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Town and Village

Administrative expenses projected to hold steady

But town faces 13-percent rise in risk-management insurance expenses — ‘a nasty hit,’ town manager says

BRATTLEBORO—Expenses for the town’s administrative operations in the next fiscal year are holding fairly steady, with few surprises.

The Selectboard and Town Manager Peter Elwell continue to work on the proposed fiscal year 2020 budget in their weekly meetings.

At the Dec. 11 special Selectboard meeting, the group went over expenditures and revenues for many of the town’s administrative departments, such as the town manager, finance, town attorney, and town clerk’s offices.

Town Manager: In the town manager’s office budget, “The only thing that’s changing there is the compensation” for the staff, which will go up 2 percent in FY20, said Town Manager Peter B. Elwell.

That covers the salaries for him, his two employees, and the human resources director.

The latter position remains unfilled, and Elwell said “we’ll try again in the new year.” Otherwise, “everything is level-funded,” for a proposed cost of $307,351, he said.

Finance department: Proposed expenses are down 0.3 percent, even with a raise in the “Vacation buyback — retirement pay” line item to cover an employee who is retiring in the next year.

Elwell noted that office will see $15,000 in savings in FY20 because the town is switching to an automated payroll system, which will cost less and provide better service.

The implementation should be finished soon, said Elwell.

Town Attorney: Robert Fisher, the town attorney, will get a Selectboard-approved 2-percent raise on his retainer if the budget is passed, bringing the total expenses for this section to $114,200.

Retaining Fisher means the town gets “all the services that we need,” including two afternoons per week of office hours in the municipal center and “an unlimited amount of representation,” said Elwell.

Town Clerk: The proposed budget for the town clerk’s office shows some variation, a quality that Elwell explained is typical for this department.

The FY19 budget, for example, shows higher election-related costs because of the work involved in administrating the midterm elections. These elections won’t occur in FY20, so election-related costs are projected to be lower.

But, Elwell explained, in “off years,” the town clerk staff performs restoration on the sometimes-centuries-old public records that the town is legally required to maintain.

Thus, the expenses for this department are almost level-funded except for the 2.4-percent increase, which is mostly due to employee compensation.

General Services’s proposed expenses are up almost 10 percent and include a new line item, “IT Salaries,” to fund a one-day-per-week information technology staff person at $7,800.

Elwell explained this employee already works for the Brooks Memorial Library and is highly skilled in IT. He will remain at the library four days per week.

Additional town-wide staff training on subjects like anti-harassment and implicit bias will cost $5,000 more in FY20 if this portion of the budget passes.

Insurance: Risk management — workers’ compensation, general liability, and the like — will go up 13 percent, in what Elwell describes as “a nasty hit.”

Workers’ compensation costs have been a continuing problem, Elwell said, and he and his staff are “making efforts to bring [it] under control” by improving safety procedures, and actively managing claims when town employees suffer work-related injuries.

He hopes to bring this number down, he said.

General liability insurance will go up by 22 percent this year because of a “hardening market,” said Elwell, and because the town has new police and fire facilities.

Benefits: a big bite of the budget

Health insurance and related expenses for town staff caused a notable increase in the “Benefits” section of the budget. Although the section saw some savings overall, those expenses are up by just under 8 percent.

Selectboard member Tim Wessel pointed out that the budgeted expenses for benefits, at almost $3.29 million, is more than 18 percent of the total proposed budget.

Discussion ensued between board members and Elwell about how such benefits expenses are typical for many businesses and municipalities, and some wished more funding and support would come from the state and federal levels.

“People should think about that,” said Wessel.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #492 (Wednesday, January 9, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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