BRUNSWICK — The Town Council took a scalpel to the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget Monday night.
The council is asking the School Board to cut its budget more than $400,000 to bring a potential property tax hike down from 5.25 percent.
On the municipal side, councilors directed the town manager to trim his budget by about $273,000.
The cuts are effort to limit the property tax increase to 3.5 percent.
The nearly unanimous council vote came after two nights and more than five hours of deliberation.
Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman initially proposed Thursday, May 5, to limit the budget to a 3.75 percent increase, with town and schools equally sharing the cuts.
But councilors quickly pushed back, showing an appetite for the schools to pick up a larger portion of the bill.
“(It) should be … 60-40,” Councilor Alison Harris said. “The school budget is about 60 percent of our taxes.”
Councilor John Perreault agreed with Harris’ assertion, and said he’d like to see the tax increase come in below 3.5 percent.
Councilor David Watson took the bar down farther, advocating for a 3 percent or 2.5 percent tax increase. “There are places we’re going to have to be bold and reckless,” he said.
Without reaching a firm target, the council agreed to reconvene in a special workshop May 9.
On Monday evening, a majority of councilors agreed to settle on a 3.5 percent budget increase, with 60 percent of the cuts coming from the school side and 40 percent from the municipal budget.
Perreault said he agreed to the 3.5 percent increase because of a state change to the homestead tax exemption. This year, homes that qualify for the exemption – Maine homeowners who have owned their property for over a year can qualify – will see a bigger tax reduction.
Town Finance Director Julia Henze calculated that for a Brunswick home assessed at $150,000, the exemption would increase by about $115 over last year. Eighty-six percent of residential properties in Brunswick have an assessed value under $200,000, according to Henze.
Those who do not qualify for the exemption, such as commercial property owners, will see their property taxes go up, Town Manager John Eldridge said, as the state only reimburses the town 50 percent of the exempted tax value.
Nevertheless, most councilors found Perreault’s argument convincing, agreeing to a 3.5 percent tax increase with a 60-40 split.
Only councilors David Watson and Dan Harris dissented: Watson would not say his target tax increase, only that he supported the 60-40 split; Harris said he wished the split with schools was 50-50.
But not all in the room were satisfied with the council’s conclusion.
Redwood Lane resident Jean Powers said she wished to see no more than a 3 percent tax increase, arguing the yearly tax hikes were unsustainable for people on a fixed Social Security income. Social Security recipients did not see a cost of living increase this year.
Powers urged the council to push the School Board to making deeper cuts before their proposed budget goes to referendum, saying, “A lot of people will not vote … but the people with children in the schools will, and the well-to-do will.”
In terms of cuts to the municipal side of the budget, Eldridge sketched out Monday night what might be slashed to meet the $273,000 target.
He indicated the town could draw from its fund balance to buy down the tax rate, as well as remove money slated for vehicle reserves and paving.
He said, though, that continuing to draw from the fund balance was an unsustainable financial practice, as that pool would eventually run out. Councilors also noted that the town is behind on its paving responsibilities: 20 percent of Brunswick’s roads have not been paved for 20 or more years, according to data from the town manager’s office.
Eldridge also considered cuts to the public safety, public works, parks and recreation, and general government budgets, as well as the town’s contributions to the library and the People Plus community center.
What appears to be off the table is leaving an officer’s position at the Police Department unfilled – a decision made last year to decrease the budget.
Earlier in the month, Police Chief Richard Rizzo made a presentation to the council showing that Brunswick has fewer full-time officers than comparable towns. Saco, Scarborough and Augusta, all smaller than Brunswick in population, have more officers than Brunswick does.
Meanwhile, calls for service were up more than 4,000 from 2014, Rizzo said.
The result is an increased reliance on overtime, Rizzo said, such as staffing extra patrols after a rape reported last Nov. 10 at a Bowdoin College off-campus dorm.
The School Board was expected to respond to the council’s directive at its meeting Wednesday night. The council is set to hold a public hearing on the joint budget Thursday, May 12, at 7 p.m.
Brunswick Town Hall at 85 Union St.