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Town objects to increase in fee for Windham Regional Commission

VERNON—For Vermont Selectboards, the end of the calendar year brings talks to determine the town’s budget for the following fiscal year.

In Vernon, at their regular Nov. 21 Selectboard meeting, the Board reviewed the assessments the town pays to some of its service providers, including the Windham Regional Commission.

But one Board member expressed alarm at this year’s rate increase.

When Board members discussed the fees the town will pay the Commission for fiscal year 2018, Steve Skibniowsky complained about the 20 percent rise. Last year’s assessment was $4,123; this year’s is $4,914.

“That’s a hefty increase,” Skibniowsky said. “Personally, I think that it’s really not called for, given that we aren’t getting ... a 20 percent increase in services, or even 15 percent.”

There was no discussion from the Board on why the Commission raised its fees, or what services it provides to the town.

But the Selectboard did have that information.

In a letter that Commission Executive Director Chris Campany sent to officials in all of the 27 towns it serves in Windham, Bennington, and Windsor counties — including Vernon — he noted the increase of “$1.88 per capita for [fiscal year] 2017 to $2.25 per capita for [fiscal year] 2018,” adding, the “per capita rate is the same for all towns.”

According to Campany, “The letter was emailed to the Selectboard Chair, Planning Commission Chair, and their WRC Commissioners on November 9th, and a hard copy was sent to the town as well.”

In the letter, Campany explained why the Commission is raising its fees for fiscal year 2018.

“Since the 1990s we have tied any increase in assessments to the consumer price index to keep up with inflation. As you may recall there was no increase for fiscal years 2016 and 2017... and it is our expectation and intent that after this year we will resume tying future increases to the CPI,” Campany wrote.

In the letter, Campany reminded town officials that for decades, the Commission has “buffered our towns from fluctuations in our funding from the state and other sources, as well as increases in our operating costs,” and, “[even] with this increase, we are continuing to do so.”

He mentioned that state cuts in funding for regional planning commissions from 2008 to 2011 “have yet to be restored.”

“Basic operating costs have, however, continued to increase in spite of our best efforts to control them while avoiding a reduction in service to our towns,” Campany wrote, but, “with stagnant and declining income in real dollars, we have run a deficit for the last two years. We cannot afford to do so again.”

For a state like Vermont, which has no county government, the Commission says it serves as the public entity that provides “the essential link between local, state, and federal government.”

In a follow-up email with The Commons, Campany further explained the fiscal relationship between the Commission, the towns, the state, and other entities.

“Virtually all of the Windham Regional Commission’s revenue sources are tied to contracts with scopes of work, guidelines and/or performance measures. This means that the WRC has limited control over how it chooses to use the vast majority of its funding,” he wrote.

The assessments the Commission receives from its member towns, like Vernon, are “the exception, which makes this funding stream particularly important because it gives us the greatest latitude to respond to WRC-identified needs in the region,” Campany said.

These town fees partly make up the matching funds required by grantors, he noted.

“The grants we receive enable us to work with our towns on areas such as transportation, emergency planning, community development, brownfields redevelopment, energy, and natural resources,” Campany said.

“For the 2017 fiscal year, the WRC’s total budget of approximately $1.4 million ... is derived from 70 percent regional project grant funding, 4 percent town technical assistance funding, 19 percent state performance contract funding, and 7 percent from town assessments. This make-up of our revenue stream is pretty typical,” Campany told The Commons.

Although no member of the Selectboard mentioned Campany’s letter, one town official spoke up.

The Commission “staff was a huge help when I was writing the municipal planning grant,” Town Administrator Michelle Pong said, “and I hope to use those services again.”

When Skibniowsky asked Pong if the Commission billed the town for those services, she assured him they had not.

“Well, that’s a positive,” Skibniowsky said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #387 (Wednesday, December 14, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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