2018-04-13 / Front Page

Budget work begins again

By Grant McPherson Staff Writer

The budget for fiscal year 2019 has been unveiled, and while many in the community are hopeful that it can be passed on the first vote, some are questioning whether the town has lived up to its past promises.

Town Manager Tom Hall and Superintendent Julie Kukenberger presented the budget before town council Wednesday, April 4, in order to give councilors and residents an opportunity to look at it before a first reading scheduled for Wednesday, April 11.

The proposed budget for 2019 is $87,518,573, which requires an additional $3,323,357, or 5.32 percent, to be raised through property taxes. The tax rate would be expected to increase between 3.63 and 4.75 percent. For someone whose home is worth $300,000, they could pay between $5,127 and $5,182 in property taxes in 2019.

The major increases in the budget for the town include increased debt service from the public safety building bond projected to cost around $21.5 million, increased wages for employees due to cost of living and insurance and funding capital improvement projects through appropriations.

On the school side, wages and benefits were also a major contributing factor, as were state and federal mandates for special education expenses and a reduction in the use of fund balance.

According to Kukenberger’s proposal, the fiscal year 2019 budget still does not have all the funding the school needs to hire an additional second grade teacher at Blue Point School, where the average class size is expected to be 21 in the coming year. The school department also has unmet needs in the transportation department, career pathways/ internship specialist position, a STEM teacher for K-2 schools, athletics and activities staff and behavioral support staff for Wentworth and Middle School.

“This is a bare bones budget goal,” Kukenberger said. “The entire increase is under 6 percent and we feel it’s the most fiscally responsible budget we can present to council based on the needs we have. The next steps will be a further reduction in force, which is never an enjoyable process, but is our current reality. The reason for sharing our unmet needs is some requests have been heard a couple times before and continue to be on our list of investments we know we need to make to continue to improve our school system in incremental ways.”

Hall said that while the school department has received minimum receivership status from the state, the town would have more predictability going forward knowing how much it has to work with. He said the listening sessions held in January as well were helpful and informed much of the budget preparation. Hall echoed Kukenberger’s sentiments regarding budget needs and what the town can provide.

“The next level is a change of service and reducing somehow the magnitude,” Hall said. “Town council did fund a commercial and industrial revaluation that will be progressing through spring. That could provide new information perhaps before council takes a final reading on the budget talks. It’s something to tuck in the back of the mind. It could be impactful on the expected tax rate in a positive way, how much remains to be seen.”

Town Councilor Will Rowan and Board of Education member Hillory Durgin hosted the first of four neighborhood budget meetings at Dunstan Fire Station on Monday, April 9 to give residents an opportunity to ask questions about the budget. About 20 individuals attended and Hall, Kukenberger and Assistant Town Manager Larissa Crockett were present as well to help facilitate.

Residents were in large part appreciative of the work the school department had done to adjust for gaps in revenue and wanted to see what on the town side could be cut.

Resident Don Hamill said he’d rather postpone expenditures until the town could afford to pay for them.

“If 3 percent is the tax rate target, why are we not even seeing that number in the first proposal,” Hamill said. “Why establish a target if you don’t expect it to be met. Dispense with the target if you’re not going to hold people accountable. You say we can’t do better with our budget, I don’t believe that’s true. We expect people to figure that out to pay our taxes, we should expect that from town officials. “

Amelia Kurtz, another resident, said she would be willing to hear what needs to be cut if there isn’t revenue to pay for it.

“As an employer, I’m paying more to get the best employees and I’m not spending money on other things to make up the difference,” Kurtz said. “The money has to come from somewhere. Residents feel year after year it’s on the backs of kids and older folks, and we have all these new municipal vehicles driving around and a new building, too.”

Resident Larry Hartwell asked Rowan to reject the budget at the first reading and said Hall and Kukenberger should come back with a budget that meets the 3 percent goal. When Rowan asked audience members if even a three percent increase was too much, most audience members said yes, because wages have not increased for them on a yearly basis in the same manner.

“As far as the first reading and the acceptance of the budget, we have an opportunity to refine it based on research done in the finance committee,” Rowan said. “The budget evolves over time and the vote matters at the second reading. I haven’t had a debate yet. On Wednesday I will keep an open mind. I don’t know if I will reject the first reading. I don’t know the practical effect.”

Durgin said the leadership teams at the school department are doing all they can to use teachers and resources as efficiently as possible.

“We have people working for the schools who are really creative and really dedicated,” Durgin said. “With some of the enrollment decreases at the middle school, they took that extra time and used it to fill a need for all of them. With the $2.1 million windfall, we have to make up for that loss in state funding through the entire operating budget. We knew that last year. I don’t even like saying it but for the school side to make any significant reduction would mean a reduction in force.”

At the April 4 council meeting, Chairman Bill Donovan said he’s looking forward to working with the community to finalize this year’s budget.

“It’s important for the town to realize we’ve been in a free fall revenue situation for the last six to eight years,” Donovan said. “We would really like to be better long range planners of the budget and have more stability. We cannot have more stability in planning when we don’t have stability in the revenue stream. It’s really been a problem. We’ve finally reached a point where the (state) can’t take more money away from us and as a consequence we are in a much better position where we can control our spending.”

Staff Writer Grant McPherson can be reach at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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