Brewer school, municipal budgets heading toward final approval

Posted May 25, 2011, at 9:34 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — After back-to-back presentations, city councilors put their unofficial stamp of approval on school and municipal spending plans for next year that won’t increase the property tax rate.

Despite projected losses in revenue sources and steep increases in many nondiscretionary expenses — including health insurance, fuel, retirement contributions, workers’ compensation costs and the county tax bill — the city managed to hammer out an overall budget of $32,520,767 for fiscal year 2012.

Though the budget reflects a 1.13 percent increase over the 2011 budget, city administrators were able to hold next year’s tax rate at this year’s $17.95 per $1,000 in property valuation.

During the first part of Tuesday’s budget hearing, Superintendent Daniel Lee and Gretchen Gardner, the School Department’s business manager, presented a $19,596,958 education spending plan. The expenditures would be offset by $14,141,927 in revenues, leaving $5,455,031 to be raised by city taxpayers, a drop of $125,000 from the amount they contributed this year.

That might not be the case next year, Lee noted. He said that school officials may be forced to ask for more local support because of the anticipated loss of federal stimulus dollars and likely reductions in state aid.

While the city councilors asked several questions about staffing adjustments and a couple of new positions, including a facilities manager, the only real criticism of the school budget came from Councilor Larry Doughty, who was not pleased that the budget included pay increases for school employees,

He pointed out that city employees had been asked to forgo them for three years in the council’s negotiations with six labor groups because of the tough economic times.

“We stuck to our guns and there were no raises,” he said.

In response to questions from Chairman Joe Ferris and other council members, Lee said that administrators had agreed to a three-year plan that provided for a 1 percent increase in the first and third years and no increase during the middle year.

He also said the teachers’ contract provides for step increases for those still working their way up the pay scale and $1,200 stipends for teachers who already have reached the top and otherwise would not have received raises.

During an overview of the municipal budget that followed, City Manager Steve Bost and Finance Director Karen Fussell presented a $12,043,265 spending plan that when offset by $5,850,265 in anticipated revenues would require $6,193,000 from taxpayers, or $290,207 more than this year.

Councilors again asked questions about specific expenditures and but made no changes. They applauded city staff for managing to keep the tax rate steady each year over the last decade, despite some big challenges.

“I keep thinking thinking there’s a bill we didn’t pay and somebody’s going to slip it under the door,” Ferris quipped after the budget reviews.

The budget now will move on to final adoption, which is slated to take place during the council’s July 7 meeting. The school budget faces one more hurdle after that, namely a budget validation referendum set for June 14.

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