BELFAST, Maine — For the fifth year in a row, Belfast residents won’t have to pay higher property taxes, after city councilors voted Tuesday night at the regular Belfast City Council meeting to hold the mill rate steady.
Although taxpayers likely will appreciate the city’s bare-bones budget, City Manager Joseph Slocum said Wednesday morning that the trend cannot last indefinitely. The mill rate was set at $19.30 in the 2008 fiscal year, $18.60 for the 2009 fiscal year and $18.10 for the 2010 fiscal year. The rate held at $18.10 for 2011 and will remain there for the next fiscal year, too.
“No municipality can cut taxes three years in a row,” Slocum said. “There’s no question things cost more. Everything costs more.”
The city budget for the next fiscal year has been set at $8,046,064, which is a 1.7 percent decrease from the budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30.
The various department heads made small cuts in a multitude of areas to reach that figure, Slocum said. At one point during the budget process, city councilors had asked department heads to show them what a decrease of five percent would look like.
According to the city manager, nobody liked the end result, which would have closed facilities like the Belfast Free Library and the transfer station one day a week.
“The council scrutinized it, and said, ‘these are the services that people in Belfast expect,’” Slocum said. “They restored a fair amount of those cutbacks. But they didn’t restore all of them.”
Significant budget decreases include $24,300 less for city employee health insurance benefits, $11,443 less for police salary and wages, $11,804 less for ambulance repairs and maintenance, $19,000 less for kennel contract and veterinarian fees for the animal control department and $14,500 less for park maintenance.
The city budget also includes a reduction of $110,360 for debt service and a cut of $129,744 for capital projects.
Areas with budget increases include salary and wage hikes of $14,555 altogether for the city manager’s office, the finance department, the assessing department and the economic development director; $46,280 for the ambulance department and $6,289 for the Belfast Free Library.
Additionally, the council voted to add a full-time position of assistant city planner. That department shows a total budget increase of $47,412.
Belfast badly needed an assistant city planner, Slocum said, because the city has had a “huge” amount of complex land-use related issues over the last few years.
The city’s estimated revenues for the next fiscal year likely will decrease to $4,387,220 from $4,413,450. That includes an expected reduction of about $15,000 from state municipal revenue sharing, the program that disperses sales tax, corporate tax and income tax to communities around the state. The figure had been $900,000 three years ago, but has dropped to just over $500,000 for the next fiscal year.
“That’s a big hit for us,” Slocum said. “It’s going to be a challenging year.”
City Councilor Mike Hurley said that while many other communities in Maine have had to contend with either drastic cuts to services or increased property tax rates in the last few years, Belfast has seen neither. He said that is in large credit to the city’s municipal department heads, who have kept spending down.
“I hope people realize how well the council and the management and the department heads have worked,” he said. “Nobody cares about a cemetery until they need to bury a loved one. We’re in the business of cemeteries, harbors, libraries, parks, boathouses. All of it has a cost. Balancing those costs is what the budget is all about.”