SCARBOROUGH — Whether it is too much, too little, or just right, the fate of the second attempt at a fiscal year 2014 education budget is now in the hands of voters.
By a 6-1 vote, with Councilor Ed Blaise opposed, the Town Council Wednesday passed a $38.8 million budget already approved by the School Board on May 23. The budget, which will be funded with $34.7 million in property tax revenue, faces a June 11 public referendum from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Scarborough Town Hall.
Adamant in his desire to stem the tide of property tax increases totalling about 23 percent over the last five years, Blaise proposed cutting almost $789,000 from the education budget by freezing district staff salaries at current levels.
The council has final say on how large a budget is forwarded to voters, but no power on specific line items. Councilors removed $623,500 from the $39 million budget that was defeated May 14, suggesting most of the elimination be achieved by eliminating a budget line for pension contributions now covered by the state.
Blaise’s amendment was defeated 6-1 as Council Vice Chairwoman Judy Roy said the salary and benefit increases are largely due to union contracts. Council Chairman Ron Ahlquist said he could only support the freeze if it had been brought forward by the School Board.
But Ahlquist and Councilor Jessica Holbrook noted unionized municipal employees had forgone scheduled pay increases several years ago, and the School Department and staff needed to consider how fixed costs were driving budget increases.
“We need to have a healthy discussion about salaries and benefits, but this is not the place to do it,” Ahlquist said.
School Board Finance Director Kate Bolton said 75 percent of the budget goes to district salaries and benefits, and negotiations with the Scarborough Education Association are ongoing for a new contract.
Bolton also said a major reduction in the budget process occurred when health insurance premium increases came in at 8 percent instead of the budgeted 13 percent. The $209,000 not needed to pay premiums was cut from the original $41.37 million budget introduced by School Superintendent George Entwistle III on March 13.
Before the vote, councilors heard about 45 minutes of public comment on the budget. The majority of speakers asked councilors to keep the $38.8 million budget intact, as opposed to making deeper reductions that could have been structured in tiers put together by the School Board Finance Committee and department staff.
Planning Board member Cory Fellows said he was frustrated by comments he heard at the May 29 special council meeting suggesting parents who want to pay more should just contribute directly to the School Department.
“I take exception at spurious notion this is about haves against have nots,” he said.
Ottawa Woods Road resident William Bly said the budget discussion had become too polarized and education remained a community responsibility.
The weight of increased property taxes and how money is spent in the education budget troubled Paula O’Brien, Jack Kelley and Bruce Bell.
O’Brien and Bell said spending could be curbed by reducing administrative positions instead of cutting programs, courses and activities, and Kelley said opposing higher taxes did not mean he was anti-education.
“If we have to cut the budget at home, we are not anti-food or anti-shelter,” Kelley said. “The increases have finally caught up with us.”
Once through the budget vote, done by a roll call, councilors moved quickly through a light agenda that including allocating $1,500 from a reserve fund to improve vehicle access to floats next to the town pier at Pine Point.
Given the chance to reflect on the budget process at the end of the meetings, councilors urged the public to vote next Tuesday, and to contact Republican state Reps. Amy Volk and Heather Sirocki, and Democratic state Sens. Jim Boyle and Rebecca Millett, to express frustration over state subsidy losses affecting local budgets.
“We wouldn’t be in this problem if it weren’t for the state,” Holbrook said. “Go to your legislators and say ‘please stop doing this to our children.’”