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Scarborough council OKs $68.5M budget, tax increase; denies laptop computer initiative

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Scarborough council OKs $68.5M budget, tax increase; denies laptop computer initiative

SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council voted 5-2 to approve a $64.5 million municipal and school budget Wednesday evening.

Councilors Ronald Ahlquist and Jessica Holbrook opposed the decision.

The budget calls for a 3.95 percent tax increase, setting the property tax rate at $12.63 per $1,000 of value, up 48 cents from this year's mil rate.

The tax increase forced the council to vote on an LD-1 override of the tax levy limit of $13.7 million. This override is required for any tax increase of more than 2.85 percent per year. Councilors voted unanimously in favor of overriding the limit.

Much of Wednesday night's discussion centered around the School Department's proposed $1.16 million capital improvement plan, which would buy laptop computers for all high school students. That portion of the capital improvement plan was $668,000.

While the Town Charter states that the voters must approve any single item costing more than $400,000, Town Manager Tom Hall read a statement from the town attorney advising the council that because this was not one, single item, the council could approve the spending.

However, several councilors still supported sending the decision to the voters.

"I would like to hear what the majority of folks would like to do about it," Councilor Judith Roy said.

Hall said the quickest this could go to referendum would be in November, and that the school technology director estimated a three- to four-month implementation process after the funds are made available.

"I think the timing is terrible with this," Ahlquist said. "I think this might be the wrong year to do it."

While the debt service for the financing or bonding of the laptops would not show up in the fiscal 2011 budget, it would show up the following year. Several councilors expressed concern that next year's budget would be equally, if not more challenging than this year's, and that debt service should be taken into account.

The school's capital improvement plan failed 4-3, with Councilors Shawn Babine, Roy, Holbrook and Ahlquist in the majority.

An amendment was then immediately offered and passed to replace the $451,000 of capital improvement funds that were not related to the laptop computer proposal.

Babine then offered an amendment to reduce the school's operating budget by $106,000, the amount included to cover staff and training for the computer initiative. He suggested that the money go to reducing the tax burden.

"I think we're getting dangerously close to line-item decisions of the school's budget," Councilor Michael Wood said.

Councilor Karen D'Andrea agreed.

"Let's leave that money in there, let the schools decide how to support the kids," she said.

Babine admitted that the amendment would not reflect any change in the tax rate. It failed  4-3, behind Councilors Carol Rancourt, Roy, Wood and D'Andrea.

Holbrook then suggested a more dramatic decrease of the school's operating budget, offering an amendment to cut $500,000. She cited a citizen's proposal last week that offered $1 million in savings without affecting teachers or classrooms. 

"I fully believe we can find this if we look, if we try," she said.

Holbrook offered an $85,000 savings by freezing increases to substitute wages. She also suggested bringing graduation back to Scarborough, rather than the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland, would save the schools $6,000.

The measure failed 5-2, with Holbrook and Ahlquist in the minority. 

Voters will have the opportunity to accept or reject the $34.9 million school portion of the budget in a budget validation referendum Tuesday, May 11. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Town Hall in Council Chamber A.

The fiscal 2011 school budget is $782,000 less than this year's budget, partially due to a 19 percent reduction in state aid, and includes cuts of more than 31 positions and a pay-to-play athletic and extracurricular policy.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net