Brunswick tax hike alarms councilors, budget still in play

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council wants to limit a property tax hike to between 3 and 4 percent.

But the council has some work to do.

The fiscal 2016 budget as proposed is about $59.8 million, which would require a more than 4.9 percent increase in taxes.

Councilors are scheduled to adopt the budget Thursday, May 28.

Many councilors Monday expressed dismay about the budget process, noting the loss of state aid to municipal revenue sharing and public school subsidies. 

“Every individual here is struggling with trade-offs,” Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said.

Where there was consensus was in keeping the current proposed school budget – already cut by $400,000 – as intact as possible.

Councilor John Perreault said he believed the primary responsibilities of a town are first to educate its children, and then to support the Police and Fire departments, and maintain roads.

He said he’d like the tax increase to be distributed about two-thirds to schools and one-third to the town.

Most councilors agreed with this general split, except Brayman, who said she’d like to look into a 50-50 share of the increase, stressing that supporting things like police and the library are also important to education.

As for a target property tax increase, councilors offered a range of opinions between 3 percent and 4 percent.

“(It’s) pretty evident we are cut to the bone,” Councilor Steve Walker said. He stressed that he believes the municipal and school budgets presented were “maintenance” budgets.

“I am very reluctant to (cut) further,” he said. “At some point it’s like we are cutting our nose off to spite our face.”

Councilor Jane Millet agreed with Walker. She said that after years of cutting the budget, “I am not willing to let the town slide backwards … we are at a tipping point.”

Millet said she would support finding efficiencies after the budget deliberations, such as conducting a property revaluation, selling off town-owned lands, and looking at outdated town fees.

But other councilors expressed a desire for more cuts.

“I’ve said it from the beginning … I won’t support anything over 3 percent,” Perreault said. People expressing concern with high tax rates “is the one biggest thing I hear in this town,” he said.

Councilor David Watson agreed. “Citizens are … thinking about their bottom line,” he said.

He noted statistics showing that Maine has the highest median age in the country, and many Brunswick residents live on fixed incomes. “They can’t afford it,” he said.

“Four percent is not in my picture at all, not even in my nightmares,” Watson added. “I’m struggling to even look at 3 percent.”

Town Manager John Eldridge said that to get the tax increase down to 4 percent, another $345,000 would have to be cut from the budget. A 3 percent increase would require about a $717,000 cut, and a 2 percent increase just over a $1 million dollar reduction.

Walker said he sympathizes with the tax pressure on people living on fixed incomes, and that he “ain’t a rich man” himself. But deeper cuts are going to be very hard to find, he said.

“Please, tell us what to cut,” he told Monday’s meeting attendees.

On the previous Thursday night, several members of the public did give testimony to the council on the proposed budget.

Rich Ellis, who serves on the School Board, told the council that additional cuts to the school budget could mean the elimination of the assistant superintendent position, the elimination of a high school math teacher or the elimination of freshman sports.

He said that although he is grappling with the tax impact of the school and municipal budgets, these cuts are “impossible to justify from an academic perspective.”

Other people also spoke in support of the school budget. Sarah Branch, of High Street, said she was struck by how schools are struggling with “the basic stuff,” such as 40-year-old mobile classrooms and a faulty floor at the junior high school.

School maintenence “isn’t fancy,” she said. “These are necessities.”

But Jon Carr, of Woodside Road, said that as a 70-year resident of Brunswick, he wonders when “enough is enough” in terms of tax increases.

Richard Fisco, of Lincoln Street, said that as a “full taxpaying citizen … I’m against the foolishness and inefficiency in town departments and the school system.”

“A tax increase this year over 3 percent is more reckless financial foolishness,” he said.

After the meeting, Ellis said he sympathized with the anger over increasing property taxes.

But he said that in the past five years, spending has only gone up by about 2.3 percent per year, “which is reasonable to see in either a public or private setting.”

The mil rate, however, has increased in the same period by about 4.5 percent annually. The gap between spending and tax hikes illuminates the loss of state funding, he said.

“I see how this creates an us-versus-them mentality,” he said, referring to the tension between the school budget and tax increases. “But this pattern is everywhere. … We all have to figure out what to do (about it).”

Brayman on Monday asked Eldridge to create budget-cutting scenarios to achieve tax increases ranging from 3 to 4 percent. That way, “we can begin discussing specific trade-offs,” she said.

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