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Norwich Raises Raised as Issue

  • Robert Parker speaks to residents during Town Meeting in Tracy Hall on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt. Parker is on the cemetery commission in town. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Robert Parker speaks to residents during Town Meeting in Tracy Hall on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt. Parker is on the cemetery commission in town.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Nick Krembs looks over information during Town Meeting on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Nick Krembs looks over information during Town Meeting on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Robert Parker speaks to residents during Town Meeting in Tracy Hall on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt. Parker is on the cemetery commission in town. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Nick Krembs looks over information during Town Meeting on March, 3, 2014, in Norwich, Vt. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

Norwich — The vice chairwoman of the Selectboard on Monday night urged residents to vote down the town’s budget, citing salary raises for department heads that range from 3 percent to 8 percent.

Last year, Linda Cook opposed much larger salary increases — as much as 27 percent — for department heads .

While this year’s proposed increases are much smaller, Cook remained opposed. She was the only Selectboard member to vote against the budget, 4-1, during budget preparations.

“I’d like to ask you to vote no on our budget because in two years, we’ve given a 26 percent salary increase to people, and I believe most of you haven’t seen that type of increase,” Cook said, standing in front of the 100 residents in attendance at Tracy Hall.

Her comments came after Selectman Christopher Ashley voiced support for the budget, including the raises, during the discussion phase of Town Meeting.

Ashley spoke of the town’s “human infrastructure.”

“When we talk about salaries, you can always find reasons why you think we pay people too much or we pay people too little,” Ashley said. “And then you try to find the balance. ... I think they are unbalanced and that’s why I supported that.”

No formal action was taken Monday night. Voting for the Norwich town and school budgets will take place by Australian ballot from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today at Tracy Hall.

Cook said she doesn’t think the town should compare department head salaries to those in towns such as Hanover, Lebanon and Hartford because those communities are larger. She encouraged residents to look at the salary line items in the budget and consider recent increases.

The higher salaries in the current year’s budget were added after the town hired a consultant to evaluate the salaries of non-bargaining unit employees.

After the meeting, Selectboard Chairman Steve Flanders said the increases in the proposed budget are based on job performance, comparative value to the overall organization and how much it would cost to replace workers if they were to retire or leave.

Town Manager Neil Fulton added after the meeting that he’s not trying to compare Norwich employees with those in other towns, but he is trying to provide internal equity among Norwich employees. He added that the increases are based on a cost-of-living adjustment, as well as performance step increases.

Raises aren’t a guarantee, but Fulton said he wanted to make sure sufficient funds were available in the budget if he chooses to increase employees’ salaries.

Overall, the proposed $4.2 million town budget is up 3.3 percent, or nearly $133,000 more than the current year’s budget. If all articles pass, the property tax rate is estimated to increase to 52 cents per $100 of valuation.

Owners of a $400,000 home would see their municipal tax bill increase from $1,965 to about $2,080.

When it came time for questions about the budget, there were none, except one woman who said she thought the salary increases were too high and she suggested a 2 percent increase instead.

When asked why he thought there were so few questions about the budget, especially after last year’s meeting was nearly an hour and a half longer than this year’s, Flanders said, “I find that when there’s lot’s of questions, it usually means there are concerns. So I take the lack of questions as a sign of comfort with the budget.”

The School Board took to the floor following the town’s presentation, and with that, about half the room cleared out. Again, there were very few questions.

School Board member Anne Day presented the $5.4 million school budget, which is up 3.8 percent, mostly due to rising special education costs and an additional teacher.

School Board officials blamed the 6 percent education tax rate mostly on the statewide education tax, which is expected to increase about 7 cents.

Norwich’s total education property tax rate is estimated to increase about 10 cents to $1.84 per $100 of assessed value.

A $400,000 home would see a school tax bill of about $7,360, an increase of $420.

Day pointed out that Marion Cross School ranks 137th out of 212 elementary schools when it comes to cost per pupil. The average state cost per pupil is $11,017, and Norwich’s average per-pupil cost is below that at $10,485.

After the meeting had ended and Tracy Hall was almost empty, Norwich resident David Otto said he thinks residents had so few questions because the boards made clear presentations.

“They’ve learned,” said Fred Crawford, who was chatting with Otto after the meeting.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.