To soften funding blows from Augusta, Bucksport seeks 15 percent budget cut

Posted March 21, 2013, at 9:04 p.m.

BUCKSPORT, Maine — Municipal department heads have been told to whittle their budget proposals by 15 percent to accommodate expected revenue shortfalls as a result of the state budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.

“It would not make up for all of [the cuts], but it would make up for a big chunk of it, with the hope that not everything the governor wants will happen,” Town Manager Michael Brennan said Thursday.

Bucksport’s department heads already had written initial proposals for fiscal year 2014, which basically flat-funded their budgets.

Department heads’ “total budgets did not materially change from year to year,” said Finance Director Kathryn Hickson.

Total expenditures, however, amounted to about $12.2 million — a more than $1.2 million increase over the 2013 budget, Hickson said.

That increase reflected the town’s anticipation of paying more into Regional School Unit 25, to accommodate two pieces of the governor’s proposed budget: a cut to state education subsidies and the shift to local school districts to pick up more of the cost of teachers’ pensions. Hickson said those additional costs would have been covered by taxpayers.

The $1.2 million increase also accounted for some capital improvement projects, which would have been funded through surplus accounts, not additional tax dollars.

Department heads have since been instructed to cut 15 percent from their budget proposals, for a total cut of about $1.8 million. Hickson and Brennan both said town officials were taking the cuts seriously.

“We asked department heads to identify expenses to cut back — or eliminate — in their operations, which they are already operating in a very lean and frugal fashion,” Hickson said. “They took this very seriously and have done their part.”

Brennan had previously estimated that if all of the governor’s proposals were accepted, the town would see a budget shortfall of about $1.8 million. Hickson said the bulk of that gap would be felt on the municipal side of the budget, not the school side.

In a letter to department heads sent March 11, Brennan said the town needed to be scrupulous in looking for savings.

“We are looking for the best ways to make these changes without simply raising local taxes or just slashing programs and staffing,” he wrote. “While changes in staffing are still very likely on the table, opportunities to streamline operations without drastically changing or eliminating services that can reduce costs are critical.”

Bucksport is taking a more drastic approach to its budget than other area towns. In Ellsworth department heads have turned in budget proposals that either mirror last year’s or make some cuts, but nothing near 15 percent, said Finance Director Tammy Mote.

In Blue Hill, Selectman Jim Schatz said the goal is simply to keep spending flat. He said larger towns such as Bucksport and Ellsworth offer more services and have larger bureaucracies than do small towns such as Blue Hill.

“They have larger budgets to manage, which is probably a little more vulnerable in some places than ours is,” Schatz said, listing a reduction in homestead exemption reimbursements as one example where changes would affect larger towns more than smaller ones.

On Thursday, Brennan said that any budget scenario likely would include both a reduction of services, and thus spending, as well as a tax increase.

“We’re already very tight,” he said. “Some staffing changes are very likely, but how severe that is depends on the agreement between the governor and Legislature.”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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