Brunswick council nears consensus on budget, 1.5 percent tax increase

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BRUNSWICK — After weeks of deliberating a fiscal 2011 budget with a 2 percent property tax hike, the Town Council is leaning toward a spending plan with a 1.5 percent increase.

Despite the lower increase in the tax rate, funding levels could be partially restored for some programs, including the Curtis Memorial Library.

The library cut, originally slated at $107,000, will instead be a $52,000 reduction. The original cut had generated a flood of e-mails and correspondence to councilors from residents opposing the action. 

The updated allocation will allow the library to maintain its current operating hours and retain the inter-library loan program.

Town Manager Gary Brown said adding $55,000 to the library subsidy will come at the expense of so-called step increases for municipal employees. The across-the-board wage freeze will impact all town employees whose contracts aren’t currently being negotiated. 

The new spending plan would also return $100,000 for street resurfacing, as well as $185,000 for public works equipment. Brown said the restoration of those line items was possible because of anticipated savings on the Bath Road-Maine Street project, the majority of which is being funded by the state Department of Transportation.

Two years ago, the council budgeted $700,000 for the project, but Brown said the most recent proposal will call for a town total commitment of just $100,000.

A portion of the $600,000 savings has already been allocated for a new ambulance, leaving $285,000 for street paving and public works equipment.

Brown said the savings will also reduce the bottom line on a proposed municipal spending plan of just over $28 million.

That plan still includes several layoffs. Brown advised using the project savings for one-time capital costs over preserving the targeted positions.

Council discussion about the layoffs – in particular the natural resources planner and deputy director of public works – dominated the May 6 workshop. 

Several councilors expressed concern about the long-term impacts of the cuts, specifically in natural resources protection and staff presence on the Conservation Commission and the Recycling and Sustainability Committee.

Brown said that some of the natural resources planner duties would be picked up by Jeff Hutchinson, the codes enforcement officer.

The codes department is also losing an administrative assistant, which led Councilor Benet Pols to wonder if Hutchinson would be overworked.

Brown sought to ease those concerns, adding that Hutchinson’s bachelor’s degree was in environmental science, making him qualified to help with natural resources issues.

Pols wasn’t convinced.

“My undergraduate degree is in religion,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone here wants me performing a bris (ritual circumcision) or taking confession.”

But the majority of councilors accepted the staff cuts. Councilor Suzan Wilson, who has been the most vocal advocate of the cuts, argued last week that many of the duties performed by the targeted employees could be contracted to outside agencies.

“We would all like to think we are irreplaceable and critical to a specific function,” Wilson said. “But I don’t think there’s any empirical evidence that a particular town owning a particular employee has an relationship to whether or not our natural resources are protected.”

Most of the council appeared willing to restore $5,000 to the Brunswick Downtown Association.

Brown wrote in an e-mail Tuesday that the $5,000 allocation would be added to the currently proposed budget.

The council has scheduled a 7 p.m. public hearing on the spending plan for Monday, May 17, at the meeting facility at 16 Station Ave.

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or