$7.5 Million in Borrowing on Hartford Agenda

Voting by Australian ballot will take place on March 4 at the Hartford High School gymnasium from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The annual floor meeting will be held on March 29 at 10 a.m. at the high school to transact all other Town Meeting business.

Hartford — Voters will be asked to approve $7.5 million in borrowing requests at Town Meeting to cover a shortfall in funds needed to complete the track and field at the high school, upgrade the White River School and make infrastructure improvements on Prospect Street.

Residents casting ballots will also be faced with increases in spending in both the town and school budgets. The Hartford School District budget proposes a 4.5 percent increase in total spending to $34.6 million, while the proposed town budget includes a 7.9 percent increase to $14.5 million.

On the up side, the $900,000 bond for design, engineering and improvements on Prospect Street in downtown White River Junction is not slated to affect the tax rate. The bond is expected to be paid back by revenues generated by a new office complex development, as the project sits in the town’s Tax Increment Financing district. Only if the development fails will residents be affected, Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster said.

“This year was extremely difficult and demoralizing,” Wooster said of the process of putting together the proposed town budget. The increase on the town side is driven largely by a spike in health insurance premiums and payments on previously approved bonds.

Wooster said five town positions were cut from the budget — though the majority were unfilled at the time — which brings staffing levels below 100 employees for the first time in decades.

“Any time you have to reduce the size of the staff it is demoralizing,” he said. “You take that, combine it with the health care and bond payments and suddenly it was really, really tough.”

Included in the proposed budget is $150,000 to continue the curbside recycling program through the end of fiscal year 2015, nearly $70,000 more to bolster the police and fire department overtime budgets, and $70,000 to keep the old road gra de r, instead of trading it in, to help better maintain dirt roads in town, said Selectman F.X. Flinn.

At $14.5 million, the proposed municipal budget, including social service agency requests also on the warning, is about $1.1 million more than the spending plan approved last year, with the amount to be raised by taxes increasing 8 percent to roughly $11.3 million.

The municipal portion of the tax rate is expected to rise 6.7 cents to 85 cents per $100 of assessed value. If approved, that means the owner of a $250,000 home would pay about $2,125 in municipal taxes.

On the school side, Superintendent Tom DeBalsi previously said a majority of the budget increase accounts for a rise in general operating expenses, including heating oil and diesel fuel for buses, a 4.5 percent increase in health insurance and salaries for two additional math teachers.

Despite the increases, DeBalsi said Hartford is in good shape compared with other Vermont school districts.

Voters who last year approved almost $14 million in bonds for recreational projects and renovations to Hartford’s Municipal Building will face two more bond requests on the school side, which total $6.6 million.

The School Board is seeking $3 million to cover a shortfall in funds needed to install a turf field and track at Hartford High School.

The school bonded $800,000 last year for the improvements, but the estimates came in over that amount — largely due to prep work that needs to be done under the field’s surface that wasn’t originally factored in. Also under the $3 million bond, officials hope to construct a field house with additional locker rooms near the town pool, Hartford schools Finance Director James Vezina said.

Board members are also seeking $3.6 million to cover a new heating system for the White River School, which is more than 100 years old. In addition, some of the money will go toward replacing the roof as well as flooring, bathroom and code-compliance upgrades.

At $34.6 million, the proposed total budget is roughly $1.5 million more than the one approved last year. General fund spending is expected to rise 5.4 percent, or $1.3 million, to $26.2 million.

If the school budget and both bonds are approved, the school portion of the tax rate is expected to increase 8.6 cents to more than $1.46 per $100 of assessed value, meaning owners of a $250,000 home would pay about $3,650 in school taxes if they don’t qualify for Vermont’s income sensitivity program. If only the school budget but not the school bonds are approved, the tax rate would increase by 5 cents per $100 of valuation, according to Vezina.

Six residents are vying for three Selectboard seats, which make up the only contested races on the ballot.

Former Selectman Richard “Dick” Grassi will square off against incumbent Flinn — who was elected two years ago as part of a slate of reform candidates — for a three-year seat on the board. With two incumbents stepping down, Matt Bucy, Luke Eastman, Sandra “Sandy” Mariotti and Susan Foster will battle for the other two seats, with the top two vote-getters joining the seven-member board.

On the School Board, retired Hartford High teacher Paul Keane is running for a seat now held by Jeff Arnold, who is not seeking re-election. Incumbent Peter Merrill is running unopposed.

Budget discussion and candidates night is scheduled for Monday, at 7 p.m., in the Hartford High School auditorium. Community day, where public hearings will be held as well as a candidates’ roundtable, is set for Saturday, March 1, at 10 a.m., at the high school.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcuddemi@v news.com or 603-727-3248.