EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — In scenarios riddled with “what-ifs” and half-answered questions, town leaders say the town could face a tax rate increase next year of as much as 16 mills even before adding the cost of repairing Schenck High School’s roof.
Members of the Board of Selectmen and East Millinocket school committee conceded during a public hearing on Wednesday night that with the budgets of Gov. Paul LePage, municipal government and the school system still in development, it is exceedingly difficult to say exactly how much town taxes will rise without the roof repair work.
If it stays as it is, the proposed 2013-14 school budget will increase about $300,000 — enough to add as much as eight mills to the town’s 23.33 mill rate, committee Chairman Dan Byron said.
That would mean that a property worth $50,000 taxed $1,166 this year would be taxed $1,566 effective July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.
LePage’s proposed state budget would effectively increase the town’s budget another eight mills by decreasing state aid to the town, said Byron and Clint Linscott, chairman of the Board of Selectmen. That increase would bring to $1,966 the annual taxes paid by the owner of a $50,000 home.
And school repair cost estimates have fluctuated between $180,000 and $2.1 million. Superintendent Quenten Clark, Byron and the school’s janitor placed the cost of covering the leaky roof with a membrane at between $180,000 and $333,000, depending on how much of the roof or membrane underpinning is repaired.
Byron and the janitor, who declined to identify himself, said the membrane estimates were tentative and based on 2010 conditions.
A $2.1 million roof repair proposal calls for new R-38 roof insulation, a new gymnasium floor, emergency and exit lights, audio-visual fire alarms, repairing gym wall cracks, and remodeling bathrooms and drinking fountains to meet Americans With Disabilities Act requirements. The state would pay about $636,000 of the total.
By itself, the $2.1 million proposal is expected to raise the town’s 23.33 mill rate at least 1.1 mills — or $54 in property tax annually on property worth $50,000. The building serves about 280 students from East Millinocket, Medway and Woodville, including Opal Myrick Elementary School, which moved into a wing in 2011.
The school committee agreed to pursue that proposal several weeks ago, but a vote on whether to support it deadlocked at 2-2 on Tuesday. Members agreed to vote again later when an absent member was present.
No one appears to want Schenck’s closure and at meetings this week, selectmen and committee members pledged to work together to find a way to keep the school going. Residents have been almost unanimous in saying that the school should remain open, describing its staff and educational offerings as excellent and its place in the community as vital.
But the town faces declining school-age and general populations, rising education costs, and shrinking state aid and local tax bases within a Katahdin region economy that typically has an unemployment rate that runs double the state average.
Estimates place the school population decline at 55 percent since 1995, and Clark said during Tuesday’s meeting, which was attended by about 150 people, that he saw no immediate change in the downward trend.
No one can expect more tax help from Great Northern Paper Co. LLC., the town’s largest employer. The company has committed to paying $700,000 annually in property taxes for the next several years and cannot afford to pay more without endangering the company’s future, company President Ned Dwyer said.
“We have to make sure that this agreement remains in place,” Dwyer said during the meeting.
Residents expressed frustration that after several months, neither the selectmen or committee had developed sets of options for voters to consider or a clearer picture of the school’s problems.
Town leaders promised to develop scenarios. A referendum on the roof repair is expected in June.