Controversy, disagreement missing from Bangor budget talks

Posted June 20, 2011, at 6:03 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Catherine Conlow’s first budget as Bangor’s city manager has lacked the tension that often exists among city councilors and staff, a sign perhaps that elected officials and city employees are getting along better than ever.

Councilor Rick Bronson, who is chairman of the Finance Committee, said the harmonious process is a credit to Conlow, to Finance Director Debbie Cyr, the budget’s chief architect, and to Council Chairwoman Susan Hawes, who has facilitated budget talks.

“From the beginning, staff understood the council’s wishes to hold the tax rate, so the council never had to fight against the staff’s budget,” Bronson said. “It’s a budget without a tax increase, without too much pain, so I think we can be happy about that.”

Councilors are set to formally vote on the approximately $88 million municipal and school budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year at the council meeting on Monday, June 27.

Most of the details, though, already have been worked out over the last several weeks.

As Bronson mentioned, councilors set a goal early on to hold Bangor’s property tax rate flat at $19.20 per $1,000 of assessed value.

Conlow said it wasn’t always easy to meet that goal — no municipal employees will get cost-of-living wage increases and six positions were eliminated — but her first budget in Bangor has gone smoothly for the most part.

“Everybody kind of came together,” she said. “The council has been very thoughtful about its responsibility to taxpayers, both in providing necessary services and in keeping the tax rate stable.”

Last year, the budget passed in the narrowest of votes, capping off weeks of sometimes acrimonious debate between staff and councilors and among councilors themselves. The result was a budget that increased the tax rate by 15 cents and seemed to please no one on the council.

This year’s budget was not without passionate debate — most notably when the council asked the school committee to trim its budget further — but, as a whole, the fireworks were minimal.

Bronson said he believes last year’s budget debate was not as contentious as reported, but he agreed that this year’s discussion was much more civil.

“Usually, one department ends up in the spotlight more than others,” he said. “Last year, it was the Police Department; this year, it was the schools.”

A year ago, councilors were wrangling over a proposal to use a portion of the city’s undesignated fund balance — essentially, its savings account — to keep the tax rate flat. Eventually, the council voted not to dip into reserves to fund the operating budget.

This year, however, councilors did agree to use some of the city’s undesignated fund balance, only for a different purpose. Conlow said councilors agreed to apply a portion of reserves to fund one-time expenses such as implementing a new computerized integrated financial system that will better organize the city’s finances and likely save money in the future.

Bronson said the budget negotiations this year featured the same comments from residents about reducing wasteful spending or failing to adequately fund public safety, but he said that happens every year.

Conlow said she was particularly proud that the city absorbed an increase in the tax levied by Penobscot County. Ironically, the county increase was needed to pay for its consolidation of emergency dispatch services with Bangor. That process is on hold pending a citizens’ referendum in November that seeks to overturn the council’s decision to merge its dispatch with the county.

Conlow said Bangor’s budget does not figure in possible changes to recycling or trash removal, changes to downtown parking management or moving dispatch to the county. However, the city could make a financial adjustment if any of those changes go through in the middle of the fiscal year.

If approved next week, Bangor’s 2011-12 budget goes into effect on July 1.

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