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Brunswick budget, tax hike whittled, but work remains

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Brunswick budget, tax hike whittled, but work remains

BRUNSWICK — Like stubborn patches of snow that are slowly receding, a projected increase in the town's 2015 property tax rate may also be shrinking.

Or so town officials hope.

Interim Town Manager John Eldridge has been working to whittle down budget requests from town departments that, if granted, could have contributed to a tax rate hike of more than 8 percent.

While it's a work in progress, Eldridge discussed the 2015 fiscal year municipal budget in a Town Council workshop on April 17. A formal budget recommendation must be submitted by May 1 to town councilors, who are expected to adopt it by May 29.

"Where we're at is that we were looking at a budget in total that would have raised the tax rate 8.25 percent. At this point, we're now looking at about 4.5 percent," Eldridge said at the workshop.

But that figure doesn't take into account the impact of school spending, or the town's annual appropriation to Cumberland County.

Those amounts are significant. In the current fiscal year budget of $57.6 million, $35.6 million was for education and $1.2 million went to the county.

Like the municipal budget, the school budget is also being worked out.

The School Board is wrestling with a proposed budget that would increase the tax rate by another 4.4 percent. The board must vote on a budget by April 30, which would be submitted to the council and then to voters in a June 10 referendum.

All told, the budgets – as they stand now – would increase the tax rate by nearly 9 percent.

"That's clearly not going to be acceptable," council Chairman Benet Pols said in an interview Wednesday, noting that tax hikes in recent years have been around 6 percent.

So more budget-whittling remains.

In last week's workshop, Eldridge pointed out some drivers of a potential increase: contractual raises in salaries and benefits, a tentative restoration of some capital projects, and the absence of one-time revenue. About $290,000 was made available to the town last year when it agreed to sell a parcel of land on Thomas Point Road and the downtown Recreation Center.

The town will lose additional money because of a reduction in state revenue sharing, enacted in February. While the cut was not as severe as one originally proposed by Gov. Paul LePage, it will represent a loss of $81,000 for the town.

"Many people don't fully understand that the cause of tax rate increases is not just spending, it's the loss of revenue," Pols said.

But he acknowledged the effect of the town's spending.

"What we're faced with is the collective impact of council decisions over the past three years," Pols said. "We buy things, we build things, we fund things."

Nevertheless, Pols said he is optimistic that the town can rein in the 2015 budget to produce a tax rate comparable to that of previous years – or "hopefully less." And he credits Eldridge and town departments for pinching pennies before the council begins its deliberations on the budget.

"There was a lot of productive work done before we even saw it," he said. "I'm relieved."

The council was scheduled to hold another budget workshop on Thursday, focusing on funding for the Brunswick Downtown Association, the Curtis Memorial Library and People Plus. Workshops continue next month, after the council receives Eldridge's proposed budget. The council will hear public input at a workshop on Thursday, May 8.