Scarborough budget 'conversation' starts with 4.5% tax hike

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SCARBOROUGH — The town manager’s draft fiscal 2011 budget calls for an increase of just over $2.3 million to be raised from taxes, despite an overall budget decrease of 1.4 percent.

The property tax rate would rise to $12.70 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared to the current $12.15, an increase of 4.5 percent.

“This is beyond the point of comfort, but I believe it’s a very reasonable place to start the conversation,” Town Manager Thomas Hall told the Town Council Wednesday night.

He acknowledged that many of the councilors would use the budget process to work on lowering his proposed tax increase to no more than 3 percent, and that he expected it to be a lively and helpful process.

One of the largest factors, and what could be the most hotly contested aspect of the budget, is a proposed decrease in General Purpose Aid from the state for the schools, which directly affects the school budget. Scarborough schools will receive more than $2 million less from the state than last year. The nearly 30 percent decrease comes on top of this year’s reductions.

More than 60 members of the public attended the meeting and many commented on the budget before it was unveiled Wednesday night.

Many had attended an earlier School Board meeting and were reacting to drastic cuts proposed by the superintendent of schools and the board, which would eliminate 40 teachers, nine classroom support staffers and a number of administrative employees, as well as instituting a pay-to-play program for extracurricular activities.

Nearly all of the citizens spoke in support of the schools, and many of them said they would support a tax increase if that is what is necessary to keep the schools healthy.

“We’re at a crossroads,” Chris Taylor said. “I do have concerns about where we might be going.”

Other speakers expressed concerns about the town’s priorities. Some called for the school cuts to be moved to other departments, including fire and public works.

“There’s no way I’m going to raise kids in this town if education is not important. I’d rather have a broken road than a broken child,” said Kerry Goulder, who has two young children.

Others, including two real estate agents, said the school district directly impacts home values, and that the town should keep that in mind when determining how to make cuts.

Hall’s draft budget does include a 2 percent cost-of-living increase for non-union town employees. Scarborough employees did not receive a cost-of-living increase last year and Hall said he believes it is important to show them they are valued.

“I know municipal employees are volunteering to forgo their cost-of-living increase again this year,” Councilor Michael Wood said. “I would rather have us look at that last.”

Hall said he was able to save more than $183,000 in the Public Works Department by offering early retirement to employees and then restructuring the department.

“We’re showing tremendous savings right out of the gate,” he said.

The council will review the budget and have its first reading during on April 7. A public hearing is scheduled for April 28 at the Municipal Center, and a referendum vote will be held May 11.

In other business, the Council unanimously approved an agreement with the Trust for Public Land to spend almost $638,000  to purchase two parcels of land at Higgins Beach and three parcels abutting the Nonesuch River on Mussey Road. The funds will come from a general obligation bond approved by voters in November 2003. The Trust for Public Land will contribute by matching the town’s investment.

The lots on Higgins Beach could be utilized to expand public parking in the area that suffers from congestion and parking issues. Several councilors said they regularly receive comments regarding the parking issue.

“This is all about the lots at Higgins Beach,” Wood said.

Councilor Chair Judith Roy expressed concern that the public would get the wrong impression that the council was being reckless with funds when the schools are facing difficult budget cuts.

“The timing for this is bad,” Roy said. “The presumption by folks is that the council is selling the school budget down the river. But the voters said ‘we want to set money aside of parcels of public land.'”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or