SCARBOROUGH — Town councilors believe they’ve found a compromise that will both reduce the tax burden and preserve services and programs in the fiscal year 2016 school budget.
By a unanimous vote Wednesday, councilors approved the first reading of a $43.3 million school budget, with a $38.3 million request for property tax revenue. The budget is $500,000 less than the one voters rejected June 9.
“I do hope the folks in the town can come and meet us in the middle a little bit,” Town Council Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook said. “We have to pass something and we have to move forward as a community.”
The revised budget now goes to a public hearing June 24 at 7 p.m. before a second council vote and another referendum on July 7. Polls at Town Hall will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. that day; absentee ballots are available now, but cannot be turned in before June 25. Early voting begins June 25 and extends through July 2, Town Clerk Tody Justice said.
Councilors on Wednesday also unanimously forwarded zoning changes for Haigis Parkway to the Planning Board, approved a three-year contract with 34 police officers, and accepted a land donation that will be a key to the extension of the Eastern Trail.
It is now up to the School Board to determine how to make the cuts, because the Town Council can determine how much is spent on education, but not where it is spent.
Kate Bolton, the School Department business manager, said the budget would be discussed Thursday night, although decisions on specific reductions might not be made until after the second reading by councilors.
“We knew there was going to be a reduction, we didn’t know it would be to this magnitude,” Bolton said.
The revised school budget would lead to a possible overall property tax rate of just under 5 percent, to $15.82 per $1,000, compared with the previously projected $15.97. Owners of properties valued at $300,000 would see a tax increase of $216.
The tax rate could be further reduced by an infusion of additional general purpose aid from the Maine Department of Education if the biennial budget passed Tuesday by the Legislature withstands vetoes by Gov. Paul LePage.
An amendment to the council order introduced by Councilor Shawn Babine ensures any unanticipated aid from the state will go directly to reduce property taxes if it is allocated before the tax commitment needed for individual bills is completed in August.
Otherwise, any additional aid above the budgeted $3.76 million will go to an undesignated surplus fund and could be used for the fiscal 2017 budget.
The new education budget, if approved, would lead to a $77 million budget for education, municipal and capital operations and bonding, with $59.3 million drawn from property taxes.
While Holbrook said she sought a “sweet spot” that would heed voters’ intent in the referendum, three motions to reduce the budget by amounts of $2 million, $616,000 and $350,000 failed.
Councilor Ed Blais offered the largest cuts, while Councilor Bill Donovan said his motion to remove $350,000 was a compromise because he actually favored a $250,000 cut.
“I really believe this is a number that should not impact the delivery of services to our children,” Councilor Peter Hayes said about the $500,000 reduction.
Public comments from residents and School Board members were just as varied, and punctuated by pleas to make the budget process more collaborative and inclusive in the future.
“You wonder if you think your friends are anti-education. There is no joy in standing up here and there is no joy in a no vote, but sometimes you have to stay stop,” Longmeadow Road resident Betsy Gleysteen said.
Gleysteen said the $733,000 proposed to supply computers to students should have gone to a public vote outside the school budget, since it was possibly the item that led people to vote against the entire budget.
Windsor Pines Drive resident Stacey Newman objected to rhetoric she said she heard during the process about children being a burden on property tax rates.
“Are they little burdens wearing backpacks going to school?” she asked.
Allowable uses on the southern end of Haigis Parkway could be expanded after councilors held the first reading of measures that would allow food processing in the area stretching from a nearly completed rock-climbing gym to U.S. Route 1, while also adding another parcel to the zone.
Town Planner Dan Bacon and Karen Martin, executive director of the Scarborough Economic Development Corp., said the changes reflect the growing demand for food processing, as well as changes in the industry that make it less invasive and unpleasant to neighboring businesses.
“Food processing really has become a powerhouse,” Martin said, while Bacon noted the zoning provisions are written to prevent excessive odors, noise or outdoor storage.
A three-year agreement with the Scarborough Police Benevolent Association, from July 1 through June 30, 2018, was unanimously approved. The contract covers 34 officers, Town Manager Tom Hall said.
Union members will get annual raises of 2.5 percent, but the increases are offset by a reduction in health insurance costs.
A donation of 20 acres of land between Prout’s Pond and Highland Avenue from the Maine Turnpike Authority will allow continuation of the Eastern Trail, from the Wainwright Athletic Fields complex in South Portland to the eastern edge of Pleasant Hill Road.
Hall said the land was obtained by the MTA as part of a wetlands mitigation needed for work at local Maine Turnpike exits about 20 years ago.
The Eastern Trail extends from Kittery to South Portland. Bacon noted the town has been working to close a 1.5-mile gap from the eastern bank of the Nonesuch River to the South Portland boundary.
The town obtained a grant from the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System for design and construction of the Pleasant Hill-to-Wainwright section. Trail construction could be done early next year, Bacon said.