MONTPELIER — Pressure is mounting for officials to address a proposed state highway maintenance budget cut that could severely impact local municipalities and increase pressure to raise the property tax rate or impose new taxes — steps Gov. Phil Scott has steadfastly opposed in the past.
Matters are likely to come to a head Thursday at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Transportation Committees at the State House when a five-year, 4-cent gas tax increase proposed by Rep. Kari Dolan, D-Waitsfield, to fund municipal road programs will be discussed. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns will also host Local Government Day, when many municipal officials will be at the State House to meet with legislators to discuss budget priorities.
The Scott administration recently proposed a $6.6 million decrease in the allocation for combined town highway programs, resulting in $62.7 in fiscal year 2020. The near-10 percent cut would hurt mandated municipal stormwater upgrades aimed at improving water quality, despite Scott’s new clean water initiative. Overall town highway maintenance programs have remained stagnant for years despite crumbling infrastructure. Meanwhile, many municipalities reported busting budgets this year for winter road maintenance costs that will fall on residents as higher property tax increases without more state aid. An early start to winter and more frequent, severe storms as a result of climate change is likely to add to costs in the future, officials said.
Susan Scribner, a municipal assistance bureau director with the Agency of Transportation, confirmed a $6.154 million proposed cut to the Municipal Mitigation Program that funds stormwater system upgrades aimed at reducing combined sewer overflows into rivers and lakes during high precipitation.
But Scribner noted that funding for the programs was increased from $440,000 in 2016 to just over $9 million in 2018 and 2019 before being cut back to a proposed $2.9 million in fiscal year 2020. Overall spending for transportation would actually increase, she added, from $610.88 million in FY19 to $617.546 million in FY20, an increase of $6.66 million.
In Washington County, many cities and towns reported overspending road maintenance budgets this year, with winter only half over.
Montpelier officials said the city budgeted $155,000 for salt before a price increase of nearly $10 a ton this winter reduced budget buying power to $141,000. As of Monday, the city had spent $195,000 on salt and is projected to spend a total of $215,000, a 35 percent to 40 percent increase for the year, said Tom McArdle, public works director. Sand would only cost between $3,000 to $5,000 this year, he added.
McArdle said the bigger problem for the city was the stagnant highway maintenance funds, particularly for Class 2 roads that connect larger municipalities with smaller outlying districts, with deferred maintenance costs and rising prices for labor, materials and equipment being passed on to taxpayers.
He said a better way to fund stormwater upgrades would be to charge a fee for commercial and residential development, based on the area of impervious surface that causes stormwater problems.
Barre City has already spent nearly all of its $180,000 for salt this year and about $7,000 on sand, said City Manager Steve McKenzie, adding that costs were expected to increase 20 to 25 percent next year.
“We’re projecting that our budget will be 120 to 125 percent over budget, so we’ll be over between $35,000 and $40,000 on the year,” said Bill Ahern, director of public works and engineering in Barre.
Ahern said much of the cost for stormwater system upgrades would come from property tax increases under the governor’s proposed highway fund cut.
“The city is struggling with maintaining its infrastructure and the stormwater rules are requiring us to increase our expenditures,” Ahern said. “So, the grants that assist with improving our stormwater infrastructure are essential.”
In Rutland, the city is actually faring well on winter road maintenance costs, said Jeff Wennberg, commissioner of public works. He said the city had budgeted $255,000 for salt this year, but only spent $146,000, or 57 percent of the budget. Similarly, he said the city budgeted $88,000 for overtime but only spent $49,000, or 55 percent of the budget. But he warned that the region has traditionally suffered several late winter storms into March that could eat up existing funds.
Wennberg noted that 90 percent of downtown Rutland is developed, placing a burden on the combined sewer overflow (CSO) system that the city is obligated to upgrade to improve water quality.
“The question is, is it transportation funds that are required and maintained?” he said. “If these things have to be done and the state isn’t funding them through transportation or the General Fund, municipalities have to increase property taxes or sewer fees.”
In Rutland Town, Road Commissioner Byron Hathaway said the town is within the budgeted $126,500 for mostly salt and some sand, but has already spent $110,000 for equipment costs, which are expected to rise soon because of new pricing for contract services.
In Clarendon, Select Board member and Road Commissioner Cash Ruane noted that an early start to winter storms was “the kicker” for the town budget of $70,000 for salt, with spending already reaching $82,000, and a sand budget of $30,000 reaching $50,000 so far.