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Scarborough goal: Cap spending growth at 3%

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Scarborough goal: Cap spending growth at 3%

SCARBOROUGH — With a list of 10 goals for the coming year, town councilors saw no need to prioritize the list they compiled at a Wednesday night workshop.

By consensus, they agreed municipal spending should increase no more than 3 percent, a goal Town Manager Tom Hall said is necessary and achievable.

But as Councilor Jessica Holbrook noted, there is an attached list of qualifying conditions that could stymie the goal.

The $2.6 million elephant on the list is the potential effect of reduced state revenue sharing written into the biennial budget submitted by Gov. Paul LePage.

Councilor Ed Blaise said the proposed state budget should not hinder efforts to present taxpayers with a budget showing no property tax increases.

But Hall told councilors if passed as written, the loss of state funds, revisions to excise tax sharing on commercial vehicles registered in town, and a reduction in how business equipment tax is shared by the state would require a 5.7 percent increase in the property tax rate to make up for lost revenue.

The current tax rate is $13.80 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist said he anticipates a hard time in the budget process, but reassured Blaise that councilors look over every line item as they examine the annual municipal budget Hall presents in March.

“We've done it over and over and we will do it again this year,” Ahlquist said.

Ahlquist and Vice Chairwoman Judith Roy also said a flat budget poses challenges because contracts with town departments called for pay increases, and fuel and energy costs are always a variable. Keeping the property tax rate constant could require service cuts to help pay for contract obligations, Roy warned.

A suggestion to draft a budget based on "zero-based" principles that essentially define what a department does and how much is needed for operations was dismissed for this year because of a lack of time for department heads, although Holbrook said it could be considered in the future.

Roy and Ahlquist said they hope the town can avoid municipal layoffs, but Hall noted even partial changes to how the town receives state revenue will be challenging. He estimated the shift in excise taxes for commercial vehicles would cost $700,000, because several trucking companies register their vehicles in town.

Among other goals suggested by councilors, Ahlquist said he hopes to make the town more business friendly and improve pedestrian access from Oak Hill to the Eastern Trail.

Holbrook called for more methods of cost sharing between the School Department and other town departments. She would also like to see more work done to preserve town historical sites and open spaces.

Roy targeted continued efforts to save money through energy efficiency and reducing the town carbon footprint.

Councilor Kate St. Clair said residents need to be more aware and more engaged in local affairs. She said improving the town website and making better use of social networks will help officials communicate.

Hall conceded the town website "needs a major overhaul,” but cautioned that using social networks for two-way communication needs some limitations.

Throughout the workshop, it became clear to councilors that they were sometimes unaware of what municipal departments are doing to save money or achieve other goals. Roy and Blaise complimented Public Works Director Mike Shaw for playing a lead role in reorganizing his department more efficiently and finding ways to reduce energy costs.

Hall and Ahlquist also suggested an incentive program for municipal employees and perhaps residents who suggest ways for more economizing.

The list of goals will be formally presented at the next council meeting on Feb. 6.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.