FREEPORT — Despite adjustments that reduced the proposed Regional School Unit 5 budget to $23.5 million for fiscal 2010, Pownal residents still face a 36 percent increase in taxes.
At an April 15 public budget hearing, Superintendent of Schools Shannon Welsh and school administrators said they cut $572,000 by eliminating jobs, adjusting capital improvement plans and reducing contingency funds. But Pownal residents said their share is still too high.
Scott Kaplan of Pownal said he is in favor of sharing services with Freeport and Durham, but said the state-mandated consolidation plan is inefficient. He asked the School Board to focus on the advantages of consolidation, but not with the plan in place.
“I would really urge you to put down your pencils on the budget document and pick them up as far as reorganizing the structure,” he said. “Stop trying to move forward with something that is not going to work for our three communities.”
Sally Morris of Pownal said the plan is not what residents voted for last November and asked the board for ideas on how to change the plan.
“It’s not sustainable,” she said. “People in Pownal are going to have to vote against this budget because they won’t be able to cut the check to pay the taxes.”
According to the RSU cost-sharing formula, only additional local money spent for education will be shared among the three towns. Each town will pay its own debt on individual buildings, but will share the cost of the high school and central office. Freeport is responsible for 66 percent of the additional local money, 21 percent must come from Durham and Pownal will pay 13 percent. Out of the $23.5 million budget, $4.6 million will be shared using the formula.
Not including municipal taxes, Freeport residents will see a $5 reduction per $100,000 of assessed value, or 0.7 percent. Durham residents will pay $94 more per $100,000, a 7 percent increase over this year. Pownal residents will face an increase of $649 more per $100,000 of assessed value, a 36 percent increase.
According to information provided at the meeting, Pownal must pay $583,000 for its share of the additional local money, plus $1.3 million based on state valuation and student enrollment. The town is debt free and can afford to offset resident taxes by $85,000. Even so, the total school tax impact is estimated at $1.8 million, an increase of $470,000 over this year.
Durham’s 21 percent of the additional local money is $991,000. Residents must pay $2.1 million as a state minimum requirement, and has debt associated with the construction of an elementary school. There is nearly $500,000 available to offset taxes, but the total tax impact is $2.7 million.
Even with its share of 66 percent of the additional local money, Freeport taxpayers will see a reduction of about $86,000. The town is required to pay $9.6 million to the state, and $3 million to the RSU based on the cost sharing formula. There is $50,000 to be used to reduce taxes. The total $13 million tax impact includes debt for improvements to the Middle School and lighting upgrades that taxpayers were already paying on the municipal side of the budget.
Welsh said she is investigating ways to help Pownal with its tax impact, and is looking for help from the Department of Education and state legislators.
She said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is invited to attend the next public budget meeting on Wednesday, April 29, to help identify solutions to the district’s problems. In addition, Welsh said she will work with legislators to acquire penalty money from school districts that did not comply with the consolidation law. She will also look for grants, stimulus package money and other sources of revenue to reduce Pownal’s tax impact.
While the cost-sharing formula cannot legally be altered for three years, Welsh said she has asked the state for legal advice on holding a referendum to alter the structure of the plan.
“We are constantly working on this budget,” Welsh said. “We are going to work to solve the problem as a team.”
Kaplan said he hoped Welsh would be more assertive in finding a solution to the RSU 5 consolidation problem. He said Pownal is in “a real crisis” and wanted Welsh to do more than ask the state for funds and legal advice.
“We were forced by the state to do something that makes no sense and you’ve been asked several times to show some leadership,” he said. “… We’re not opposed to joining together to figure out how to do it right. There’s got to be a better way for us to partner and share costs that make sense to share, and don’t share costs that don’t make sense to share.”