Houlton councilors urge SAD 29 to help them avoid tax increase

Posted Jan. 15, 2013, at 4:56 p.m.

HOULTON, Maine — With the $9.4 million municipal budget passed, town councilors Monday evening signed off on a letter to the SAD 29 school board expressing their hope of working together to hold the line on property taxes this year.

The councilors put their stamp on the letter during the hour-long meeting, which came 11 days after a public hearing in which the 2013 budget was passed. At this point, the budget is expected to keep the 19.95 mill rate unchanged.

Municipal spending is up by $117,497 from 2012, mainly due to a 2 percent salary increase for town employees. Originally, it appeared that the tax rate would increase by 1.25 mills. Just prior to the public hearing, however, Town Manager Gene Conlogue proposed a number of changes that would lower expenses and bring in additional revenue. The council accepted his recommendations.

The town is allocating more than $2.2 million for its share of the SAD 29 school budget. That is up $164,191 over last year.

As has been a problem in the past, the town is uncertain whether taxes will increase because the town and school operate on different fiscal calendars. The town sets its budget in January, while the district sets its in June or July. That means that the town has to estimate how much it will have to pay the school approximately six months before it actually gets the bill.

In the letter to be sent to the school board, councilors “implore” the panel to at the very least keep the mill rate stable this year.

“If reductions are required to accomplish this goal, the council will be supportive,” the letter reads. “We respectfully ask that you closely examine your budget proposals to identify real ‘needs’ compared to ‘wants.’ While the town has adopted its budget, it will continue throughout the year to find other areas of reductions and savings. We respectfully ask that you look closely at your budget as well with the same goal in mind.”

Councilors also note that the district has a “sizable” surplus fund, which they said stands at $700,000 after the recent commitment of $500,000 toward a number of capital projects.

“We respectfully suggest that some of the fund balance be used to fund your upcoming budget, especially if it would avoid a tax increase or actually reduce the property tax burden if economies in the budget can be found,” the letter continues.

During Monday night’s meeting, councilors said they felt that it was particularly important for the school district to help them keep taxes down in light of of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration’s announcement to balance the current state budget and pay for state services without new taxes.

Conlogue and several councilors expressed fear about the governor’s plan, which would stop revenue-sharing payments to cities and towns to save $98.9 million each in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, according to the governor’s office. The $6.3 billion proposal also would eliminate the homestead property tax exemption and circuit breaker program for everyone except people older than 65 and veterans.

Once the letter is sent, the council is hoping to meet with the school board to discuss the issue.

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