AUGUSTA — City councilors approved an approximately $54.9 million budget expected to increase property taxes by 3.9 percent.
Councilors Thursday debated the merits of three budget scenarios, each initially preferred by at least two councilors, all of which would result in tax increases ranging from 3.3 percent to 4.4 percent.
Ultimately, councilors voted 5-2 to approve the scenario projected to increase taxes by 3.9 percent.
It is expected to increase the tax rate from $18.67 per $1,000 of property value to $19.40. That means the taxes on a $100,000 home would increase to $1,940.
City Manager William Bridgeo’s initial $55.1 million city and school budget submission to councilors would have resulted in a 5.4 percent tax increase. That same basic budget was pared with a series of budget adjustments to a 4.4 percent increase. However, councilors went with Ward 2 Councilor Darek Grant’s motion to cut that budget by $100,000.
The $100,000 in cuts include $20,000 in supplies and equipment from the Fire Department, $20,000 in savings in the Police Department because two proposed new detective positions likely won’t be filled until a couple of months into the fiscal year, $20,500 from public works by reducing asphalt crushing and reclamation, and $24,500 in savings from reducing tipping fees at Hatch Hill landfill for waste brought there by public works.
Grant’s proposal also will take an additional $60,000 from the city’s fund balance, an account made up primarily of money unspent in previous years, to help reduce taxes.
At-large Councilor Jeffrey Bilodeau and Ward 4 Councilor Anna Blodgett voted against the budget.
Bilodeau noted he felt none of the proposals were irresponsible, but he wanted to take the $225,000 the proposal which passed will put toward capital improvements, such as road work, and instead use it to reduce taxes.
Bilodeau and Blodgett proposed to make the same $100,000 in cuts as Grant’s proposal. In addition they wanted to use $225,000 in savings from the city’s recent refinancing of employee pension debt as part of the financing package to pay for the renovation and expansion of the Lithgow Public Library to lower taxes. That would have lowered the property tax increase to just under 3.3 percent.
Bridgeo’s initial budget proposal would have used that $225,000 in savings from refinancing existing employee pension debt to help fund unspecified one-time future capital improvement projects, which generally include items such as paving and major building improvements. Bilodeau said those funds should instead be used to reduce taxes.
Ward 3 Councilor Patrick Paradis, noting the city next year will likely receive up to $275,000 less in excise tax revenues from Central Maine Power due to a change in state law, will likely get less revenue sharing from the state, and could be faced with a more than $300,000 increase in its county taxes if the state makes a proposed change in how county jails are funded, warned councilors that they should follow the advice of city staff and not use the $225,000 in pension savings to lower taxes. He said doing so would create a hole in the budget next year and require taxes to be increased to fill that hole because that same $225,000 won’t be available to reduce taxes again next year.
Councilors voted 5-2 against Bilodeau’s amendment.
Several councilors said the city has to raise taxes in large part due to cuts in state funding.
The budget includes $130,000 in funding to hire two more police detectives to help fight crime stemming from drug abuse.
Fighting drug abuse, and specifically eliminating heroin, was identified by councilors as one of their major goals for the year.
The police department has four detectives now.
“This budget puts two officers in place to address the growing heroin problem we have in the city,” At-Large Councilor Cecil Munson said. “We have to be responsible and address it and try to stop it. Or at least try to slow it down.”
The two detective positions are among five new employee positions included in the budget. Two of the others, both firefighter jobs, have no adverse effect on the budget because they would be funded by money that this year was budgeted for overtime costs in the department, Bridgeo said. The fifth position is that of a public works employee. The public works laborer position carries salary and benefits of about $40,000.
The Board of Education approved a $27.9 million school budget March 25, a 2.7 percent increase from the previous year. That budget was also approved by councilors Thursday as part of the total budget.
The school budget will be funded in part by $12.7 million from local property taxes, $799,000 more than the previous year, a 6.5 percent increase.
The school budget will go to voters in a citywide referendum on June 9. The city budget needs only council approval.