EASTPORT, Maine — Every town in Maine is struggling with budgets — whether they are tiny communities getting ready for March town meeting season, or larger cities, such as Eastport, with a spring deadline.
George “Bud” Finch, Eastport’s town manager for the past 14 years, will leave Eastport soon, and he said Tuesday the city is better off than many others when it comes to 2010 budgeting.
“Augusta is shifting more and more of the burden onto communities,” Finch said. “That burden is very significant.” But because Eastport officials have been pro-active, he said the city should be able to weather decreasing revenues and increasing expenditures.
“The budget for the city of Eastport in terms of functions it has total control over — administration, public works, police, fire — will be able to be held in check in terms of expenses,” Finch said.
“I would expect the schools for the most part can hold their budget fairly close to the line in terms of expenses.” Finch said this leaves the area of limited control such as county tax, hydrant fees and solid waste disposal as the major expense concern.
“Of particular concern this year is the Passamaquoddy Water District’s request for an 18.6 percent increase, which in itself could amount to a 1.5 percent increase in taxes,” Finch said.
Any water increase must be approved by the Public Utilities Commission.
Finch said what worries him the most is not simply an increase in the budget, but the larger decrease in revenues.
“Municipalities are being hit hard by loss of revenues from the state from revenue sharing and education,” he said. “These losses of revenue are what will make the budget process so difficult as towns struggle to offset the losses by decreasing expenses sufficiently enough to keep the mill rate as flat as possible. Education revenue losses alone could make that near impossible to accomplish.”
Finch said the June 2009 to July 2010 budget is $4.8 million and he is confident the Eastport council can hold to that figure. The city’s mill rate dropped 13 cents last year, from $20.20 per thousand dollars of valuation to $20.07.
“This reduction accounted for a 5.2 percent decrease in expenses, which was unfortunately offset by a decrease in revenues of $99,342,” Finch said.
Finch said next year’s budget process would be very complex for all communities, suggesting that it could be the most difficult budget year in recent memory.
“Eastport’s process is set up slightly different than a lot of communities as it is managed on a fluid basis, being adjusted literally every day in preparation of the coming year,” Finch said. “Changes are automatically calculated into the next budget as they become known, be it increases or decreases, revenues or expenses. With the problems the state is facing with their current and future budgets, municipalities may not know what funds they will receive from the state until as late as June.”
Meanwhile, Finch and city councilors are still ironing out the details of his departure. Earlier this month, Finch submitted and the council accepted his resignation. The resignation is effective Dec. 31, but negotiations are under way to possibly retain Finch as a consultant while a new town manager is found.
“This is the most difficult time in terms of a fiscal year to be changing administrators and it is made far more difficult by the economic issues we are faced with,” Finch said. “I have committed to work with the council as closely as I can to help make it as smooth a transition as possible. In addition to the standard municipal operations, there are major hurdles that are far higher on the priority list in need of addressing. Education, sewer and water are all areas with ever-increasing and significant costs with little local control.”
Finch said these issues would have to move to the forefront of the council’s direction in 2010.