Brunswick limits tax hike to 3.5%, reduces school cuts

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council this week reached agreement on keeping a tax increase to 3.5 percent.

At Tuesday night’s budget workshop councilors looked at options presented by Town Manager John Eldridge to make the $205,000 adjustment needed to reduce the tax hike.

Councilors generally agreed they do not want to draw down more from the town’s fund balance to cushion the increase in property tax, a strategy the manager has warned against.

“I’m very opposed to using the fund balance,” Councilor Jane Millet said. “It is not something we wanted to do, and the Finance Committee worked a lot on it.”

Councilor John Richardson called it a great plan, because “we previously made no attempt to wean ourselves off the $1 million (in fund balance).”

The town will still use $825,000 of fund balance to draw down the tax increase, but not the full $1 million it has used in recent years.

One point not resolved was whether to allocate $10,000 for the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program.

“We are responsible to make sure our people don’t starve,” Councilor Kathy Wilson said.

Richardson agreed. “Who speaks up for the hungry? That really ought to be us,” he said.

But some councilors thought it would not be fair to fund MCHPP as a part of the fiscal 2016 budget.

“This puts me in the very awkward position of opposing funding one of my favorite charities,” Millet said.

She argued that the public had not had the chance to hear that the council might fund some social service agencies in this year’s budget. The council has not funded social service agencies since 2008.

Ethan Minton, director of MCHPP, went before the council at its April 6 meeting to request $40,000 for food and supplies.

But some councilors did not believe that was enough of a public process to justify a change in council policy.

“I’m not against the funding … I’m against the fact we have not had discussion of funding social services with public money,” Millet said. She said she worried about “taxation without representation.”

Chairwoman Sarah Brayman agreed with Millet, calling the issue a matter of “process and transparency.”

A bright spot of Tuesday’s conversation was new revenue discovered by the town’s assessing department.

Eldridge said Assessor Cathleen Jamison went back through the most recent valuations for personal property declarations and estimates for ongoing projects, and concluded that an additional $9.4 million was on hand.

“This lessens the bite of the school cut,” Eldridge said. The new revenue brought down the council’s reduction to the school budget, previously $147,000, to $60,000.

On Wednesday night, the School Board met to discuss how to meet the council’s request.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said the board could draw $50,000 from the carryover of this year’s Title I funds to pay for administrative salaries. He also said that because the department has hired new staff at lower pay grades, another $10,000 in savings could be found.

Board members received the plan enthusiastically.

“I believe we’ve done our due diligence,” board member James Grant.

The board voted overwhelmingly to authorize the reduction, with Sarah Singer opposed.

Singer previously suggested the board look into making a reduction larger than the $60,000, to show a “good faith effort.”

The Town Council was scheduled to adopt the fiscal 2016 budget on Thursday night, May 28.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or at 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.