BURLINGTON — Faced with lean times, a slowing of new construction and stiff resistance to more taxes and fees, Mayor Bob Kiss recently convened a budget task force. Last week, the citizen group issued a number of sweeping recommendations to ensure that city government stays out of the red for the foreseeable future. Those recommendations, which would affect a wide range of city services and programs, include everything from combining and/or relocating fire stations to raising the price of city burial plots to merging the parks and cemetery departments into the Department of Public Works.
The task force’s 21-page report for fiscal year 2008 spells out, in stark detail, the challenge Burlington faces as it tries to keep pace with continually rising costs for personnel and benefits, which now comprise about 85 percent of the general fund expenditures. What comes through loud and clear is the delicate balancing act required to spare Burlingtonians either the sting of new taxes or reductions in city services.
That challenge will be substantial, especially if the city limits its growth in spending to a mere 3 percent annually, its stated goal. According to the report, property taxes now provide about half the revenues needed to operate city government. As a “mature” city with limited room to grow, Burlington would need to add 400 new housing units each year at an average value of $250,000 apiece to pay for that level of spending. Alternatively, it could add 10 new commercial properties each year with an average value of $10 million apiece. But even the most optimistic projections suggest it’s unlikely the Queen City will experience such a robust rate of development in the next decade.
Further complicating the picture is the amount of tax-exempt property in Burlington, which has increased in recent years as the University of Vermont, Champlain College and the hospital have all expanded. According to the report, about one-third of the value of all real property in Burlington is now tax-exempt, compared to a statewide average of just 6 percent.
The 24-member task force, composed of community members from the city’s seven wards, noted that property taxes have gone up 50 percent in the last seven years, resulting in “significant taxpayer fatigue and resistance to further tax increases.” The report concludes, “The only way to moderate growth in General Fund expenditures is to reduce personnel.” Such a reduction, the report adds, would represent a reversal of a 10-year trend of increasing the number of employees on the city’s payroll.
The report includes a number of recommendations that have been under discussion for many years, and in some cases, decades. They include studying the feasibility of regionalizing dispatch services for police, fire and EMS throughout Chittenden County. “This has been a 20-year discussion that’s never gotten off the ground,” says Deputy Chief Mike Schirling at the Burlington Police Department. “I think it’s time.”
On any given night, he says, each town’s emergency services employ their own dispatchers who handle the local radio traffic for police, fire and EMS, as well as emergency calls that come in from outside the state’s regional 911 call centers. According to Schirling, it’s a very “split and fragmented system” that could easily be streamlined.
As for another task-force recommendation, which calls for reducing Burlington Police Department staff levels, Schirling notes that his force is already at 100 officers, as the report suggests, and he doesn’t think it’s had a noticeable affect on department readiness. “There may be more efficiencies,” he adds, “but we went through the budget with a fine-tooth comb and reinvented the way we did budgeting this year.”
Another major recommendation — to create a Recreation, Arts and Library Department — has also been tossed around for years, according to Doreen Kraft, executive director of Burlington City Arts. BCA, which is currently its own city department with a budget of about $1 million, gets 10 to 15 percent of its funding from the city. The rest comes from corporate sponsorship, fees and other self-generated revenue streams.
Kraft admits she was somewhat surprised by the drastic change the task force recommended, but sees the report as “a starting point.”
“I’m open to the idea,” she says, “I think that combining three departments is a giant step and we’re in the baby-step stage. But you always learn things when you do this kind of analysis.”
Wayne Gross, director of Burlington Parks & Recreation, won’t comment on the recommendation to merge his department into Public Works, though he notes that this, too, was discussed 20 years ago. However, he did say that the prior merger of the Cemetery Department into Public Works has been “very successful.”
Other recommendations in the report will take more time to consider, including one for the Burlington Electric Department to buy more power-generating facilities or additional ownership in the McNeil Plant. Other proposals, such as adopting a system of full-cost accounting and improving the collection of outstanding fees and taxes, can be accomplished relatively easily and quickly.