CAPE ELIZABETH — Preservation of local emergency dispatch took center stage Wednesday night at a public forum on ways to increase town revenue, decrease spending and determine an acceptable property tax rate.
Facing a $500,000 decrease in available funds thanks to the near-disappearance of building permit and excise tax revenues, and normal increases in spending due to employee salary and benefit contracts, town officials have said that everything must be on the table as the fiscal 2010 budget is created.
Town Councilor and Finance Committee Chairwoman Anne Swift-Kayata opened the meeting by calling on the nearly 75 citizens present for advice.
The town, she said, faces “difficult decisions in balancing citizen needs with their ability to pay property taxes. (Citizen) priorities and needs will help drive both (Town Council and School Board) budget processes this year.”
A majority of those who spoke at the meeting came to support the local dispatch service; switching to regional dispatch would save the town $86,000 in the first year.
Citizens as well as members of the public safety departments, including Police Department Detective Paul Fenton, said getting rid of local dispatch would be a major safety issue for the town.
Fenton was shocked, he said, when he heard about dispatch being on the chopping block. “The station is a beacon of hope, a beacon of safety,” he said. That the station at night would have only a phone connected to dispatchers 25 miles away in Windham “is like something out of a horror movie,” he said.
Others told stories of how local dispatchers’ knowledge has saved lives – or at least been a comfort to those facing emergencies – as dispatchers have directed officers to certain doors or down certain streets or have known contact information for vacationing residents when their homes have faced emergencies.
Other common points made by citizens included better using Fort Williams for increasing revenues – through gate fees, tour bus surcharges, or opening a concession stand – and forcing Community Services to be entirely self-sufficient. Citizens also mentioned charging fees at the transfer station for large or toxic items.
Those with preferences in spending cuts tended to focus on Community Services and the fitness center. Last year plans to privatize the fitness center fell through, leaving the town with a more than $60,000 bill.
Others suggested thinking about Thomas Memorial Library, especially because of proximity to the South Portland library. Some asked for anonymous recommendations from teachers on where cuts could be found in schools. Several suggested changing parts of the school curriculum or switching to digital textbooks.
As for a recommended tax rate, citizens came in at about the same levels councilors and School Board members have been discussing: somewhere up to a 2 percent increase. Town Manager Michael McGovern has previously announced a goal of no increase on the municipal side, while Superintendent of Schools Alan Hawkins has said he will aim for only slight increases.
Resident Jessica Sullivan urged town officials to keep the tax rate flat, including no increase to the school budget. “Excellence and achievement don’t come from just money,” she said.
Former Town Council candidate Mark Zajkowski felt differently. He said those hoping for no increase to the school budget “may not understand” the contractual obligations that make up most of the expected increase in funding need.
The Town Council is scheduled to vote on a municipal budget April 30. It will also set a school budget, which is scheduled for a May 12 referendum.
The council and School Board will also hold public hearings along the way.