‘Challenging starting point’ for Scarborough budget

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SCARBOROUGH — Officials are calling a proposal that could require tax increases ranging from 5.77 percent to 7.14 percent a “starting-point” budget.

Town Manager Thomas Hall and Superintendent of Schools Julie Kukenberger presented the proposed town and school budgets for fiscal year 2018 at Wednesday’s Town Council meeting.

The total that would have to be raised through taxation is just less than $65 million, a 7.84 percent increase from this year’s $60 million budget. If approved, the town would have to collect an additional $4.7 million in property taxes.

“It’s a challenging starting point, there’s no question about it. We stand here ready with our staff as you go through your deliberations. We are all in this together,” Hall said. “I look forward to working with you over the next seven or eight weeks before final reading.”

Estimated tax-rate increases homeowners might see range from 5.77 percent, equal to $16.84 per $1,000 of assessed value, to 7.14 percent, or $17.06 per $1,000.

Homeowners with a $300,000 home would pay $5,052 in taxes under the 16.84 “optimistic” tax-rate scenario, which would be a $276 increase over this year.

Under a “mid-range” tax increase of $16.95 per $1,000, or 6.45 percent, the same homeowner would pay $5,085, an increase of $309.

Under the “cautious” scenario with a $17.06 tax rate, the homeowner would see a $342 increase to $5,118.

During the presentation, councilors and residents were briefed on revenue challenges faced by the town, including the loss of more than $1.4 million in state subsidy under preliminary figures released by the state.

Councilor Will Rowan said the $1.4 million cut is the largest the town has seen, but added that the Legislature is still in session and encouraged people to call their lawmakers.

“That number can change, and change significantly,” Rowan said.

Councilor Katherine St. Clair said, “It’s not easy when we are constantly getting money taken away from us.”

Kukenberger said in addition to the potential $1.4 million cut, some fixed costs are rising, including contractual obligations, a significant increase in health insurance, and other rising insurance rates. Kukenberger said the School Department recently agreed to a new three-year contract with teachers and is working on contracts with school bus drivers and support staff.

The proposed $48.1 million school budget calls for an increase of more than $2.2 million or 4.96 percent.

Salaries and benefits account for 61 percent of municipal expenditures and 76 percent of school costs.

Councilors approved a first reading of the budget, but stressed that because they had just received the proposal it’s considered a starting point. They indicated there would be a lot of work do before the second reading.

“We’ve come a long way. Is it where I want to be? No. I’m very concerned about our seniors in this town,” St. Clair said. “I think this is a starting point. In the six years that I have been here, I think it is the best that we have started with. … I feel proud of it.”

Councilor Chris Caiazzo said, “It’s shocking sometimes for some people to see numbers like this … (but) it is the reality of our situation.”

“We are not going to forget about you,” he said, referring to the town’s older residents. “There are programs for seniors.”

Councilor William Donovan said the proposed budget is the best starting point the council has seen in the last four years.

“We are fortunate that we are ending a really bad decade with the state of Maine,” Donovan said.

He also noted Scarborough has “received minimum state receiver status, so the state can’t take any more money from us.”

Councilor Peter Hayes said, “We need to come together as a community and we need to work on this as a community, together … We need to do this in a respectful and civil way.”

He asked residents to stay engaged and informed and “work with us, please.”

Council Chairman Shawn Babine said this is probably the best budget he has seen in 10 years, calling it “mindful” and “thoughtful.”

A budget forum will be held at the Wentworth School cafeteria at 7 p.m. April 26, followed by a public hearing at 7 p.m. May 3 in council chambers. The school budget validation referendum will take place June 13.

“I think the worst thing that can happen is for people to overreact to what is presented tonight,” Caiazzo said. “… Let’s be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter@melaniesochan.

School Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, left, and Town Manager Thomas J. Hall, present the proposed Scarborough budget for fiscal year 2018 on Wednesday, April 5.