Bangor superintendent cites prudence in budget plan

Posted April 15, 2010, at 9:29 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Step by step, line by painstaking line, schools Superintendent Betsy Webb spent more than an hour Wednesday explaining her proposed 2010-11 budget to city councilors and justifying a 1.36 percent increase.

The budget process, set against a backdrop of declining funds from the state and Bangor’s commitment to maintaining educational excellence, took several months and more than six drafts.

Webb said she used a multiyear approach when crafting the budget so the department could avoid high peaks and low valleys that area school departments are facing. She urged councilors — who must approve the school budget — not to topple the delicate balance she and her school committee created.

The $42.6 million budget that covers educational costs at 10 city schools reflects a loss of $900,000 in state aid but also includes approximately $1.5 million in federal stimulus funding that will be used to offset revenue loss. With stimulus funds, the budget increased by 1.36 percent but without, the budget actually is 2.7 percent less than the 2009-10 budget. Compared with other schools in the area, some of which have proposed double-digit percentage increases, Webb said Bangor has been fiscally prudent.

Most of the increases in expenses cover salaries and benefits to teachers and staff. In order to soften the effect of those increases, cuts were made in capital improvements, materials and the elimination of some teacher positions through attrition. The budget eliminates five full-time positions and two part-time jobs, which were all vacant.

Webb said without federal stimulus dollars, the school department likely would have had to seriously cut into student services or ask taxpayers for more money. As it stands, the proposed budget would increase the school department’s share of the municipal tax rate by 20 cents, from $8.70 to $8.90. Bangor’s overall tax rate is $19.05 per $1,000 of property valuation.

Six of Bangor’s nine councilors attended Wednesday budget workshop and most were pleased with what they heard. Hal Wheeler said he felt passing a budget with a zero increase — something that has been pushed for on the municipal side — is unattainable. Gerry Palmer said he wished the city’s budget were as comprehensive as what Webb presented. Geoff Gratwick, who is as fiscally cautious as any councilor, said of all the things that have claim on Bangor’s resources, education should be at the top of that list.

Council Chair Richard Stone, who has been the strongest voice pushing for a flat tax rate in Bangor, didn’t challenge Webb’s budget on Wednesday. In fact, the only opposition came from Cary Weston, who did not attend the budget workshop but sent a letter for Stone to share.

Weston wrote that he was a fan of the Bangor School Department and its achievement but he had strong concerns about any increases.

“A zero increase is our goal and [if we pass the school budget] we’re enabling a process we don’t condone,” he wrote.

Weston and Stone also expressed concerns that stimulus funds are being used to mask problems further down the road. Indeed, if Bangor wants to include all the items covered by stimulus funding in the 2011-2012 budget, it was have to add another $1.5 million to the budget, or 85 cents to the tax rate.

During its own budget discussions recently, the City Council has been firm in keeping a flat tax rate, even at the expense of cutting services in areas like fire and public works. The council must formally approve the school department’s budget by May 26 so that it can go before voters on June 8.

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