Brewer holding line on taxes for 10th straight year

Posted May 16, 2011, at 8:59 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — As it has for the previous nine years, the city of Brewer has held or lowered its mill rate, but unlike last year, it was able to do so without any painful cuts of services or personnel.

“Last year we had a very difficult budget. We did maintain a flat mill rate, but we made a lot of sacrifices with staff reductions, changes in service priorities and levels on the city and the school side,” said Karen Fussell, Brewer’s finance director and treasurer. “Those difficult decisions we made last year created a very solid foundation for us to build on this year.”

Brewer’s proposed municipal budget of $32,520,767 for fiscal year 2012 represents a 1.13 percent increase over the 2011 budget. Despite the slight increase in the proposal, Brewer would maintain a stable mill rate of $17.95.

“I have to say, I think you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find another community that’s done that, especially in these last couple years when revenues have absolutely gone off a cliff,” Fussell said.

Impediments to keeping the budget flat include:

  • Continued declines in property and nonproperty tax revenues.
  • A $45,000 (5.5 percent) rise in Penobscot County tax assessment.
  • Steep increases in many nondiscretionary expenses such as health insurance ($60,000, or 8 percent), rapidly increasing fuel costs ($100,000, or 50 percent), Maine Public Employees Retirement System contributions ($49,000, or 26 percent), and higher workers’ compensation costs ($18,000, or 18 percent).
  • A 4 percent ($24 per household annually) increase in the sewer rate because of declining revenues and increased sewer fund costs stemming from a 15-year-old federal mandate to separate sewage lines from stormwater lines.

“I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but we’re very fortunate to have department heads who are very knowledgeable about their expenditures and who know where council wants to go,” said Fussell.

Some steps taken to save money include:

  • The consolidation of four public schools (Washington, Capri, and State Street along with Brewer Middle School) and the opening of the Brewer Community School for prekindergarten through grade eight.
  • A freezing of city employee salaries for the third consecutive year.
  • A holding of the water rate after a decrease of 7 percent last year.
  • The use of sheltered tax increment financing revenues to offset more than $1 million in general fund expenses. This will be the fourth straight year TIF revenues will be used to fund the entire annual budget of the Economic Development Department ($267,000) plus a notable amount of debt service ($746,000). The 2012 debt service installment ($208,000) on the performing arts center located at the new school also is being paid with TIF funds.
  • A $1.2 million federal grant and $300,000 in city TIF money dedicated to the construction of Brewer’s Capital Improvement Plan waterfront jogging and cycling trail, which will be started this summer, as well as funds for the remediation and demolition of two vacated schools: Washington and Capri Street.
  • Continued development of the new Business and Commerce Park near adjacent Wiswell Road and Elm Street, where Maine Liquid Methane Fuels is still pursuing a plan to build a facility; the purchase of the former Lemforder Parts buildings, which now house several business including a startup called SnapSpace Solutions; and Cianbro taking over full ownership of the former Eastern Fine Paper property from South Brewer Redevelopment.
  • Early and continued success of Brewer’s expanded recycling program, which has increased recycling rates 400 percent, and the pay-as-you-throw trash collection system, which has helped reduce trash volume 50 percent since its institution in January.

Fussell and City Manager Steve Bost also point out a 28 percent decrease ($214,000) in the use of fund balance money, which has been used to help keep the tax rate stable over previous years.

“It’s like dipping into your savings account to buy something when you no longer have the cash or the money in your checking account,” said Fussell. “We’ve been dipping into it for awhile, but using less of those funds this year gives us a chance to build it back up and the more fund balance money you have, the better your bond rating.”

Both Bost and Fussell encourage Brewer residents to review copies of the proposed budget either at the city clerk’s office or the Brewer Public Library before a May 24 council meeting. The council vote on the budget is scheduled for June 7.

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