Keene preliminary budget is under cap

KEENE — If approved, Keene’s preliminary budget would be under the state tax cap, according to town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr.

The town has proposed a $1,255,455 general fund spending plan for 2020 — which includes employee pay and benefits, debt payments and money for things like parks and recreation, public safety, sidewalk repair and the Garden hiker shuttle — with a tax levy of $906,505, a 3.8% increase. The rest would be funded by $332,950 in revenue from things like fees, fines and state aid and $16,000 from the town’s reserves.

Wilson said the town’s general fund won’t be impacted by any major projects next year, though the town is continuing to tackle capital improvements in the water districts.

The town plans to contribute $6,365 to the operation of the Keene Valley Library, a slight decrease from last year’s $7,000 contribution. Taxpayers would contribute $51,152 — $2,250 less — toward Keene Public Library’s projected $54,802 spending plan next year.

The town isn’t planning on making any significant cuts, Wilson said. Spending is projected to increase by $50,827 next year over this year.

“This year we didn’t make any significant cuts but I can see that coming down the road with the increases in health and retiree costs,” Wilson said.

Employee benefit costs for the town are expected to increase by $42,485, from $261,297 this year to $303,782 next year.

Wilson said the tax levy increase allowable without blowing the state tax cap was “eaten up” by the increasing cost of benefits, and there are few tools for local governments to use to control some of these costs that are somewhat out of their control.

As a small town with limited bargaining power, there’s not much the town can do, according to Wilson.

“There’s only so many years you can sustain that. We need to address how we’re going to stay under the tax cap,” he said.

The town hopes to save some money next year by returning the shuttle between Marcy Field and the Garden trailhead to its original schedule before the Garden parking area was closed due to the replacement of the Johns Brook Bridge, according to Wilson.

By the time the shuttle stopped service for the season, the town spent $39,739 on the service, $18,109 more than the budgeted cost of running the shuttle seven days a week during the spring and summer. The money spent beyond what was budgeted came from the town’s contingency fund and reserves, Wilson said.

“We knew we would lose money on the shuttle,” he said. “We really did spend a lot of money running it.”

Copies of the town’s preliminary 2020 budget are available at the Keene Town Hall. A public hearing on the budget is slated for tonight, Nov. 7, at 6 p.m. in the town hall.