Alexandria OKs 2021 budget

ALEXANDRIA — After three public meetings regarding the 2021 town budget, including one two-hour long, extremely contentious public comment session, the town council voted to pass it, with some concessions.

The town will cut property taxes next year, charging residents $1.28683 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s down from 2020, when town residents paid $1.478159 per $1,000 of property value.

The average $100,000 property in Alexandria will have a tax bill of $128.68 in 2021. Altogether, the town is expecting to raise $784,410 of its $3.07 million budget from property taxes.

Alexandria Town Supervisor Brent H. Sweet said this year’s budget is “very conservative,” in light of the uncertainty around many lines of income the town usually relies on. The 2021 town budget is $1.2 million smaller than last year’s.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” he said. “If the same thing happens this upcoming year as happened last year, with lockdowns and so on, we’ll have to have a budget review session.”

Mr. Sweet said after pandemic lockdowns began in March, the town council had to call an emergency budget review session and adjust the budget to assume a 25% hit to sales tax revenue.

For 2021, the budget assumes about $550,058 in sales tax revenue, a 32% decrease from the 2020 budgeted amount. Mr. Sweet said the town wanted to be sure they projected income lower than what it may turn out to actually be. Recent sales tax checks have been about 13% lower than initially expected, so he said he hopes that 32% reduction will be enough to avoid a budget crisis further down the line.

“We need to be on the safe side,” Mr. Sweet said. “I don’t mean to not be optimistic about things getting better, but you see what’s going on right now, it seems like the governor is getting fairly close to shutting things down again, or reducing capacities.”

Many of the cuts made in this year’s budgets were small adjustments to individual account lines, diffusing the effects of the cuts. One major project, the planned purchase and refurbishment of the former Bonnie Castle Recreation Center on Route 12, did not occur in 2020, but the 2021 budget does not include any planned funding for the purchase.

“We’ve basically put that project on hold,” Mr. Sweet said. “We had an engineering firm go inspect the facility, and they came up with a few things that need to be corrected before we purchase it.”

This year’s budgeting process has been contentious. The initial budget plan called for two employees in the town’s highway department to be eliminated, essentially laying off two current town workers. The budget, as initially presented to the public, called for two part-time workers in the winter, to plow the roads. Mr. Sweet and Council Director of Finance Michael D. Fayette said during the first public meeting regarding the budget, held via Zoom on Nov. 5, the highway department for the town did not require 10 full-time staff members in the summers.

“Our budget has sufficient funding, just like every winter, for 10 people to plow snow in the wintertime,” Mr. Fayette said.

Mr. Sweet then asked Mr. Fayette what the staffing requirements in the summer are for the town highway department.

“We have four large dump(truck)s that require one driver, we have two mowers, which require one operator, that’s six (people), and then we have a full-time mechanic, that’s seven.” Mr. Fayette replied.

The highway department workers, Highway Superintendent Edward M. “Mike” Tibbles and members of the wider town community spoke up repeatedly in a public comment session, held in the municipal building on Nov. 12, decrying the decision to reduce staffing for the highway department.

“This is all a personal vendetta against this man,” said one woman who did not identify herself, as she pointed to Mr. Tibbles.

Another man, who only identified himself as the son of a former Alexandria town highway supervisor from the early 1970s, accused the board of holding a grudge against the highway supervisor and town clerk Jessy Hudon.

“Every time we turn around, the taxpayers seem to think, ‘What the hell is going on with our town?’” he said. “The kind of vendetta you have against Tibbles and Hudon, the taxpayers are sending you a message. Clean it up!”

The town council and the highway superintendent have been at odds for months, disagreeing first on whether the town should install cameras on the highway facility, and GPS devices on highway department vehicles. Most recently, members of the council and Mr. Tibbles have sparred over whether the highway superintendent should serve as an appointee of the council, rather than an elected official.

In a referendum vote Nov. 3, the town voters chose to keep the highway superintendent and town clerk positions as elected.

The Nov. 12 public comment session went on for more than an hour, with the council engaging in long conversations with members of the public, and highway department workers who attended the meeting. Other public concerns focused on the ability for the highway department to operate, especially in the winter months, with fewer staff members than it currently has. Council members reminded everyone they were allowing for the highway department to hire two part-time staff members in the winter, at a rate of $20 per hour.

As a result of the public’s input, the council reworked the budget to allow for the highway department to keep all current staff members employed, with a promise from Mr. Tibbles that when the first two of his staff retire or leave, he cannot refill those positions.

The budget was amended to put $67,365 of anticipated sales tax revenue into the highway staffing account to pay for the two additional staff members, a majority of which was taken from the highway maintenance accounts.

Many members of the town council disagreed with this compromise. While Deputy Supervisor Ronald G. Thomson was unable to attend or vote during the board’s final budget session this past Thursday, he submitted a comment expressing his views.

“My opinion has not changed, I am in favor of a budget with 7 (highway workers),” he wrote in an email read to the council by Councilwoman Sandra M. Caputo. “I would vote no for any budget that has a higher number, if I could have been in attendance tonight.”

Ms. Caputo agreed with Mr. Thomson, and said she believes Mr. Tibbles’ willingness to accept a cut to highway workers in the future indicates the board’s initial plan, to cut the department to seven staff members, plus Mr. Tibbles, and have two part-time workers in the winter, would have likely been workable.

“To me that was basically acknowledging that, in the summer, he doesn’t need that large of a workforce,” she said. “I would tend to agree with Ron. However, there has not been one citizen who has stepped up and publicly said, ‘I agree with the board, and I want to see these guys removed.’”

Ms. Caputo said, despite her personal views, she would vote to pass the budget, because she has heard no public support for cutting the two highway positions.

The board voted to adopt the amended version of the 2021 budget by 3-1, with Mr. Fayette voting no and Mr. Thomson being absent.

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