Brunswick CIP discussion hints at interest in spending cuts

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BRUNSWICK — Some councilors expressed a desire for widespread spending cuts Monday night as the Town Council reviewed the proposed Capital Improvement Plan for 2015-2016.

Monday’s workshop was an opportunity for councilors to review and discuss several projects in the CIP, which was presented at the council meeting on March 19.

This is the third year Brunswick has used this specific format of the CIP, said Finance Director Julia Henze, which allows the town to look at all projects in a single place.

One of the areas that generated the most discussion was a proposal for a property tax revaluation.

State law requires towns to periodically perform property tax revaluations; the state Constitution says a revaluation should occur every 10 years. Brunswick, however, has not had a revaluation since 2000.

The Town is currently at a 70 percent assessment ratio for the 2015 tax year, which is the average ratio for all types of properties comparing the assessed value to the selling price.

“There’s all the reasons in the world to do this as one of our top priorities,” Councilor-at-Large John Richardson said. He stressed that a lot has changed in the past 15 years: coastal and rural property taxes have increased, and in-town and commercial property tax has gone down.

Property tax along the Androscoggin River has also increased, as the river has become cleaner and more people use it for recreation, Town Assessor Cathleen Jamison said.

Richardson said revaluation would bring Brunswick’s tax rate, which currently stands at $27.40 per $1,000 of assessed value, down to about $19, which is closer to Topsham’s. He said that outside of Maine, the perception is that places with high mil rates are “places to avoid.”

Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman echoed Richardson’s point that the project is necessary. She called it an issue of “equity between taxpayers.”

“Some folks are paying more than their fair share of taxes,” Brayman said, “and some folks are paying less.”

Where councilors did not agree was on how the project, which comes with a price tag of $400,000, should be funded. As it stands currently in the CIP, the money for a revaluation would come from general obligation bonds.

Councilor Dan Harris argued that “usually you would bond for physical, tangible aspects that you’re purchasing (but) this is something different.”

Richardson supported Harris’s point, suggesting that half of the project could be funded by curtailments from this fiscal year, and half with money from next year’s general fund.

“The reasoning behind bonding it was the magnitude of the expenses,” Brayman said. “Spreading it over five years would lessen its tax impact.”

In an interview after the meeting, Brayman said the finance committee could still discuss funding mechanisms, but changes to the funding structure at this point are unlikely.

As the council moved to discuss annual programs routinely contained in the CIP, like sidewalk and street resurfacing, some councilors expressed a desire to think about slashing some funding altogether.  

“I’d really like to see us tighten our belts,” Harris said.

Richardson said that because of the loss of revenue sharing and loss of school funding from the state, “there needs to be a shared sacrifice.”

“I don’t think we should be spending anything on any new projects,” he said, suggesting there should also be “cuts to the highly compensated employees of this town.”  

Councilor John Perrault said he’d be “happy to hear proposals for a spending freeze at the next Town Council (meeting).” Councilor Stephen Walker asked if Brunswick is looking into the possibility of consolidating services, possibly with Topsham.

At the end of the meeting, two members of the public took to the podium to reinforce the councilors’ desire for spending cuts.

“I get concerned that we’re spending (too much),” said Liliana Reitman of Ocean Drive. “Everything’s going up, but people’s incomes have gone down.”

“There will certainly be trade-offs in this budget,” Brayman said Tuesday.

The council will hold a public hearing on the budget and CIP on May 14.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.