May 21, 2018
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Houlton council approves $8.9 million budget

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff

HOULTON, Maine — Councilors on Monday evening approved an $8.9 million annual municipal budget despite some reluctance from a community member and a town councilor.

Only Councilor Paul Romanelli voted against passing the budget, citing concerns about the amount of money the town would set aside for road repair and maintenance. With a shaky economy and the threat of cuts looming in Augusta, Romanelli said he hesitated to set aside as much as $267,000 for roads.

Town Manager Doug Hazlett said town officials took a number of steps to keep the budget as low as possible this year. The proposed budget included salary freezes for department heads and nonunion staff members and deferred major capital projects.

Hazlett said the town saw a nearly $300,000 dip in state revenues. In Houlton, 88 percent of the town’s revenue comes from sources such as property and excise taxes and state revenue-sharing money. State revenue sharing, which is affected by the economy, has decreased.

Despite the dip, overall revenues still increased because of the town’s increasing valuation and improved ambulance revenues.

During the hour-long meeting, resident Phil Bernaiche attempted to get councilors to amend the budget several times. He asked that they cut money from the administration, police, public works and capital projects budgets. He failed each time, with councilors quickly voting against his suggestions.

A town ordinance says 1 mill of the budget must be dedicated each year to road repairs. The town, however, got out of the practice of fully funding the roads account for several years. This year, councilors decided to resume the practice and set aside $267,000 for the account.

On Monday evening, Romanelli asked fellow councilors how they felt about cutting $67,000 from that account. He said he feared the budget constraints in Augusta would be passed on to towns and that shaving $67,000 from the roads account would put the town on “more solid budgetary footing.”

He added the town took out a $1 million bond last year to repair roads and sidewalks. Most of the town’s roads have a fresh coat of asphalt and are in excellent condition, he said.

“I don’t think that taking $67,000 out for one year is going to kill our roads program,” he said.

Others disagreed.

Councilor Brian Donnelly said the town agreed several years ago to start dedicating a full mill of its budget to the roads account. Councilors never followed through on it.

Donnelly said he supported putting $267,000 into the account. Councilor Sue Tortello and Chairman Walter Goodrich agreed.

Tortello said she felt the town had a good budget and that the council did not have to make any cuts to it after the town’s budget committee saw it because it was so thoroughly reviewed.

“A lot of thought, hours and deep review has gone into this budget,” echoed Goodrich.

Councilors eventually decided not to cut any money from the roads account.

The town still does not know what it will have to pay as part of its commitment to SAD 29. Hazlett said the town has budgeted as if it will have to increase the commitment approximately 3 percent over last year’s money

Hazlett said he did not know whether the town’s tax rate would remain steady until he sees what happens with the state’s budget in Augusta.

The town sets the tax rate in the summer.

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