SCARBOROUGH – Scarborough councilors praised the $76.8 million municipal budget unveiled by Town Manager Tom Hall Wednesday night, even as they vilified the portion prepared by school Superintendent George Entwistle, which by itself includes a 10.6 percent increase.
“I will not support that kind of increase on the school side,” said Chairman Ron Ahlquist. “They’re going to have to figure out something better."
“I have a very tough time swallowing this pill,” agreed Councilor Richard Sullivan. “There’s no way I’m going to support that.
Although they have not foreshadowed a vote, as Ahlquist and Sullivan did, councilors Jim Benedict, Ed Blaise and Jessica Holbrook have also all expressed frustration with school spending, making it appear likely that a showdown on the bottom line is looming.
In January, the council put a 3 percent cap on new spending, and Hall’s municipal budget, up $459,189 (or 1.6 percent) to $29.54 million, more than cleared that bar.
However, the school budget, approved last week in a first reading by the school board, is up $3.96 million to $41.37 million.
Meanwhile, the tax bill owed to Cumberland County, over which the council has no control, is up $118,630 (5.7 percent), to $2.19 million. In addition, borrowing for capital improvement projects and equipment purchases has dropped 5.8 percent to $3.65 million.
That fixes the total budget increase at $4.31 million – 91.8 percent of it from school spending – for a total budget to run the town from July 1 to June 30, 2014, of $76,759,160.
Less projected revenue, and assuming a $15 million increase to property valuation across Scarborough at the April 1 commitment date for taxes, the amount of the budget to be raised from property taxes becomes $56,705,801. That increases the property tax rate $1.75, to $15.55 per $1,000 of assessed value. In other words, said Hall, the median single-family home in Scarborough, assessed at $300,000, can expect a tax hike of $525, good for $4,665 due to the town office.
The largest increases in Hall’s budget, by dollar amount, are to the fire department, up $179,022 (4.8 percent) to $3.92 million, the police department, up $164,685 (3.2 percent) to $5.24 million, information technology, up $151,318 (19.1 percent) to $942,183, the planning department, up $107,907 (13.6 percent) to $900,156, and administration, up $103,825 (5.2 percent) to $2.1 million.
One department, public works, is actually projected to have a lower budget, which won praise from councilors for Director Mike Shaw. Although Hall expects to borrow up to $340,000 to buy two new plow trucks next year, Shaw’s operating budget is down $145,693 (2.2 percent) to $6.33 million.
Annual debt service also will be a smaller expense next year, with payments projected to be down $248,692 (5.3 percent) to $44.48 million.
Meanwhile, Hall acknowledged that his budget reflects few of the hits taxpayers could feel before the final vote in May.
Like Scarborough, municipalities across the state are crafting budgets with a number of balls in the air, all of which could fall almost anywhere depending on which side wins the biennium budget battle being waged in Augusta.
Hall said the first draft of his budget only includes the potential impact from one area proposed for a haircut by Gov. Paul Lepage – a transfer of commercial excise taxes from towns to the state. That, said Hall, could cost Scarborough $170,000. Hall has not yet included cuts to state revenue sharing, homestead exemption discounts or the business equipment tax rebate program.
“I think this one has the greatest potential impact of going through,” he said. “I’ve been in Maine long enough to understand that it’s a numbers game. Revenue sharing touches every community in Maine, some more than others, but everyone. That seems to be a loser based on the legislators I’m talking to."
However, Hall noted that “half of the statewide hit” from the proposed excise tax shift affects just 10 of Maine’s 491 organized municipalities.
“This one, just because there’s so few of us affected, stands a better chance of getting through the legislative process,” he said of the excise tax proposal.
The Town Council Finance Committee will entertain presentations from department heads on individual line items on March 26 (public safety, planning, finance and assessing), April 2 (public works, the library, economic development and administration) and April 9 (community services and education), with a final review April 16. The full council will conduct its first official reading of budget on Wednesday, April 3, followed by a public hearing April 10, a workshop session April 24 and a final reading and vote on May 1.
There also will be a joint school board/Town Council workshop on April 10, while the school board has scheduled an all-day budget workshop on Saturday, March 30 with a final vote at a special meeting on April 22.
Once the council sets the bottom line on the school budget, a public validation vote will be held on Tuesday, May 14.