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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council will let residents decide whether Brunswick schools should join the Greater Sebago Alliance regional service center and also discussed funding for a property tax relief program.
Councilors voted 8-1 on Aug. 20 to put a referendum question on the November ballot asking voters if they want Brunswick schools to join the center that includes nine other districts. Councilor Jane Millett voted in opposition.
Finance Director Julia Henze presented the proposed tax assistance and rent rebate program aimed at those 70 and older to councilors, saying the Finance Committee has been working on the idea for over a year.
In her presentation to council, Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin said joining the Greater Sebago Education Alliance would allow Brunswick to save money by jointly purchasing food supplies and combining substitute recruiting and training, as well as teacher training.
It will also result in additional state subsidies for Brunswick schools – roughly $38,000 for fiscal year 2019. The DOE has promised to more than double the incentive the following year. It will cost the district $1,000 per year to remain a member.
Millett said she opposed the measure because she thought the town’s attorney should review the interlocal agreement before council approved the referendum question.
“It does sound like a really good deal and it sounds like something that we should do and we have been doing,” Millett said. “But this is different, this is a very legal formation of a unit, which is going to have some bureaucratic and some financial responsibilities along with it.”
The School Board unanimously voted to join the service center in May, the same month it was approved by the Department of Education. Because the Brunswick School Department is a municipal district, state statute requires the question be put to voters.
The service center includes public schools in Portland, South Portland, Westbrook, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, Gorham, School Administrative District 6 (Buxton, Hollis, Standish, Limington, Frye Island), Regional School Unit 14 (Windham, Raymond) and School Administrative District 15 (Gray, New Gloucester).
Only three members of the public spoke during the hearing, including Jean Powers, who was in support of the center.
“If it’s gonna save the taxpayers money, I’m all for it,” she said.
Henze told councilors Monday night the proposed Brunswick tax relief program is in its fifth draft and was designed to “piggyback” off the state Property Tax Fairness Credit Program.
In order to be eligible for the local program, applicants would already need to be enrolled in the state initiative. In addition, Brunswick’s proposed program would require renters or homeowners to be 70 or older and have lived in town for at least 10 years.
Homeowners will also have to be eligible for a Homestead Exemption for the year the rebate is requested, and have paid property taxes in full through the date of the application.
Brunswick’s program would be in effect for fiscal year 2020, making the deadline for applications Nov. 1, 2019. Council will also need to approve a final ordinance after a public hearing is held.
To draft the program, Henze said staff members from her department surveyed nearby communities that have a tax assistance program in place.
Henze also said there are three requirements residents must meet to participate, according to state statute: applicants must have a permanent residence in town, benefits must be offered to both homeowners and renters, and the program must be income-based.
Town staff found that in 2016, the state gave 236 credits to Brunswick residents 65 and older, at an average of $303, for a total of $71,508. Of those credits, 27 were renters and 209 were property owners.
Henze said a local fund would be created to receive money both through the annual budget process and from outside contributions.
By requiring applicants to already be enrolled in the state Property Tax Fairness credit program, Henze said the town is trying to “limit the amount of paperwork and duplication of effort.” The town would also be relying on the state program’s data to determine whether an applicant is eligible in terms of income limits.
Councilors Stephen Walker and James Mason both suggested the town consider not imposing an age limit.
Mason noted there is not an age requirement to participate in the state program, and suggested Brunswick should have a program for all ages with a financial cap. If it is limited by age he thinks it should be called a “senior property tax program.”
“I think we want to talk about not having an age limit; poverty is not bound by age,” Mason said.
Walker said if more donations come in than expected, the program should be opened up “for younger families.”
At-large Councilor Alison Harris, who is also a member of the finance committee, said not having an age limit is something the group discussed “at length.”
She said the finance committee decided to start small instead of introducing a “grand program” that would need to be scaled back.
“We hear it all the time from people who come before us, the struggle people are having paying their taxes, and wanted to provide some genuine relief,” she said. “So it really was a balancing act, but the whole age issue – we struggled with that.”
Councilor Jane Millett, third from left, discusses a November referendum question that will ask residents if they want the Brunswick School Department to join Greater Sebago Educational Alliance regional service center.