BIDDEFORD, Maine — Two dozen residents had much to say Monday night about the proposed $61 million combined city and school budget.
Both positive and negative comments were heard by the city council at the public hearing at the Biddeford Middle School performing arts center, as residents advocated either for budget cuts or more funding.
As proposed, the estimated expenditure budget for the city is $26.3 million, plus $33.2 million for education and $1.3 million for the city’s share of county taxes.
A number of people said they were concerned about the projected $1.21 increase on the mil rate for the new budget to begin July 1. That’s a 7.3 percent increase over the current year. The new tax rate would be $17.75 per $1,000 of property value.
Mayor Alan Casavant said he and the city council have been “hammering away” on the fiscal year 2014 year budget for several months.
“This budget is still in process,” he said.
There are a number of unknowns, such as whether state government will withhold $1.6 million in state revenue sharing from the city. Gov. Paul LePage has proposed eliminating state revenue sharing to all communities for the next fiscal year.
Public input is important, said Casavant.
“We need you vested in [the budget],” he said. “We need to know what you’re thinking and your suggestions.”
Since 2007, the Biddeford mil rate has risen significantly higher than inflation and more than the mean wage for the area, which includes Biddeford, Portland and South Portland, said resident Tony Curro.
“We can’t afford to have these increases,” he said. “We’re on an unsustainable path we somehow need to alter.”
Some said in these economically challenging times, salary increases should be on hold for city staff.
“I didn’t get a raise this year or last year,” said Bill, a resident who didn’t give his last name. He added that raising property taxes is akin to asking all taxpayers to take a pay cut.
Cari Cote, who initially asked the council to support a $30,000 drainage improvement at May Field, said she works for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and hasn’t received a raise since 2008.
Some people went on the offensive against the mayor and council.
“I feel I’ve been sold a bill of goods by our local politicians,” said Bruce Martin. “Enough is enough. I want a zero percent increase.”
“I am ashamed of you folks,” said Dot Cook. “We need to make cuts. We cannot afford a tax increase.”
Several spoke against a proposed parking garage to be built in the mill district. Casavant noted that the garage is not included in the budget.
Cutting the Health and Human Services Department budget by more than $100,000 was a concern to some. However, after the meeting, department Director Vicky Edgerly said she went along with the reduction because a major increase had been made to her department in the current year’s budget, in anticipation of higher costs that didn’t materialize.
Not all comments were negative. Several people spoke in support of the budget.
“City services cost a lot of money and costs go up,” said Amy DeLorge. She urged the council to support the budget asked for by city departments.
Beth Goodrich went to the podium, accompanied by her 8-year-old daughters, Grace and Rose, to urge against reducing the school budget. Speaking about her daughters, Goodrich told the council, “I wanted you to see the faces you’re going to be affecting with the school budget.”
Police Chief Roger Beaupre, who was speaking not as a department head but as a resident, said property taxes aren’t that expensive for the amount of services the city provides, especially when compared to the cost of cable television and cellphone service that many people purchase.
In addition to talking about the budget in general, several people spoke in favor of a request to increase the city’s contribution to the library by more than $80,000, to $410,000.
“I have been going to the McArthur Library since before I could even read,” said Marissa Heffernan, a Biddeford High School sophomore and honors student, who said she got her library card when she was 2 years old. “I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for the McArthur.”
The library provides services for all ages, said Heffernan.
“It’s the heart of the community, and I hope you keep it in your hearts as well,” she said to the council.
Mary Lyons listed many of the services provided to the city by the library and said “studies show the presence of a library is good for towns and cities.”
Second-grade teacher Rebecca Reynolds said she relies on the library for materials she can’t get at school because of budget cuts.
The city council will hold an initial discussion and vote on the school budget on Thursday at 7 p.m. in City Hall, and on the city budget on Monday at 7 p.m. at Biddeford Middle School. The final vote by the council on the entire budget will take place on June 3.
The public referendum on the school budget will take place June 13.