Brunswick council tightens tax-hike goal to 3%, putting pressure on schools

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BRUNSWICK — Town councilors are now aiming for no more than a 3 percent increase in the tax rate for fiscal year 2019, requiring more than $900,000 to be cut from the total school and municipal budget. 

The Brunswick Town Council discussed the recommendation May 7 as part of giving the School Department direction on its share of the budget.

Councilors will tentatively finalize the budget May 9, and adopt it May 14, ahead of voters’ ratification of the school budget June 12.

Also Monday evening, councilors unanimously adopted a third and final 180-day moratorium on retail marijuana stores, facilities, social clubs, and medical marijuana storefronts. 

They also voted 6-3 not to increase the daily fee to park at the Union Street long-term parking lot, and unanimously to increase the retail cost of town trash bags, effective July 1.

Budget

During initial budget discussions in February, councilors discussed keeping the tax rate increase to no more than 3.5 percent. On Monday, however, the majority of councilors advocated for not going above 3 percent.

To accomplish that goal, Town Manager John Eldridge said, the municipal side of the budget would have to be reduced by more than $98,600 and the school side would have to be cut by more than $809,000.

The latest budget proposal, if passed, would require a 5.17 tax rate increase.

With a 3 percent increase in place, the tax rate would be $18.92 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or an additional 55 cents. For a property assessed at $300,000, the annual tax bill would be $5,676.

The existing proposed budget includes nearly $39 million for the School Department, or 60 percent of the overall budget and a 3.74 percent increase in taxation.

The municipal share of the budget proposal is more than $24.3 million, and would increase the tax rate by approximately 1.31 percent. 

Though they agreed to a 3 percent increase, Councilors David Watson, Jane Millett and Kathy Wilson also said they were initially in favor of an even smaller 2.5 percent increase. 

On the other end of the spectrum, Councilor Christopher Watkinson advocated for a 3.9 percent increase, and Councilor James Mason suggested a 3.5 percent increase.

Mason said after hearing presentations from different departments over the course of the budget season, he felt the initial suggested range of 2.5-3.5 percent was “not enough.”

However, he said because the council is tasked with “looking after the fiscal health of the town,” he’d like to see the impact limited to 3.5 percent to avoid layoffs in the School Department. 

Watkinson also proposed a higher tax impact in favor of Brunswick schools, and pointed to cuts in federal education funding that were highlighted in the School Department’s budget presentation.

Watkinson said Brunswick is looking at the budget “with blinders on,” and not taking into consideration neighboring communities considering tax increases between 5 and 10 percent, although he noted such increases are not realistic.

“I think it does indicate that there is something larger going on, that we as a municipality cannot solve just simply by cutting things here and there,” Watkinson said. “We all should be scared, we should be outraged at what we’re faced with right now, and we should be holding our legislators and our executives in Augusta and D.C. to task for the situation that they’re putting us in.”

Millett said she thinks the council needs to be “more responsible to the public,” and mentioned the “two huge bills” the town has coming up: for a new $28 million elementary school, and a new fire station.

“I was the one who said 2.5 percent to begin with, I’ll go to 3, but I will not vote for 3.5 percent,” she said.

Kathy Wilson echoed that sentiment.

“Sometimes there comes a point when you have to just take it easy and catch up with yourself, and I think we’re there,” she said. “I don’t think we can afford to just keep hitting the taxpayers.”

Marijuana

Following a public hearing, councilors also unanimously approved adopting a third and final 180-day ordinance on retail and medical marijuana facilities in town.

Town Attorney Kristin Collins addressed councilors on why a moratorium could be helpful, as the state completes establishing regulations.

The discussion followed the Legislature’s decision to overturn Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of cannabis legalization legislation last week.

Collins said a moratorium would allow prospective retail marijuana businesses interested in opening in Brunswick to see where they would be allowed and also allow the town to formalize its licensing program and zoning ordinance.

A moratorium would also allow time to see what happens to a medical marijuana bill that Collins said was “left hanging out” at the end of last week’s session, and could change the medical marijuana program “quite a lot” in Maine.

“If you were to accept (the moratorium) and extend that as one package I think that pretty much covers the field,” she said. “And we can still move forward with zoning, and a licensing program, and until we feel 100 percent comfortable with all of that, we’d have the moratorium in place.”

She also said her firm’s “current guess” at when the state would be finished developing licensing requirements is “probably fall at the earliest,” but she did not feel the town would need to extend the moratorium again.

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente.

Councilor Christopher Watkinson, third from right, advocates for a 3.9 percent tax-rate increase at the May 7 meeting of the Brunswick Town Council. Councilors ultimately decided they would not pass a budget with an increase of more than 3 percent. 

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