Bangor council to school committee: Budget needs more cuts

Posted May 09, 2011, at 8:43 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — City councilors and school committee members remain apart, albeit only slightly, when it comes to the 2011-12 proposed budget, but the deadline for a decision is fast approaching.

The two elected bodies met jointly Monday night before the City Council meeting to discuss the School Department’s $41.7 million budget proposal. Although the school budget reflects $825,000 in reductions, it still would require an additional $350,000 from local taxpayers because of steep revenue losses.

City councilors, who made a pledge earlier this year to hold the tax rate flat, commended School Department officials Monday for their financial diligence, but some were not entirely satisfied.

Councilor Nelson Durgin said the School Department has passed budget increases in 18 of the last 23 years, a trend that is not sustainable.

“We’re sort of at a point to try to talk through some of these issues to see if there is some give,” he said.

Councilor Geoff Gratwick questioned whether the school committee took as critical a look at the budget as they could have given that they passed the budget just two weeks after it was first presented to them.

Chairwoman Phyllis Guerette quickly squashed that claim.

“Each of us asks a lot of tough questions,” she said, adding later, “We’re not closed-minded to saving money.”

Councilors, who must approve the school budget by May 23, did not take a vote Monday, but they nudged the School Department to look for additional savings. The City Council must approve the school budget but cannot make decisions on any line items.

Christine Szal said it was imperative that the council support the school budget as presented.

“The children of Bangor deserve no less,” she said.

Added Beth Grant: “[Additional] cuts would reverse the direction we want to be heading.”

The proposed school budget, outlined by Superintendent Betsy Webb, reflects cuts from areas including supplies, textbooks and minor capital improvements. It also eliminates 10 positions, half of which will result in layoffs.

Savings were achieved in heating costs resulting from the School Department’s staggered switchover to natural gas in recent years, but much of that money was put back into essential education programming.

Still, a $350,000 increase in the school budget translates to 15 cents on the municipal tax rate, which is $19.20 per $1,000 of property valuation.

City Manager Catherine Conlow presented an initial draft of the municipal budget last month, which keeps the flat tax pledge and actually absorbs a slight increase in taxes that are paid to Penobscot County.

“We’re so close,” Councilor David Nealley said. “If we can just find another dime or nickel [on the tax rate], I don’t believe that would send backward any positive momentum.”

After Monday’s joint meeting, at the beginning of the regular City Council meeting, resident Nick Bearce urged the council to reject the School Department budget as proposed.

Bearce said he was not upset with the budget itself but the process.

“There was no outside-the-box thinking, no real questions asked, no new ideas,” he said. “I’ve seen more transparency at a party meeting in the People’s Republic of China than I have at the Bangor School Committee.”

In addition to approval of the City Council, the Bangor school budget is subject to a referendum vote on June 14.

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