Fund balance could ease Brunswick tax bite

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BRUNSWICK — A $54.8 million town budget that would result in a 6.2 percent increase in property taxes was discussed by the Town Council during a budget workshop Monday.

Councilors reviewed plans to dip into the town’s $8.5 million undesignated fund balance for $1 million to mitigate the impact on taxpayers.

Town Manager Gary Brown said that decision would set back efforts to get the fund balance to its target of nearly 17 percent of the total municipal budget, or about $9 million.

“We were very close to achieving the target at the end of last year’s fiscal year,” Brown said. “With the utilization of some fund balance in the proposed budget, we will probably slip a little bit below where we expected to have been.”

Some councilors questioned the target, which was adopted by the council in October 2010.

“That’s like ‘super-best practice,’ what we’re doing,” Chairwoman Joanne King said. “I’m thinking … what’s the accepted practice? People do say that’s their tax money and they want it used. They don’t want it sitting around.”

Brown said that, while there are no direct penalties to maintaining a lower fund balance, that is the amount recommended by government accounting entities.

“That provides us with sufficient funds for cash flow purposes; it also demonstrates to bond entities that we are responsible with our financial management,” he said.

Brown said that interest rates could be affected if the fund balance drops too low.

He said the issue would be revisited next year before determining whether to recommend using fund balance revenues again.

Councilor Suzan Wilson said that she would like to see more public education on the nature of the fund balance.

“There’s some sweet spot between hoarding and using,” Wilson said. “It’s meant to be used, not to be hoarded, but on the other hand, you do need savings.”

Councilors quizzed department heads about various expenditures, but no obvious way to shrink the budget presented itself.

The increase is largely driven by a $2.4 million budget shortfall at the Brunswick School Department; many councilors have said they have witnessed significant public support for education spending.

Elisabeth Doucette, director of Curtis Memorial Library, said that much of a $97,000 increase to the library budget is due to a failed experiment in cheaper custodial alternatives.

“A couple of years ago, when our budget was cut, we had decided to try to put two custodians on our staff to clean the building and eliminate the custodial firm we had up until that time. … That didn’t work out for a myriad of reasons,” Doucette said. “I think we were optimistic thinking that we could clean the building with two part-time people.”

Doucette said that the library had realized several thousand dollars worth of energy savings from a more efficient heating system, but that the difference was more than made up for by increases in health-insurance costs, and the death of 13-year-old computer servers.

The proposed library budget also includes additional hours for a person to help with fundraising efforts.

The library’s total budget would increase from about $1.28 million to about $1.37 million.

Some department heads who were scheduled to make presentations were asked to return for the next budget workshop, because the presentations took longer than had been anticipated.

A public hearing on the municipal budget was scheduled for May 17.

The council will revisit the budget during a workshop scheduled to take place after its next regularly scheduled meeting on Monday, May 21.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or matthh@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.

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