SACO – The Saco City Council has yet to agree on a bottom line for the proposed new municipal budget, and city leaders are now hoping the public can help them decide on the appropriate level of spending.
As proposed by City Administrator Rick Michaud, the budget totals nearly $23.4 million, which is an increase of $1.2 million from this year’s spending package of almost $22.3 million.
The goal of the new budget is to maintain services and staffing levels, according to both Michaud and Mayor Mark Johnston, although it also includes more than $1 million for capital projects and one new position at the police department.
If the council were to adopt the budget without making any changes, it would add 41 cents to the tax rate, which would bring it to $18.71 per $1,000 of valuation.
That rate, however, does not include the $45.1 million Regional School Unit 23 budget, which residents in Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach will vote on in June, or the $1.1 million in county taxes.
Residents will get a chance to weigh in on the budget during a public hearing scheduled for Monday, May 6, at 7 p.m., at City Hall.
Meanwhile, the group Saco Citizens for Sensible Taxes is holding a public meeting on Thursday, April 25, at 7 p.m., also at City Hall.
The taxpayers group is encouraging people to attend the upcoming public hearing and also plans to take its own budget proposals to the City Council for consideration.
The group has now met with all the department heads and reviewed the line-item budgets, according to the chairman, Chris Denton. It has also has gotten a complete overview of the budget and how it’s put together.
The taxpayers group formed last fall after residents experienced an 18 percent increase in their taxes in the current fiscal year, including both municipal and school spending.
The mission of Saco Citizens for Sensible Taxes, according to both Denton and Mary Pelkey, the founder and secretary of the group, is to make sure the city’s elected officials are fiscally responsible and to encourage more public input and awareness of the annual budgeting process.
In a prior interview, Denton said his group is “dedicated to collaboration and cooperation in any and all interactions. By adhering to these standards, we strive to encourage involvement, promote accountability and strengthen Saco’s representational government.”
“Citizen groups like this are critical to well-run government,” he added. “While our elected and appointed officials have an obligation to represent us, they can’t do so without hearing from us.”
In a recent guest column published in the Sun Chronicle, Pelkey said, “We feel during these difficult economic times, we must assess our priorities, focus on necessities and communicate these to the city in a unified voice.”
In the same column, Pelkey acknowledged that it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, but she also reminded Saco residents that the combined municipal and school budget “affects each and every member of this community.”
“Your presence can go a long way in cutting our tax burden,” she added. “If we do not get involved, we could be facing another large increase in next year’s taxes.”
Johnston, the mayor, said this week that the council has yet to reach a consensus on the level of municipal spending for the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1, despite holding a couple budget workshops in recent weeks.
He said some on the council are arguing for no increase to the tax rate, while others are willing to consider some type of increase in order to maintain services.
Johnston said that’s why it’s so important for the council to hear from the public about what it wants.
“We are moving slowly and this budget is still a working document, but we want the public to weigh in and tell us what they want,” he said. “I want to ensure that services are not affected, but I am (also) willing to listen.”