Time running out for Brunswick budget decisions

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BRUNSWICK — With about a week before a scheduled vote on the fiscal 2013 budget, the Town Council has yet to tell municipal staff whether a proposed 6.2 percent tax hike is acceptable.

Town Manager Gary Brown first asked for a budget target when he unveiled the $54.8 million budget on April 30. Since then, the council has been scrutinizing department expenditures, but has not formed a collective opinion on a target.

The budget increase is largely due to a $2.4 million reduction in state support for the Brunswick School Department, which faces a $3 million budget shortfall.

During a workshop on Monday, Brown renewed a call for feedback that would establish a target for the budget. But councilors had differing opinions.

“I would like to see that decrease some,” Councilor John Perrault said. “When we’re looking to raise the budget 6.21 percent, cutting a percent or percent-and-a-half … would in my mind be a very beneficial thing.”

Perrault later said he would support a 5 percent increase, and that road work could be deferred to trim the budget and help achieve that goal.

“I think we need to show good faith … to show that we are trying instead of spending and spending,” he said.

Councilor Ben Tucker disagreed.

“I’m comfortable with this budget,” he said. “In fact, I want more for the sidewalk program.”

He noted that, since coming up with the 6.2 percent figure, Brown has projected increased revenues, which could make for a slightly better outlook. Tucker said the added revenues would be better directed to bolster sidewalk improvements than to reduce the tax increase.

“I don’t think it’s going to be 6.21 (percent); I think it’s going to be a little less,” he said.

Other councilors also expressed support for sidewalk improvements and construction.

One specific item in the budget that came under discussion on Monday was a roughly $200,000 “placeholder” that would go toward costs associated with a new police station. The station has yet to be approved by voters.

“It’s prudent to keep that in,” Tucker said. “It’s not a disaster to take it out, but it’s prudent to keep it in, because we’ve planned for it.”

Tucker said that deferring the police station cost could disproportionately impact next year’s budget process.

“By taking it out … we’re going to be explaining a 7 percent budget increase, perhaps, next year,” he said. “Do you want to jack it up next year and put the council in a spot, perhaps, where we don’t have any wiggle room?”

But Perrault said that deferring the expense would be a better choice.

“The talk on the police station had been all along that we would not raise taxes to fund the police station,” he said. “… Now I find that it’s already in the budget. … I believe that we have to face next year when next year comes. We have to face this year as this year comes.”

Over the past three weeks, various departments, including the school, have presented their individual budgets and offered their explanations for line-item increases.

Several councilors have indicated they support fully funding the school budget, which makes up 62 percent of the total municipal budget.

The school budget has increased by a relatively small 0.6 percent, but the loss of state revenues means that a 14 percent increase in local revenues is needed to fund that budget.

The council is scheduled to take a final vote on the budget on May 31. On June 12, the public will vote the school budget up or down. 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or matthh@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hh_matt.