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 wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

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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.