ELLSWORTH, Maine — City councilors have adopted a municipal budget for the 2012 fiscal year and set a higher tax rate.
Based on the $9.8 million municipal budget approved on Monday, plus the city’s share of the RSU 24 budget, the tax rate will increase by more than half a mill next year.
The total municipal budget is $9,839,003. Of that amount, $6,541,665 will be raised through property taxes. Added to the city’s share of the RSU 24 budget, which is $9,043,511, the total to be raised through taxes next year is $15,585,176, an increase from the current year of $782,264.
That will result in a mill rate of $14.56, an increase of $.71 from the current rate of $13.85. The mill rate is the amount assessed on each $1,000 of property value. Based on the new rate, the tax on property valued at $100,000 would increase by $71 in the coming year.
City Manager Michelle Beal noted that in the past three years, the portion of the mill rate raised for the municipal budget has decreased, while the school portion has gone up. The city’s mill rate has gone from $6.06 in 2010 to $6.00 in the current year and to $5.73 for the 2012 fiscal year. The school mill rate has risen during that same time from $6.93 in 2010 to $7.49 in the current year and to $8.45 in the 2012 fiscal year.
Council Chairman Gary Fortier pointed out that the council had reduced the budget by $109,000 from the budget proposed by the city manager in March, and had authorized spending $250,000 from an education reserve account established in anticipation of rising eduction costs.
“That’s a total of $359,000 we’ve taken out of this budget,” Fortier said. “How long are we going to be able to do that and still maintain services?”
Councilor Stephen Beathem said the $250,000 couldn’t count as a true reduction since the city had planned ahead and set the money aside.
“We knew we were going to have to do it, so it’s not a true reduction,” he said. “We also know we’re going to have to fund that $250,000 next year. If there’s no growth in the tax base, we’re going to have to raise that amount.”
During a separate discussion on the recent referendum to approve the RSU 24 budget, councilors also raised concerns about the school budget approval process. Beathem noted that just 118 people from Ellsworth voted on the referendum for the RSU 24 school budget.
“The system is broken and it needs to be fixed,” he said. “It’s not a good situation when we’re dealing with millions of dollars and we’ve got only 118 people voting.”
Councilor John Phillips agreed, noting that the problem of low voter turnout was not just a local issue. The turnout in the city was about the same as the statewide average for budget validation votes, which he said, was about 2 percent.
“The system is flawed,” he said. “The system [former Gov. John] Baldacci gave us against our will is flawed, terribly flawed.”
Councilor John Moore said the turnout was an “embarrassment for us,” and he wondered if there was something the city had not done to advertise the budget referendum vote ahead of time.
City Clerk Heidi Knowlton noted that the turnout was higher than the last time the budget was the only item on the ballot. Both she and City Manager Beal said the city had taken extra measures, including posting the budget on websites and running ads, to make residents aware of the budget vote.
Councilor Pam Perkins said she would favor spending money and other resources in the future in order to increase efforts to encourage residents to get out and vote. But Councilor Matthew Boucher was leery of spending tax dollars on such an effort.
“How much do we want to spend to get people to vote on their taxes?” he asked.