BANGOR, Maine — After months of discussion, debate and deliberation, the Bangor City Council has tentatively agreed on a 2013 budget totalling $89,055,686, a figure that means a 2.3 percent increase in the mill rate.
“I’m never happy with a tax increase, but when you look at Bangor versus the rest of the state, a 2 percent increase isn’t entirely unreasonable, given the current economic conditions,” said Bangor Councilor and Mayor Cary Weston. “The theme was doing the same with less.”
Broken down into two main segments, the budget includes $47,636,961 for the city and $41,418,725 for the Bangor school system.
This will be the first mill rate increase since the 2011 fiscal year, when it went from 19.05 in both 2009 and 2010, to 19.2.
“It’s not fun and it’s not easy and no one wants to put through a tax increase, but we need to make some investments to make Bangor a place people want to live, work or visit,” said City Manager Cathy Conlow. “If you look at what we did 10 years ago versus what we do now, it’s not even close to being the same.”
The mill rate in 2002 was 23.75. The proposed rate of 19.65 for fiscal year 2013 means a homeowner with a residence valued at $150,000 will pay $67 more in property taxes.
Councilor Joe Baldacci said at least half of the mill rate increase is due to cuts in state funding, such as a 5 percent reduction in general assistance services reimbursements — from 90 percent to 85 percent above $750,000 spent by a city or town — creating a $120,000 funding decrease. Below $750,000, municipalities are reimbursed at a 50 percent rate.
Gov. Paul LePage initially wanted to cut the higher reimbursement rate from 90 percent to 50 percent — creating a potential $1.1 million shortfall for Bangor — but Weston and a coalition of mayors successfully lobbied for the 85 percent compromise.
“What you saw with the coalition was meeting [the shortfall problem] with a core solution and offering alternatives that achieve reform in a different way,” said Weston. “The council should be commended for seeing the opportunity behind the mayors’ coalition and sharing like challenges and concerns.”
The new budget, which awaits an official approval vote by the Bangor City Council on Monday, June 25, includes deductions and additions in terms of personnel, services and infrastructure.
The budget includes a bond issue for $2.5 million for road, sidewalk and bridge improvements throughout Bangor as well as wage increases for nonunion municipal employees.
Baldacci was among the proponents for increasing funding for road and bridge maintenance and city staff wages.
“The original budget called for $800,000 for roads,” said Baldacci. “We increased that to $2.5 million this year, and trying to continue to do that each of the next two or three years is the goal.”
Councilor Ben Sprague said despite current national, state and city economic woes, it’s actually an opportune time to accelerate capital improvements through financing.
“It’s inexpensive to borrow right now at less than 1 percent, so it’s a good time for the city to make these infrastructure improvements,” Sprague said.
Conlow said after three years of no cost-of-living increases in city staff salaries, it was time to address wage increases. She said the increases are for nonunion workers only at this point because the city is currently negotiating with 11 bargaining units.
“Our wage rates are slipping behind other municipalities, so it becomes a question of ‘do we want to take a chance on losing our employees to other municipalities?’’’ Conlow asked. “Just like a business, we need to remain competitive in the market.”
Conversely, while some city workers will see raises, some will have their positions cut.
“We looked at some services provided and realized there were some things we didn’t need to do,” Conlow explained. “I think we were more strategic about it this year in terms of reallocation.”
Five positions vacated due to retirement or employees taking other jobs will not be filled, and those responsibilities will be reassigned. Four other full-time positions will be cut.
Conlow said some Bangor homeowners will pay less in property taxes due to assessing adjustments.
“Residential valuations have declined in a lot of areas, so it’s likely that a significant number of residents will pay less because some assessments have gone down,” she said.