School costs up for Ellsworth

Posted May 10, 2011, at 7:30 p.m.

ELLSWORTH — “We’re being held hostage by Augusta!”

That was City Councilor John Moore’s reaction to the RSU 24 budget presentation Monday night.

“It’s like the Sheriff of Nottingham,” he said. “We’re being robbed by the EPS.”

EPS is the Essential Programs and Services formula that the state uses to determine the amount of state subsidy each town receives each year.

Based on this year’s figures, the amount of state subsidy Ellsworth receives will decrease, resulting in an increase in the city’s assessment for education for the RSU’s K-12 programs of almost $790,000.

And as bad as that news is, it is going to get worse as the city — and other towns in the RSU — can expect to receive less and less state subsidy, according to David Bridgham, the RSU business manager.

The number of students in the RSU has decreased in the past three years, although Ellsworth enrollment is expected to go up next year, and the valuation in the RSU is increasing faster than the state average. Ellsworth’s state valuation, in fact, at a little more than $1 billion, is higher than the state average.

Valuation and enrollment are two key factors in the EPS formula,  Bridgham said, and the state uses those figures to set a mill rate expectation that determines the amount a municipality must raise in order to receive state subsidy. Most school budgets require more than the EPS formula calculates, so municipalities also must contribute additional local funds.

The city has lost almost $500,000 in state aid since the RSU was formed in 2009. Based on this year’s EPS calculations and the general trends in enrollment and state valuation, the city’s subsidy will continue to decrease and its local assessment increase steadily over the next several years.

“Basically, you’ll be raising more local dollars to get less state dollars,’’ Bridgham said.

Ellsworth is not alone.

The RSU includes Ellsworth, Eastbrook, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock,  Lamoine, Mariaville, Sullivan, Sorrento, Steuben, Waltham and Winter Harbor.

Since 2009 when the RSU was formed, all but one of the 12 towns in the RSU have seen an overall decrease in state subsidy.  Only the town of Waltham is receiving more state funds — $4,926 more —  than it did in 2009. During that same period, all of the municipalities have had an increase in their local assessment for education, according to the information Bridgham supplied.

Based on the numbers over the past several years, he predicted that Ellsworth could lose a half million dollars in state subsidy each year for the next several years unless the state puts more money into education subsidies. He stressed that his estimates are based solely on the EPS formula and have little to do with the budget or the school organization.

“We could reduce the budget by  $3 million and it would not affect Ellsworth’s EPS share, “ Bridgham said. “It has nothing to do with the budget or school government. This would happen whether you’re part of a regional district, an RSU, CSD or a school union. “

Bridgham and interim Superintendent Wayne Enman presented a brief overview of the RSU budget to the council on Monday. The proposed budget totals $35,471,989.75, an overall increase of 9.9 percent.

“That seems high,” Bridgham said, “especially since we’ve seen decreases in the past two years.”

That figure, he said, is still $2.1 million less than the combined school budgets of all 12 towns now in the RSU in the year before the new district was formed.

Bridgham also noted that the total budget includes the $1.8 million debt payment on the Ellsworth Elementary/Middle School. That payment is reimbursed by the state at 100 percent, so the actual proposed operating budget for the RSU is $34,102,408, or a 5.8 percent increase.

Ellsworth’s share of the budget, including its EPS assessment, the additional local assessment plus adult education, totals $9,041,425, an increase of $789,842 or 9.57 percent.

Voters from all 12 towns will vote on the RSU budget at the annual district budget meeting set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 25, at the Hancock Grammar School.

At this point in the city’s budgeting process, it’s not possible to tell what affect that RSU assessment will have on taxpayers, according to Financial Director Tammy Mote. The council still has some budgeting decisions to make, and there are still some significant unknowns, including ongoing contract negotiations with city workers.

To allow time for city staff to work through some of those issues, councilors postponed the budget workshop scheduled for May 23 until June 6.

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