WESTBROOK – While Westbrook’s proposed $23.131 million municipal budget for 2013-14 shows a slight overall decrease in operating costs, it is likely that residents would see a hike in taxes anyway.
The city’s Finance Committee completed its review Monday of department requests for funds. The panel won’t meet again until April 8, when items on the revisit list – like gym equipment in the public safety building, and stipends for boards and committee members – are reviewed, along with an overview of where the school budget stands. The school budget review will not be completed by the April 8 meeting.
Between the proposed 8 percent increase in the school department budget, the possibility of a $1.5 million or more loss in revenue to the city under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget and a 5.8 percent increase in the Cumberland County tax bill to the city, Westbrook residents could see a significant hike in taxes.
The tax bill would increase by $98.90 per year for a home assessed at $190,000 or $17.92 per $1,000 in assessed home value.
This year’s municipal budget is $23.134 million, with a tax rate of $17.40 per $1,000 in assessed home value, 3 percent less than the proposed budget.
“I fully support the continuation and growth of quality county, municipal and educational services for our community. I also recognize that sustaining such service levels requires continual investment in the people, facilities and equipment that are necessary to provide essential community services; however, single year tax and spending increases of 5.8 percent and 8 percent are unsustainable and unmanageable for many of our taxpayers,” said Mayor Colleen Hilton in her unveiling of the proposed budget.
Hilton and City Administrator Jerre Bryant discussed the general financial plan during the Finance Committee meeting Monday, which showed a $3,400 cut in expenditures and a $154,000 increase in revenue on the municipal side. Taken alone, it would lower residents’ municipal taxes by 23 cents per $1,000.
“However, this thoughtfully crafted budget plan could change dramatically in the coming months,” Hilton said.
The decrease on the municipal side doesn’t negate the increase from the school and county. Taxes would still increase for residents by 2.99 percent, if there are no changes from the school spending plan and the governor’s plan to suspend state revenue sharing is not adopted.
Hilton referenced the proposed $33.3 million school budget, representing an 8 percent spending increase in the district, which equates to a 72 cent increase on the property tax rate. The Cumberland County tax bill, already issued to the city, is also increasing to 62 cents, a 5.8 percent gain.
LePage has proposed suspending revenue sharing to the cities and towns across Maine for the next two years. This would mean a loss to Westbrook of $1.45 million. He also proposed a cut in general assistance aid and taking the money that used to go to the municipalities from excise taxes, creating a $1.53 million loss in funds from the state.
Bryant said he did not think all of the changes would go into effect, but “if everything the governor proposes is implemented, that’s a game changer.”
The past three Finance Committee meetings, March 18, March 23 and March 25, have looked at the overall budget, line by line, for all departments under the municipal umbrella: Public Safety Building, Dispatch, Police, Fire/Rescue, Community Services, Library, Code Enforcement / Engineering, Building Maintenance, Public Services, Mayor, Assessing, Legal, Planning, Human Resources, Employee Benefits, Transit, Technology, City Clerk, and Finance.
Despite being last on the list, the finance department had one of the biggest changes, with a $250,000 increase from this year’s budget and a department restructuring.
According to Alicia Gardiner, comptroller, the increased budget is a result of shifting some of the expenses from the City Clerks’ department, which has decreased its budget by $141,000 as a part of the merger of the departments.
The new finance structure would have the city clerk spending part of her time working with Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations. Gardiner will oversee the seven positions in the department, including the tax collector, accounting clerks and the rest of the finance team.
The remaining net increase of $107,727 in the finance budget would come from hiring one new position, an accountant, as well as an increase in property insurance, insurance deductibles and one-time bank fees from switching banks earlier this year.
Along with the new position, the restructuring in the department replaces a customer service representative with an accounting position.
The department also used to split three positions with the school department, but after two years of trying to make the program work, both Gardiner and Bryant said it was time to cut ties.
“It has simply not worked. Over the past two years I’ve diverted significant resources from the city to the school because I wanted the consolidation to work,” Bryant said.
Bryant said it would cost the city approximately $75,000 to pick up the rest of the school’s portion of the previously split finance positions.
Gardiner said despite the effort from both sides, the difficulty for staff to know whom the final authority was on certain issues led to the program’s demise.
The Mayor’s Office budget is $430,000, a decrease of $30,000 from this year’s budget, which was achieved by reducing the contingency budget by $40,000. Hilton’s office also pays for any legal fees incurred by the city’s outsourced legal counsel at Jensen, Baird, Gardner and Henry. This year the legal budget held steady at $160,000. So far this year, legal services, including those incurred through the dispute centered on Pike Industries’ Spring Street quarry, have cost $87,000.
Other items the Finance Committee will revisit include the community center and a request to hire two new Public Services workers. There are two open positions in the department and the panel will discuss whether both of those positions are needed.
Council President Brendan Reilly asked about security issues at the former Wescott Junior High School.
“There are so many different clients that use that facility, we have young preschoolers, a lot of senior programs, and family services. With such a wide-open facility, we wanted to look at how effectively we can deal with an incident,” Bryant said.
On the whole, the news was good at the community center. Ten years ago, taxpayers were asked to contribute $433,000 to the general Community Service Department to fund many of the programs now offered at the building. This year, taxpayers are being asked to contribute $5,000 less, receiving nearly 10 times the amount of self-funded programs and a much larger facility to use.
Police and Fire/Rescue both had areas with significant increases to the budget. For police, it was the end of a three-year grant that funded two police officers, the domestic violence investigator and drug enforcement officer. A fourth year must be funded by the city.
While Capt. Tom Roth advocated for both positions and two more, Councilor John O’Hara said despite having the grant fund the officers for the first few years, the city was now left to cover their $97,000 salaries in the future.
“You’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said.
O’Hara also expressed hesitation in funding $20,000, a 2.25 percent increase, for the four crossing guards at the schools, saying he’d “like to do away with the crossing guard” at the middle school because their were numerous signs in the area to help direct traffic. The crossing guard salaries were put on the revisit list.
Fire/Rescue department heads asked for $250,000 for overtime costs. According to Public Safety Chief Michael Pardue, the department has been working with 11 to 16 people, nearly one-third of the department, out for injuries or sick leave during the year, skyrocketing their need for overtime hours. So far this year, nearly $343,000 has been spent on overtime.
The department is still in the process of negotiating a new labor contract with the city. Negotiations have been going on for nearly a year. Pardue and Bryant said while a variety of issues are still in the works, new staff hasn’t been hired during the negotiations, especially since part-time firefighters are now recognized in the same union as full-time firefighters, creating a new dynamic in the department. Bryant also said the department was looking at possibly restructuring the scheduling from a 24-hour work day to break it up into 12-hour days or another work period.
Also included on the revisit and more information lists was an EMS medical director, shared among four communities for $5,000, and $800 in foam to help fight fires and new fitness equipment in the Public Safety building.
“We’re trying not to come in with a budget that put things off. We’re stretching out maintenance and replacement cycles, but the problem is if you start stretching to far the maintenance and downtime cost money. We’re trying to balance that,” Bryant said.