CHESTER, Vt. – The Chester Selectboard finalized their budget at the Jan. 15 meeting to $3,351,125, which is up by $263,538, impacting the tax rate with a 6.5 cent increase over last year. This number reflects an approximately $30,000 increase from the last budget meeting, a result of additional expenses added in due to previous errors, omissions, and overall budget cleanup, according to Town Manager David Pisha.
Though most categories in the budget are slightly under versus last year, Public Works has had the biggest impact, accounting for about 80% of that shortfall, largely due to weather patterns last year, which resulted in needing much more salt and sand and overtime than expected.
Board member Lee Gustafson said that the biggest expense as a town is to the roads. Although the Selectboard had a discussion with highway foreman Kirby Putnam concerning amounts and timing of sanding and salting the roads, the consensus was that town safety is the first priority.
Board member Lee Gustafson suggested that when discussion on the budget increases comes up, he wants to make sure the rationale for increasing sand and salt use for road safety is getting out to the public. Board Member Leah Dakin agreed and praised the roads during the winter, saying they are best in small towns of this area. Board member Ben Whalen added that there was no need to micromanage the highway department’s decisions. “Keep doing what you’re doing,” he said.
Board member Heather Chase questioned why the ambulance salary was finalized in the budget once a year. The departments have chosen to be paid their stipends yearly, according to Pisha. Chase said that her concern was not that they should be paid differently, but that for budgeting purposes, those expenses should be recorded quarterly, whether they were paid out then or not. Pisha said he would be able to do that in future.
Chase also asked where the additional funds for beautification, specifically helping the Chester Townscape organization with watering, were within the budget. Pisha pointed to additional funds in Revitalization fund. The board discussed the need to seek out other help including having Pisha possibly sharing some expense with the other department heads. The board also discussed finding other ways to be creative, including having local businesses sponsor a flower box.
The board turned their attention to the Academy Building lease, which is up for renewal March 1 between the Chester Historical Society and the town.
Jonynas began by confirming that the town wants the historical society to continue using the building and values them as a tenant, but that the town wants a little more control of the grounds. Specifically the board talked about securing use of their right-of-way and use of the parking lot and having access to the bathrooms for the town information booth.
There has been criticism in the past, specifically from organizers of the Chester Fall Festival, that they were not able to use the Academy Building parking lot for their event, despite the fact that it is a town building.
The last lease was for a period of 15 years, a length of time that the board is not willing to consider repeating. A lease for five years was discussed but was not finalized.
Chase expressed her concern with the stewardship of this building, saying that the condition has deteriorated significantly. She also suggested that they look to invite other businesses to sublet rooms in the building.
Gustafson said that the board needs devise a plan and vision is for the piece of property and to work out a way to make it work for everybody. He admitted that there are “no teeth” in the current contract if certain conditions are not met.
Jonynas admitted that the inside of the building is in rough shape, but the town has kept up with many structural and external repairs. He also said that the big tickets items for maintaining the building belong to the town and not the historical society. The shape of the building is “not because historical society has neglected them…its because it’s been neglected by the town.”
Pisha suggested that some of the materials of the historical society might be better organized and displayed, but Whalen that is was not their place to tell the historical society how to operate.
Jonynas said that it was important to work with the historical society, and the Selectboard agreed to put the subject on the Feb. 5 agenda so they could involve the historical society, and the discussions could go from there.
In other town news, Julie Hance has been appointed as assistant town manager and the Selectboard approved Amanda Silva as the health officer.
The next Chester Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at the Chester Town Office.