SANFORD – The Sanford Budget Committee completed its inaugural year of work by giving its final budget recommendations to the City Council Tuesday night. But with uncertainty reigning on some issues, the council will sit on the proposals until the April 30 meeting.
Budget Committee Chairman Robert Stackpole and Vice Chairman Tom Cote presented the committee’s final FY 2014 recommendation for a combined school and municipal budget of $57,598,983, an increase of $967,112 from this year. The recommended school budget stands at $34,634,176, while the municipal side is $20,708,351. Both budgets are seeing an increase of roughly $430,000.
That equates to a 3.5 percent bump in property taxes, meeting the goal approved by the committee at its final meeting on April 11.
“At the beginning of this process,” Cote said, “we indicated to the city and school that we felt that a tax rate increase between 2.5 and 3.5 percent is something the taxpayers would at least be willing to discuss.”
In the weeks leading up to the final presentation, the committee asked the city and school to detail potential reductions, first aimed at a 5 percent tax rate increase and then dropped to a 2.5 percent increase, which some argued was too little.
“Reductions made to reach 2.5 percent (increase) would have been too severe,” Stackpole said Tuesday, on why the committee settled on 3.5 percent.
Cote said the committee had difficulty whittling down the initial $3.1 million in combined increase requests from the city and school into their final recommendation. Members felt that initial spending plan was far too high, especially given the 9.7 tax rate increase in this year’s budget.
“If we had just passed this along to the taxpayers and said, ‘This looks great,’ it would have been an 11.2 percent increase in property taxes,” Cote said. “We felt that based on last year’s increase, this wasn’t a reasonable request, and we needed to go back and see where we could create some savings. The challenge was deep.”
Adding to that challenge, according to Councilor Brad Littlefield, were the cuts made in the two budgets previous to last year. Two years ago, the budget increased tax rates 2.6 percent. The year before that, the rate went down 0.7 percent.
“When we have years at these low numbers, we’re not investing in our community, and we’re deferring maintenance, which catches up to us,” he said. “This is why property taxes were raised by 9.7 percent last year.”
According to Littlefield, Sanford’s tax base is made up of 80 percent residential taxpayers and 40 percent commercial, compared to surrounding municipalities such as Biddeford, where 60 percent of the tax base is residential.
Sanford, like other municipalities, has been formulating its budget not knowing how the state budget will handle revenue sharing, which Gov. Paul LePage has proposed eliminating in the next two-year cycle. Stackpole said in addition to that uncertainty, Sanford is dealing with other, homegrown revenue issues.
“We must recognize that Sanford has a serious revenue problem,” he said. “Every person holding office, every person employed by this community, and every member of this community must recognize and respond to the urgent need to raise this community’s revenue stream.”
Stackpole also made clear that a budget with no increase in taxation is no longer achievable.
“We’ve passed the tipping point,” he said. “We’re now in a cycle of higher taxes for fewer services. You pay more and get less.”
Councilor Alan Walsh questioned the committee’s decision to flat-fund the city’s donations to outside agencies such as the Sanford Downtown Legacy or the Veteran’s Committee, especially when some city department heads are forgoing raises. When the committee originally moved toward a 2.5 percent tax increase, funding for most outside agencies was cut to zero, but at the final budget meeting representatives from many of those agencies successfully pleaded with the committee to keep funding levels the same as this year.
Littlefield, who served on the budget committee, said the group’s decision was based not only on what these agencies provide for their community, but also because many of them play key roles in the city’s commercial sector.
Concern for the cost of Sanford’s WSSR-TV studio was also brought to light, stemming from a dispute regarding which budget, school or city, would cover the funds. Mayor Maura Herlihy made it clear that a decision on funding WSSR-TV will have to be made during the next meeting. She believes the council will have to vote to either cut funding in half, fund the station completely, or cut it completely.
According to City Manager Steven Buck, the council must take a vote on the budget by Friday, May 3.