'Lean, optimistic' Brunswick budget proposes 5% tax hike

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council received a fiscal 2018 budget Tuesday that could increase property taxes by nearly 5 percent.

Town Manager John Eldridge recommended a $63 million budget – about $1.5 million, or 2.4 percent, higher than this year’s spending – that includes two new staff positions and a different financial approach toward planned municipal maintenance.

Yet he said a potential $1.1 million shortfall on the school side, as a result of the governor’s proposed budget, means property taxes may have to absorb the blow and increase by $2.2 million, or 4.9 percent.

“It’s a relatively lean budget, but it’s an optimistic budget,” Chairwoman Alison Harris said after the meeting about the impact on property taxes.

“I will be looking for more cuts,” Councilor Sarah Brayman said, reflecting what seemed to be the council consensus.

With the exception of Councilor Steve Walker, who was absent, the council unanimously scheduled a May 11 public hearing on the proposed budget.

Eldridge said his proposal includes assumed unknowns that could alter the calculations.

First, he acknowledged that while the town is in the middle of a revaluation, the proposed budget is based on the town’s current valuation.

The town would likely not receive an updated valuation until late in the summer. The new values would not change the total amount of property taxes raised, Eldridge said, but individual taxpayers might see their taxes rise or fall accordingly.

The town’s 2017 tax rate is $29.35 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Second, Eldridge noted the requested school budget – which accounts for $38 million of the total, a 3 percent of the impact on the tax rate – was recommended by the School Board on the likely assumption that Brunswick will restore a portion of the $1.1 million it stands to lose from the state under Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget.

According to state statute, those funds – to be re-appropriated after the town adopts its budget – could go toward tax relief, restoring programs, or into the town’s general fund, Eldridge said.

Lastly, it is still unknown whether Brunswick will continue to receive state funding for the homestead tax exemption and the business equipment tax exemption, which are also threatened by the governor’s budget proposal.

The municipal side of the budget proposes only a 1.7 percent increase over this year. Highlights include splitting the combined job of director of public works and town engineer into two separate positions.

The town would also add a new staff member to the recreation department, and allocate greater funding toward paving roads. The town, Eldridge said, has failed every year to fund paving to the recommended standards.

The proposal also adopts a new approach to planning for facilities maintenance and recommends a funding mechanism that is similar to the town’s vehicle reserve fund. 

“The idea is that we would do (repairs) on a more consistent basis,” Eldridge said, drawing from the reserve to fund scheduled year-to-year repairs such as roofing and painting.

The council decided to hold off on discussing the proposal in detail, which will take place over a series of workshops during the remainder of this month and next.

Although weighing possible cost-trimming strategies, the body decided to postpone setting a maximum tax rate increase, and back into the number through cuts.

Councilors also agreed they would like more information from the School Board about plans for any funds the Legislature could pass back to the town, which will be after the school budget referendum on June 13.

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

Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge recommended a 2.4 percent budget increase for the 2018 fiscal year that could hike property taxes nearly 5 percent.

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.