Brunswick wrestles with how to deliver on tax-relief promise

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council set a public hearing for Sept. 5 to discuss property tax relief after the town received a smaller-than-expected state property tax reimbursement in July.

One councilor proposed using proceeds from the June sale of the 946 Mere Point Road to offset the shortfall, instead of a plan designed by Finance Director Julia Henze. The idea was met with hesitation, and Chairwoman Alison Harris delayed its consideration as an alternative to the Sept. 5 hearing.

The council on Aug. 21 also directed Town Manager John Eldridge to continue researching a plan to mitigate the sound of train horns and noise caused by the Downeaster layover facility in west Brunswick.

When Eldridge drafted the budget last spring, he told the council it was built on several uncertainties. One of those was reimbursement for education funding. But another was a possible reduction in the Homestead Exemption property tax reimbursement program.

When the Legislature reached a budget compromise on July 4, around $600,000 in education subsidy was restored to the town, $200,000 of which the council had anticipated it might receive and appropriated to property tax relief.

What councilors didn’t see coming, they indicated Monday, was that a 50 percent reduction in the Homestead reimbursement would make the state allocation a wash. Brunswick will receive nearly $912,000, down from the anticipated $1.14 million and more than $200,000 less than budgeted.

That means in order for the council to keep its promise to use restored funds to reduce the tax rate increase from 3 percent to 2 1/2 percent, it must find the money elsewhere.

Henze on Monday proposed three different areas of the budget to offset the shortfall.

But Councilor Jane Millett suggested the council use a portion of what it received from the sale of a tax-acquired property at 946 Mere Point Road, of which $440,000 was earmarked to improve public water access.

Councilor David Watson questioned the wisdom of reallocating money designed for a long-term investment to provide short-term relief.

He said the council kept its commitment to use the restored state funds to offset property tax relief, and “it’s not our fault, it’s the state’s fault” that unanticipated results of the state budget compromise resulted in a “zero net gain.”

Councilor Steve Walker – who originally proposed using the Mere Point sale proceeds to improve water access, after his motion to make the property a park failed – agreed with Watson.

“If we do this, let’s tread carefully,” he said, indicating that he wasn’t entirely opposed to Millett’s suggestion.

Chairwoman Alison Harris ultimately postponed the discussion because it was late and the meeting was veering into its fourth hour.

Before releasing the Mere Point funds, she said the council must prepare for what has historically been a politically fraught discussion, and one better conducted “at a time when we’re fresh.”

Train noise

Eldridge said he is researching whether the town is eligible for quiet zones at the Stanwood Street and Union Street crossings following repeated noise complaints and at least one report of a code violation from residents in the neighborhood near the Downeaster layover facility. 

The Federal Rail Administration requires trains to sound a short whistle, two long ones, and another short one to signal arrival at street crossings. The frequency of those soundings has increased with the greater number of trains passing through the town’s intersections on their way to the layover station, Eldridge said. 

Silencing the horns will likely mean the town will have to install supplementary safety features at those crossings, Eldridge said, which would include paying for a traffic study and engineering work.

Eldridge told the council he will look into potential costs after learning whether the town is eligible.

He said it is less clear whether Brunswick has jurisdiction or the ability to directly intervene at the yard, where residents have complained about horns and mechanical noise. The town has contacted Amtrak about the issue, but abutters still report disruptions and being awakened at night.

Eldridge said he will look into how activity within the building is supervised.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

Brunswick Town Hall

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.