SCARBOROUGH — In stark contrast to recent years, a hearing Wednesday on the proposed fiscal 2017 budget elicited no public comment.
Town Councilor Chris Caiazzo said he interpreted the lack of discussion “on both sides” as an “endorsement that our process is working well.”
For at least the last three years, the town of about 19,500 has failed to pass a school budget on the first try. Last year, the process required two referendums before the budget was passed successfully on the third attempt. The initial proposed budget last year called for an 8.5 percent tax increase.
The combined $81.7 million municipal and school budget proposal is up $3.5 million from the current budget of $78.2 million, or 4.4 percent. Approximately $60.4 million would fall to taxpayers, compared with $58 million this fiscal year; $39.7 million of the proposed $47.5 million school budget would come from local taxes, representing a 5.5 percent tax increase on the school side.
The lack of comment from the public at the May 4 council meeting is probably due to a comparably marginal increase in the proposed tax rate of 3.27 percent, or $16 per $1,000 valuation – up 51 cents from this year’s mil rate of $15.49.
The annual property tax bill is projected to show an increase of $153 for the owner of a home valued at $300,000.
Complicating the School Department’s funding situation is a gradual decline in state aid. Town Manager Tom Hall said in his early April budget presentation that the town expects to receive nearly 23 percent less school funding this year from the state, which includes a reduction of more than $1 million in general purpose aid.
Although members of the public were silent Wednesday, some skepticism persists.
Resident Steve Hanly, who frequently blogs about town government at lookoutscarborough.com, isn’t convinced the budget process has improved. If anything, he said Thursday morning, residents are being “lulled into a false sense of security by an artificially low tax rate increase.”
With the comparably modest tax increase proposed this year, in part thanks to a leftover $1.6 million from construction of the new Wentworth Intermediate School, he said residents are going be surprised in subsequent years as the town gets less state aid, as district expenditures increase, and as that $1.6 million windfall dries up.
The proposed budget “seems to be sailing through the way it was intended to,” he said, and “I think that’s at the expense of the taxpayers, really.”
A second reading of the proposed budget is scheduled for Wednesday, May 18, and the school budget referendum is scheduled for June 14.
The hope, Chairman Bill Donovan said Wednesday, is that the town will pass the budget on the first try.