Freeport town councilors continue budget scrutiny

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FREEPORT — The Town Council on Tuesday met with department heads and set a public budget hearing for June 3 as it continued to work through operating, capital and tax increment financing budgets for fiscal year 2015. 

The council met with the town’s general assistance officer, library director, park manager, harbor master, train center manager, police and fire chiefs, and more, reviewing each area’s budget, line by line, with an eye for reducible items.

“These workshops let the council get real answers to their questions,” Town Manager Peter Joseph said. “We heard from public works about what a hard winter has to do with the salt (budget), or how a series of fires impacts fire department staffing. So the council learns about the effect that certain circumstances, statewide and locally, have on the budget.”

Earlier this month, Joseph and Finance Director Abbe Yacoben presented an $8.92 million budget proposal with a municipal tax increase of 2 percent, or 7 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

At Tuesday’s workshop, the council looked closely at the proposed library budget, which includes a 7.3 percent increase. That is due largely to the expected implementation of Minerva, the statewide inter-library loan system, which could cost over $21,000. The library has also asked to give up passport processing, which has brought in more than $6,000 annually for the past two years, because it eats up a disproportionate amount of man hours.

“It’s been a lovely service,” Library Director Beth Edmonds said. “However, I don’t think it’s worthwhile for the amount of money we get.”

The Police Department budget also received a lot of attention. The council looked at the proposed allotment for overtime wages – $110,000, up more than 45 percent – and suggested reducing that amount and instead hiring a new full-time officer. Police Chief Gerald Schofield seemed receptive to the idea.

Councilor Andy Wellen suggested the council consider cuts to human service agencies, citing data that suggests Freeport spends more than some of its neighbors on organizations like Freeport Community Services, the Port Teen Center and the Freeport Elders. Wellen argued that while those services may help vulnerable or disadvantaged members of the community, they could also be placing a burden on the town’s low-income taxpayers.

That proposal failed to gain traction, in part because the loss of a child-care program over the past year has already reduced costs. Councilor Kristina Egan, who objected to cuts to human services, said taking care of the town’s young, old and low-income residents is “an important value.”

Following the June 3 budget hearing, the council aims to adopt the capital, TIF and operating budgets on June 17.

“I think the council has shown that they really get involved in the budget process, and you don’t get that a lot of places,” Joseph said. “Some places, they’re comfortable just to cruise. But this holds people accountable, and that gets taxpayers their value.”

Brendan Twist can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter:@brendantwist.