Bangor officials stress finances before legislators

Posted Feb. 01, 2011, at 11:08 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 05, 2011, at 6:07 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The biggest legislative concern among municipal and school officials in Bangor, unsurprisingly, is the flow of funding.

Any changes could make an already daunting budget process even more daunting, they told members of the city’s delegation — Sen. Nichi Farnham and Reps. Adam Goode, Jim Parker, Sara Stevens and Doug Damon — during a joint meeting Monday.

Among the biggest points of concern was school funding. Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb said her department already stands to see an estimated $2.7 million less in revenue for the 2012 fiscal year and that she is worried about further cuts.

“Bangor is what I call a lean machine,” she said Monday, ticking off examples of the department’s academic excellence in recent years. “Clearly, we’re using that money in effective ways.”

The Bangor School Department is on track to lose about $350,000 in Medicare reimbursements, $373,000 in various federal funds and another $500,000 in estimated reduced revenue sharing from the state. Additionally, $1.5 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act funds that were used last year to stabilize Bangor’s school budget will not be available.

Webb said she has heard rumblings about possible changes to the essential programs and services, or EPS, funding formula that distributes state funds to municipalities and said that would be bad for Bangor.

Other school departments and districts are likely to be in the same financial boat as Bangor, although some changes could shift funds away from bigger communities and toward smaller ones.

“I think if we start tinkering with the funding formula, it would create inequities,” Webb said.

She and her staff are working on the initial draft of the 2012 budget, but the superintendent said it would reflect many difficult choices and possibly staff reductions, a tax increase or both. School committee members are expected to begin discussing that budget in March.

While legislators listened to concerns and asked questions, Webb also weighed in Monday on charter schools, something Gov. Paul LePage supports. Charter schools are public, but they operate independently of local school boards and often with different curriculums and education philosophies.

“Competition is good, but you need a level playing field,” Webb said, explaining that she doesn’t believe charter schools should operate with a different set of rules.

On the municipal side, city councilors and staff members have financial concerns as well. The biggest unknown is how the Legislature plans to tackle gambling revenues now that voters have approved a resort casino for Oxford Country.

Bangor officials have a lot riding on their proceeds from Hollywood Slots, the state’s only other gambling facility, and don’t want to see any substantial changes.

The city now receives 1 percent of the 39 percent state tax on net revenue, as well as 3 percent of net revenue directly from Hollywood Slots. The city plans to use that money to help fund a proposed $65 million arena and convention center complex that is awaiting voter approval now that petitioners have secured a referendum vote.

Other councilors are concerned about possible changes to excise taxes, which municipalities rely on for road maintenance. At least one councilor, David Nealley, said he would support any reduction in automobile excise taxes, even in the face of decreased revenue for Bangor.

Finally, city health and community services director Shawn Yardley reiterated his concerns over any changes to general assistance funding from the state to Bangor. The city is one of three larger communities in Maine that gets a bigger share of state funding for general assistance because of its needs.

Any changes, Yardley said, could put a greater burden on Bangor taxpayers to provide emergency assistance to its most vulnerable residents.

City and school officials both expressed hope Monday that their legislators would keep them posted on any legislative decisions that could have impacts in Bangor.

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