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Scarborough councilors unhappy with school budget

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Scarborough councilors unhappy with school budget

SCARBOROUGH — Town Councilors on Wednesday approved the first reading of the combined fiscal year 2014 budget, but suggested the School Department's proposed spending plan needs an overhaul.

They scheduled a public hearing for April 10 at 7 p.m. Finance committees from the Town Council and School Board will hold a joint workshop on April 11 at 7 p.m.

The combined budget is slated for a second reading and vote May 1. The referendum for the school budget is scheduled for May 14.

The proposed $28.28 million municipal budget drew little comment at Wednesday's meeting, aside from praise from Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist about how it adhered to a council guideline limiting spending increases to 3 percent.

Town Manager Tom Hall and Councilor Judith Roy, chairwoman of the council finance committee, said the budget draft is a work in progress and could change because of state budget decisions.

"There is expectation the budget will change,” Hall said.

Initial state budget proposals by Gov. Paul LePage would suspend revenue sharing of state income and sales taxes with towns, retain excise fees on certain commercial vehicles and alter how business equipment is taxed.

Hall's budget excludes $170,000 in excise taxes. In total, the proposed revenue reductions and shifts cause a $2.2 million revenue gap.

In contrast to their satisfaction with the municipal budget, the school budget ran into vocal opposition from councilors, who set the final school allocation, but have no control over budget line items.

The $41 million budget for school operations is funded with more than $37.2 million in property tax revenue. It proposes a 10.7 percent tax rate increase – from $8.85 of the current $13.80-per-$1,000 assessment, to $10.21 of a projected $15.55 per $1,000.

Roy noted the fiscal year 2014 school budget drafted by School Superintendent Dr. George Entwistle III accounts for potential state revenue reductions of $1.6 million in general purpose aid and a requirement to pay into pension funds that is now a state Department of Education responsibility.

Entwistle's proposed budget would restore $684,000 in deferred spending (including buses) from prior years and add $567,000 in spending for new programs throughout the district.

The proposal was criticized by Councilors Kate St. Clair, James Benedict, Jessica Holbrook and Edward Blaise.

“I'm on the side of the fence of the taxpayer," Benedict said. “If you don't have it, you can't spend it”

Roy will be leading the council finance committee in joint workshops with her opinion already set.

"Personally, I'm not in favor of a 10.71 percent increase in the (school) budget," Roy said.

But councilors remained optimistic about finding suitable compromises.

"It is scary and a hard thing to swallow," St. Clair said, "but I think there is wiggle room."

Blaise praised Entwistle for his diligence in showing why the School Department is drafting its budget, and saw problems of a larger nature inherent in education spending.

“You should define it as a school and a child welfare budget,” Blaise said. “Not to say I'm in favor of what they are proposing. ...There is too much government involved in our educational process.”

Council finance committee meetings on the municipal budget are held at 8 a.m. Tuesday mornings at Town Hall, and televised on local access TV.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on its budget at 7 p.m. April 22. A joint Town Council and School Board budget workshop will be held at 7 p.m. April 24 at Town Hall.

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