Brunswick council adopts budget, bows to School Board pressure

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council, after pushback from the School Board, restored $85,000 to the School Department budget before approving a $61.5 million fiscal year 2017 town budget.

The reversal on the $85,000 reduction came Thursday, May 26, the night after two School Board members threatened to oppose the upcoming school budget referendum unless the money was restored.

They got their wish when several councilors switched their positions on the cut.

Councilor Jane Millett said her change of heart was not a response to “bullying tactics.”

Instead, she said the $85,000 was “a small percentage of the overall budget and (not) worth going to war with the School Board.”

Millett led the effort to reduce the school budget two weeks earlier, making a motion at the May 16 council meeting to cut a proposed paving project at the high school from the budget.

She said the pavement at the high school’s parking lot was in better shape than some town roads that were not going to be paved. She said the schools and town should uphold equal “community standards,” and five other councilors agreed with her, voting 6-2 to make the cut.

But School Board members fired back May 25, symbolically rejecting the reduction by an 8-1 vote. Board members Rich Ellis and Corinne Perreault vowed to publicly advocate against the school budget referendum unless the council restored the $85,000.

“This is about the principle of the process,” Ellis said, adding that the council’s targeting of a specific line item would set a precedent.

Board member Sarah Singer tried to dial back the rhetoric, saying the infighting between the board and council was the result of diminishing resources, as both bodies of government have lost considerable state funding over the past several years.

The following morning she told WCME radio host Jim Bleikamp “the real frustration ought to be with the state, because we are in an austerity climate.”

With the reduction of state subsidies to schools, and the loss of municipal revenue sharing, the school board and council “are both pressed, and it’s putting us in conflict,” Singer said.

Millet credited Singer’s radio appearance in her decision to change her mind about the reduction.

Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman also switched her vote, arguing that making a cut without advance notice did not meet a “standard of transparency.”

Councilor Dan Harris, who was not at the May 16 meeting, joined Millett, Brayman, and Councilors John Perreault and David Watson in voting to restore the $85,000 to the school’s budget.

Harris had harsh words for the council’s previous cut. “It probably is not a good way to run a town government,” he said.

Several councilors maintained their position, however. Councilor Steve Walker said he was not attacking the schools, but “(holding) the line on tax increases.”

Councilor Kathy Wilson said she had been thinking about the vote a lot in the past week, but was told by many constituents to stand strong on the cut.

Walker, Wilson and Councilors Suzan Wilson and Alison Harris voted in the minority.

The approximately $61.5 million 2017 budget is a 3.15 percent increase over last year’s spending. The hike results in a 3.5 percent increase to the property tax rate.

The largest expenditures are for public education, which makes up more than 60 percent of the total budget. Municipal functions such as public safety, public works, and general government account for less than 40 percent of the budget, and the county tax is just over 2 percent.

The new fiscal year begins July 1.

In other business, councilors voted to spend $40,000 from the general fund to plan for two projects in the newly adopted Capital Improvement Plan: a vehicle wash bay for the Public Works Department, and interior improvements to the Rec Center on Brunswick Landing.

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.
  • Chew H Bird

    Counsilor Millett should be excused from her position if what this article says is true:

    …she said the $85,000 was “a small percentage of the overall budget and (not) worth going to war with the School Board.”

    $85,000 is certainly important to the average resident of Brunswick, Maine. It is very much worth discussing, debating, and caring about. Last time I checked the “average” yearly wage in Brunswick is roughly half the amount of $85,000. Anyone who doesn’t think that is important enough to debate should step down from the Counsil.

    This concept of $85,000.00 not being important is just as wrong as the decision to, without qualified opinions, suddenly decide that resurfacing the asphalt at the high school is “not important”.

    As a taxpayer I expect our elected officials to care about the people whose money they spend. As a taxpayer expect our elected officials to educate themselves concerning detail level expenses before deciding what is valid and what is fluff. As a taxpayer, I expect our elected officials to at the very least implies that they care about how our money is spent. As a taxpayer I am appalled at elected officials who fail to perform their duty to citizens by not researching an issue before voicing an opinion and then treat $85,000.00 as though Brunswick people didn’t work hard to pay their taxes.

  • farmertom2

    The most important thing is to maintain the quality of Brunswick’s schools. With trouble getting the state funding we should have, the result will be higher property taxes. Not that it’s ever utilized, the best way to deal with the problem would be to hold property taxes where they are, or lower them to a degree, and then institute a town income tax. Cumbersome? Sure. But more progressive. One way or the other, it’s going to cost more and more to run the school system, but the school system is the key to maintaining Brunswick’s quality as a desirable town. Want to see the value of your house cut in half? Let the school system tank. A good school system draws residents, residents pay property taxes, shop at local stores, support the schools, the library, and make the town prosper. Good schools are the key.
    And while $85,000 sounds like a lot, and it is for me and thee, in terms of the school system and the town budget, it’s not. It’s $4/person. And it’s not wasted– it’s an item in a budget that the school board deemed was needed.

    • Chew H Bird

      It is the lack of understanding in regards to the value of the 85k that bothers me. Preventive sealing of pavement is a good investment. That our Town Counsil would deem it appropriate to cut the 85k without understanding the value is, in my opinion, a problem. That the School Board would so quickly cut almost half a million dollars out of the budget without batting an eye is, in my opinion, a problem. That the same council member who wanted to cut 85k from the budget changed her mind based on a radio show rather than understanding the actual value of the paving process is, in my opinion, a shining example of failing to understand actual budgetary issues and the responsibilities of being on the Town Counsil.

      The School Board having a pre-determined “fall back” position regarding budget numbers might be expedient, but doing so violates their responsibility to the residents of Brunswick to provide quality education at the lowest cost. While I am all for providing a good education for our children, this back and forth process reeks of cronyism and politics which have no place in providing a good example to our community.