly with Kirby.

The second portion of the budget is addressed by Articles 12-15, including requests for $10,000 to update the heating system and replace exterior siding and trim at the Bethel Fire Department; and $5,500 to begin a long-range plan for upgrading all the fire hydrants in town.

Social service agencies are collectively requesting $23,250; and there will be a request from White River Valley Ambulance for $127, 890.

Deficit Problem

The third portion of the budget discussion focuses on retiring the $1,725,445 line of credit at Mascoma Bank.

As noted in the Town Report, the borrowing was initially intended to cover expenses during the 2007 flood event.

Over the last decade, however, it was increasingly used to cover overspent budgets and decreased revenue due to delinquent taxes and water/sewer payments.

In the last three years, only interest payments were made on the note, which will mature in November 2018. Final payments from FEMA and the state will reduce the note to $1,298,220, it was stated.

In converting the note from short-term to long-term debt, the town’s plan is to finance this note over 30 years. The proposed budget includes the first payment on the long-term loan, as well as the final interest payment to Mascoma Bank.

Delinquencies

The town has had a policy in place for several years to address delinquent tax and utility account payments, but it was not enforced until the advent of the new town administration.

In the last five months, administrators have initiated collection of overdue revenues, with $123,593 collected as of February 21. Maggard and Kirby noted they are committed to working with local folks to address these delinquencies, and will provide the board with month-end summaries on what has been collected.

Officers to be elected will include a town clerk, town treasurer, and two selectboard members. Maurice Brigham’s three-year term on the selectboard expires, as does the seat that Lindley Brainard was appointed to after the resignation of Vanessa Brown.

School Meetings

The White River Unified District will hold its annual meeting on Tuesday, March 6 at 6 p.m. in the Whitcomb High School gym; followed by the final Bethel School District annual meeting at 7 p.m.

At the first meeting, voters will be asked to approve a unified district budget of $11,607,767.

At the second meeting, voters will elect two school directors and a school treasurer to serve until the Bethel district ceases to exist on June 30.

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