Planning for revitalization - Town Plan, budgeting and Capital Program

Long story short, a Capital Program is just the start of a ten-year process that outlives the Town Plan from which it came.

Planning for revitalization - Town Plan, budgeting and Capital Program
Former store in North Thetford

Thetford is doing OK as a town, though some would say it could use a little TLC here and there. In North Thetford the store has been vacant for some years, the library is shuttered, and a car service garage on Main Street is up for sale. The store in Thetford Center is closed, and the auto repair garage is no more. The Town-owned Timothy Frost Building, a historic red-brick church, awaits re-purposing. The other villages, East Thetford, Thetford Hill, and Post Mills, are holding their own. However, there is an overall acute shortage of housing, and some rentals have been purchased by companies that raise the rents to force tenants out.

How to go about revitalizing a village, or two, is a big and complex topic. It starts with Planning, and certainly the Thetford Town Plan aspires to improve Thetford on many fronts. It lists among the goals and policies in the Economic Development section the goal of “An expanded commercial tax base without … strip development” and the policy “to encourage diverse and sustainable businesses that create jobs and contribute to the year-round, local mixed-use economy and village life.”

The Town Facilities section includes the policy “to optimize the use of (Town) facilities and correct under-utilization …”  and recommends: “build and maintain playground facilities for preschool-aged children and young families on the Thetford Center Green.” Also, “The Town should investigate funding for water mains in planned growth centers.”  

There are many aspirations under Housing — for instance the goal of “Safe, adequate, and energy-efficient housing for all ages” and the policy “to keep housing affordable by planning for … accessory apartments, multi-family dwellings, manufactured housing and clustered developments …. consistent with … the town’s village character and rural qualities.”

Well, “Rome was not built in a day,” and neither can new businesses or housing spring up in villages without some kind of impetus. Could some clues come from the neighboring Town of Fairlee that is undergoing a makeover?

Fairlee has a resource that Thetford doesn’t have: a staff member, Chris Brimmer, who works on economic development as well as planning and zoning. His advice to Thetford is that while the Town Plan provides the forward-looking foundation, it has to be supplemented with other things that give rise to action.

Nothing much happens without money. Therefore the first order of business is to come up with something called a Capital Program based on the Town Plan. Under Vermont statute Title 24 §4430, Non-regulatory implementation of the municipal plan, the Capital Program enables communities to plan for spending on large items that qualify as Capital Projects. This allows towns to chart out what they want to achieve and how to accumulate the funds for it.

Terminology is confusing, as there is also a Capital Budget defined in state law as “listing and describing the capital projects to be undertaken during the coming fiscal year.” Thus a capital budget is just for the next year.

A Capital Program plans for projects beyond the next year. In statute, it is “a plan of capital projects proposed to be undertaken during each of the following five years. It includes the estimated cost of those projects and the proposed method of financing.” Both Chris and the Regional Planning Commission advise that five years is an insufficient time frame for a Capital Program. Many capital expenses recur at a longer frequency, such as repair to buildings or vehicle purchase.

Thetford doesn’t have a Capital Plan, but it has been good at putting aside money for big recurring expenses in Major Capital Equipment Funds, namely the Police Capital Equipment Fund #301 ($32,000 in 2023) and the Public Works Capital Equipment Fund #304 ($132,61 in 2023).  Money in these funds is already earmarked for future replacement of expensive equipment like a police cruiser or a town truck.

“Non-major Capital Project” funds or reserve funds are also included in the annual town budget as line items. For example, the Town Hall Fund #308 received $7,500 in 2023; the Planning and Consulting Fund #314 received $4,000 in 2023; the (Highway) Structures Fund #310 received $10,000 in 2023. These monies might be spent in the upcoming year, but they are not earmarked for specific items. Any unspent money in these funds can accumulate as a restricted balance within the Town General Fund (or the Highway Fund) that can only be spent for the purpose under which that reserve fund was established. The various fund balances are tracked by the Treasurer. Carrying forward unspent reserve fund balances to the next year is a good practice because Vermont does not allow this procedure for unspent money in budget line items. That unspent money is rolled into the general fund. However, apart from Major Capital Equipment Funds, Thetford appears to lack a solid estimate of many of its expected costs in the next five or ten years.

VT statute says nothing about how to prepare a Capital Program, except that 24 V.S.A. § 4430 states that “The capital budget and program shall be arranged to indicate the order of priority of each capital project.” Also required are (1) A description of the proposed project and its estimated total cost; (2) A proposal for financing it by direct budgetary appropriation; spending from established reserve funds; funding from federal or state governments; impact fees; municipal borrowing, e.g. municipal bond; and (3) How the project will affect (or not) the operating costs of the municipality.

What qualifies as a capital project? Examples include large culverts, a new furnace, a new roof, a handicapped bathroom. Equipment that is expendable (non-repairable) or under $5,000 does not qualify. Examples include most computers, tires, road salt, a chair.

A good place to start thinking about a Capital Program is to take stock of a town or village and its features, which could include a road, a town common, a former church or a library building. What project would make this into a better community asset and how much would it cost?

And that is just the start of the long road to revitalization. A town can’t raise the money for a costly Capital Program by taxation alone. Chris Brimmer reported that Fairlee held numerous community forums to gather opinions and inform residents. Then they worked to obtain as many planning grants as possible, which bore fruit in surveys, studies, and other data about various aspects of the town. With this information, the town was eligible for state and other funding for capital projects, and their grant applications gained a competitive edge. Long story short, a Capital Program is just the start of a ten-year process that outlives the Town Plan from which it came.

Photo credit Li Shen

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