Revised budgets reduce Scarborough tax increase

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SCARBOROUGH — Town Manager Tom Hall and School Board Finance Committee Chairman Chris Caiazzo outlined revised, reduced budgets at a joint Town Council and School Board workshop Wednesday night.

Whether reductions in the fiscal year 2014 budget proposals will gain council approval at the May 1 vote remains unclear.

“If I’m not happy, I’m quiet,” Councilor James Benedict said at the conclusion of the 90-minute workshop on what is now a combined $70.8 million budget covering municipal and school operations, the town share of Cumberland County operations, and capital improvements.

As now proposed the budgets would require a 9.3 percent increase in property taxes, from the current rate of $13.80 per $1,000 of assessed value to about $15.10.

That is 40 cents per $1,000 less than initial estimates, but not enough for Benedict and Councilor Ed Blaise.

“People just can’t do it,” Benedict said, adding the continued increases could also inhibit the commercial development that has helped augment residential tax bills and kept the town tax rate comparatively low in the greater Portland area.

If all budgets are passed by councilors next week, and if the $39.6 million school budget is approved in the May 14 voter referendum, taxes on a $300,000 property would increase by $384 annually.

“The honest truth is we are taxing our residents right out of town,” Blaise said.

At a special meeting Monday, the School Board grudgingly, but unanimously, passed its budget, reduced by $1.9 million since the first $41.37 million budget was presented March 13 by Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle III.

The approved operating budget is a $2.2 million increase over the current $37.42 million budget, and does not account for debt service or the school nutrition program. It seeks a $3.43 million, or 10.7 percent, increase in property tax revenues, to $35.5 million. 

“It is not enough money for how we want our school district to perform,” School Board member Kelly Murphy said Monday night.

Her thoughts were emphasized Wednesday by Caiazzo, as he said he hoped councilors would see the 5.6 percent increase in expenditures as the best attempt the School Board could make to meet a January Town Council guideline to limit spending increases to 3 percent.

“(Enforcing the 3 percent limit) would have meant dismantling programs,” Caiazzo said.

The reductions to the School Department operating budget were achieved in part by shifting funds from the operating to the capital improvements budget, including $306,000 for three bus purchases and $150,000 for technology spending.

Rate increases on health insurance had been projected at 13 percent, and turned out to be 8 percent, so $208,000 was reduced from the budget. As the overall debt service in town is reduced because of bond refinancing, School Department Finance Director Kate Bolton projected a reduction of $188,600 in the school debt service.

Caiazzo and Entwistle also pointed to comparisons with neighboring towns showing school spending comprised a lower proportion of the overall budget and said requested spending increases come in the face of possible state subsidy cuts.

“The amount being invested in new proposals is less than one half of 1 percent of this budget,” Entwistle said. “There is nothing that shouts out this is outrageous.”

Hall’s $28.2 million municipal budget presents a 1.49 percent spending increase, with a property tax hike of 33 cents, to $4.71 of the proposed $15.10 tax rate. The Town Council Finance Committee, led by Councilor Judith Roy, has suggested reductions, including scaling back the budget increase for Scarborough Public Library operations to 3 percent, a $42,500 decrease, to $874,000.

Town councilors can reject the total School Department budget, but have no say over specific line items. The school budget referendum ballot will also ask if the budget is too high, too low, or acceptable, and whether voters want to continue the referendum process for the next three years.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.