Bangor makes cuts but still looking at nearly $1 increase in tax rate, 12 percent reduction in library funding
BANGOR, Maine — The sting of the city’s upcoming budget will be felt throughout city government and services and could stymie plans to renovate Bangor Public Library, according to city and library officials.
Last week, councilors met for a budget workshop and were faced with hard decisions about how to equitably spread the hurt caused by shifting financial responsibilities onto municipalities, city officials said Tuesday.
In the coming budget year, the city will be required to pick up costs it hasn’t faced in the past, according to City Manager Cathy Conlow. For example, the city will have to pay more toward its employees’ health insurance costs under the Affordable Care Act, expensive infrastructure work to meet federal stormwater standards, upgraded computer software for the Fire Department, and more expensive training requirements.
“Pretty soon, you’ve mandated us to death,” Conlow said.
Bangor’s budget doesn’t take into account Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, which would shift more costs onto municipalities and force the city to cut more personnel and services, according to Conlow.
In April, city councilors received a budget proposal which would have resulted in a $1.52 increase to the mill rate, which today is about $19.60 per $1,000 of valuation. That was too expensive for councilors, who directed city staff to work harder to find places to save. Councilors have tentatively approved a list of cuts and some reductions in service since to reduce that mill rate increase to less than $1, but the budget continues to evolve, Conlow said.
In order to avoid drastically increasing the city’s tax rate, the city proposed 12 percent budget cuts across the board at its “outside agencies,” such as the Hammond Street Senior Center and the city’s Commission for Cultural Development. The cuts received initial support among most councilors, but the final vote on the budget isn’t until late June.
City departments likely will face layoffs and reductions of their own, according to Conlow. The city has not decided what positions or personnel might be cut, she said.
“Out of fairness in a budget year that’s very difficult, we as a council decided that it would be much more prudent to reduce everybody’s funding on a flat rate,” Councilor James Gallant said Tuesday. He called the cut “fair enough to swallow.”
One victim of the proposed cuts could be the Bangor Public Library’s planned $9 million renovation and fundraising project, according to library director Barbara McDade.
The century-old library is in dire need of a $3 million replacement copper roof — a project that can’t be put off any longer and would be covered by a loan to be paid back over 20 years, McDade said Tuesday.
The library is attempting to raise $3 million on its own, which would be matched by $3 million from Stephen and Tabitha King, but only if the library comes up with the rest of the funds.
Of the $6 million not used for the roof, $3 million would go toward modernization efforts, increased meeting space, better lighting, improved layout and more, according to McDade. The final $3 million would go into the library’s endowment fund, which pays for 39 percent of the library’s operating costs.
Under the city’s budget plan, the city would keep the library’s funding flat, but with a 1.5 percent increase for salaries, according to Conlow. However, the city wouldn’t meet the library’s request for $190,000 to cover the annual debt service payment that would stem from a $3 million roof bond. That money would need to come from the library’s own $2.3 million operating budget.
McDade said she was “perplexed” by that aspect of the city’s proposal, adding that the library would have to make significant reductions in hours or staff in order to make its debt service payment.
She also said she’s concerned that the library might fail to meet its fundraising goal to complete its renovations. The library has raised a little more than half of its $3 million share for the $9 million project. Combined with the $3 million contribution by the Kings and the library bond, that leaves another $1.4 million yet to be raised. If the library doesn’t reach that goal, it could lose the Kings’ challenge grant, as well as other smaller donations, McDade said.
“Something has happened in the past several years. It seems to me that City Council and city staff think of us as some outside organization,” McDade said, arguing that Bangor Public Library is a public service that should receive support from the municipality it serves.
She pointed out that the city funds about 61 percent of Bangor Public Library’s budget, whereas Portland and Lewiston fund 85 and 93 percent of their respective libraries’ budgets.
“I don’t think any of us are arguing the value of [the library], but it’s not a municipal service, it’s a public service,” Conlow said, adding that the library’s board makes the bulk of its decisions and the city has little oversight or discretion when it comes to the library’s operations or spending.
Councilor Pauline Civiello said that in looking at what to trim from the budget, the council had to take a hard look at programs that “aren’t life or death,” being cautious not to harm first responders and other lifesaving agencies.
“We’re elected to look at the big picture,” she said.
Bangor would face a much more bleak budget picture if Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget were to pass. The suspension of revenue sharing and shifting costs of several services and programs to municipalities would cost Bangor an additional $5.5 million, according to Conlow.
At that point, the city would be forced to cut entire programs and services rather than just positions, Conlow said.
Councilor Joe Baldacci said Tuesday that he opposes the 12 percent cut to the library. He argued that the 12 percent cut is “shortsighted” and not equitable because the library’s budget is so much larger than other outside agencies. Whereas the library loses nearly $200,000 in the reductions, other agencies that face the 12 percent cut are much smaller and their budgets take a less significant hit. For example, the senior center would see about $1,200 chopped from its budget and the group that plans Fourth of July fireworks would lose about $400, he said.
“Those of us who have kids who enjoy the library, and there are thousands of us in Bangor, are going to feel the effects of the cut,” Baldacci said, raising concerns about potential reduced hours and staffing at the library.
Baldacci said he would propose an amendment to the budget before the council votes on it in late June to reinstate the debt service funding for the library. That would only increase the mill rate by 8 or 9 cents, he said.
Baldacci said Councilor Patricia Blanchette agreed with him at last week’s meeting. Councilor Charles Longo said Tuesday that he was still undecided and listening to what other councilors and staff at to say. Most other councilors voiced support for the proposal.
“Was it what we wanted to do? No. Was it what we had to do? Yeah,” Gallant said.
There is one universal consensus about this budget season: “Nobody’s truly happy with these reductions,” Conlow said.
This story has been updated to reflect the fact that the latest round of cuts and reductions proposed by the city would decrease the projected mill rate increase to less than $1.