SCARBOROUGH — After voters narrowly rejected the proposed $42.3 million school budget on May 13, the Town Council on Wednesday approved the first reading of a budget reduced by another $138,000.
The reduction, in response to voters’ indication that the proposed budget was too large, would produce a property tax increase of 3.25 percent in fiscal year 2015, down from 3.5 percent.
The council also amended the town tax assistance ordinance to replace the tax refund “Circuit Breaker” program.
School Finance Committee Chairman Chris Caiazzo said the new cuts would likely “compromise” proposed improvements to English and language arts at Wentworth Intermediate School and a new guidance counselor position at the high school, among other items. The school Finance Committee proposed the additional cuts; the School Board did not formally approve them.
The $138,000 reduction adds to the more than $1.5 million cut from the original proposal before it was sent out to voters.
Caiazzo’s frustration with the new reductions and 14 percent voter turnout on May 13 was palpable in his presentation to the council.
“I’m not certain what it says about a community that flocks to the polls on a matter that involves dogs and birds, while matters of education, preparing students for career success and community economic development, seem to draw the most minimal level of voter attention,” he said.
The town’s much-debated leash law referendum last December drew nearly 4,000 voters.
The council passed the first reading of the revised school budget 4-2, with Councilors Ed Blaise and James Benedict opposed and Richard Sullivan absent.
Councilors Bill Donovan and Jessica Holbrook supported the reductions, and said they expect community feedback in coming weeks. Holbrook said the small margin of defeat on May 13 – 156 votes – gives the council little direction.
“The question is, it only failed by a little bit, and how much is too low before you’re too low? I’m trying to wrestle with where’s the sweet spot to keep folks happy,” she said.
Blaise and Benedict said the tax impact is still too costly for residents. Blaise said he will only support a maximum tax increase of 1.5 percent.
The council will take final action on the budget at its June 4 meeting, which will start at 6 p.m., an hour earlier than usual. The school budget then goes to a second validation vote on Tuesday, June 10, the same day as state primary elections.
The existing school budget needed three referendums last year before it was approved.
In response to the state Legislature’s repeal of the Circuit Breaker program last summer, the council unanimously approved changes to the town’s tax assistance program, now called the Property Tax Fairness Credit, which will reflect new state mandates.
Eligible individuals younger than 70 years old will only qualify for a refund of up to $300 from the town; those older qualify for a maximum $400 refund.
The credit now must be claimed on an individual’s state income tax form.
To be eligible for the credit, individuals must make no more than $40,000 per year and reside in or have paid rent in Maine during the last tax year.
In response to constituent privacy concerns, Councilor Jean Marie Caterina proposed an amendment to the program that would prohibit the town from keeping applicants’ sensitive financial information.
In other business, Town Manager Tom Hall announced construction plans to continue the Eastern Trail from Wainwright Sports Complex in South Portland to Pleasant Hill Road. Construction on the final segment of the trail could begin this fall or early winter.
Hall also said the sidewalk improvements along Black Point Road near the Eastern Trail will enter final stages next week, and the pedestrian improvement project planned for the intersections of Gorham Road with Wentworth and Hannaford drives would go out to bid the second week of June.