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Yarmouth councilors question use of school budget windfall

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Yarmouth councilors question use of school budget windfall

YARMOUTH — The Town Council heard unexpected good news about proposed school spending for fiscal year 2016, but not everyone was happy with the surprise.

A reduction in health insurance rates will save the School Department about $175,000 next year, School Finance Committee Chairman Tim Wheaton told councilors at their April 16 meeting.

The department's proposed budget remains at what the School Committee previously had proposed: $22 million, an increase of almost $844,000, or 3.98 percent, over current spending.

But the $175,000 windfall would allow the department to pay off the lease on a school bus, plan for the replacement of student computers, and restore about 70 percent of requested supplies and training that had been cut from an earlier version of the budget, according to Wheaton.

Several councilors wondered why the new-found funds weren't applied to the bottom line.

"If you didn't need (the new budget expenditures) in the first round, why do you need them now?" Councilor David Craig said.

Councilor Rob Waeldner added, "I would have preferred that we left the ($175,000) out of the budget and took advantage of the savings."

Councilor Pat Thompson was more sharply critical.

"It seems to me the schools should have rethought their position before they went and added $175,000, money that was essentially a 'gimme,'" she said. "They should have thought of townspeople just a tad. Maybe we could have kept the budget flat, or at least have a smaller increase."

She also criticized how the money is allotted in the revised budget.

"I'm disappointed that the academics of the Yarmouth school system do not receive a higher priority, that in fact we're buying buses rather than getting more computers for our children," she said.

Earlier, Wheaton explained that the funding would create a small reserve fund to pay for maintenance and replacement of existing technology, such as students' laptop computers.

"We've always been known for state-of-the-art technology in the classroom," he said. "We cannot afford to slip back, but there is some risk of doing that."

School Superintendent Andrew Dolloff told councilors other needs, such as training and supplies, have "taken continued hits" and that restoring budgeted items would relieve some of the pressure on the schools' parent-teacher organization to help with expenses.

While the revised school budget sparked debate, councilors had less to say when Town Manager Nat Tupper reviewed the proposed $11.6 million 2016 budget for municipal services. Together with Cumberland County taxes and other expenses, that amount would bring the town's total proposed budget to $34.7 million – which, if adopted, would require a 1.4 percent increase in property taxes.

The council will take up the budget again in a May 7 public hearing. The plan will then be put to a vote at a June 2 Town Meeting and school-spending referendum.

In other business, the council began considering a proposed property revaluation, which would be the first in over a decade. The revaluation, to be performed by the county tax assessor over the next year at a cost of $160,000, would be reflected in the town's August 2016 property tax bills.

Tupper said the revaluation is overdue, and if postponed would result in lost tax revenue for the town. "It's time to face the music," he said.

But several councilors warned that more time was needed to make residents aware of potential changes to their property assessment. Deadlocked, councilors eventually voted 4-2 to table the revaluation proposal until the May 7 meeting. Craig and Thompson voted in the minority.