HAMPDEN, Maine — After a public hearing on the proposed budget for municipal operations in 2013-14, frustrated town councilors voted not to absorb an 11th-hour increase in the local share of the SAD 22 school budget.
Instead, they unanimously decided to pass the increase on to property taxpayers, who will see it reflected on their tax bills, which show a breakdown of how much of each tax dollar goes toward municipal operations versus school operations.
The motion to do so was made by Councilor Thomas Brann, who pointed out that as the education burden on the community continues to grow, funding for municipal needs continues to shrink to accommodate that growth.
“It’s gotta stop. We can’t continue to do that,” Brann said, adding that some of the budget cuts the town is making to keep hold on the property tax rate could hurt the town in the long run. He cited the plan to slash the paving budget as one example.
“In the long run, it’s going to cost us four to five times what we’re saving now in order to recoup [the funding needed to adequately maintain local streets and roads],” he said. “We have extremely good roads because we take care of them and as long as they’re in good condition, it’s very easy to take care of them.
“The only way to recover that three years from now is a massive tax increase and that’s not fair to future councils. The problem is right here right now … and as a member of this council, I am not going to make the decision to absorb anything more of the school budget than what we’ve proportionately absorbed last year.”
“That’s it, my line in the sand. I’m done,” he said.
Councilors Carol Duprey and William Shakespeare said residents need to get more involved in the school budget decision making.
With Gov. Paul LePage’s austere budget plan still being debated by state lawmakers, town officials have developed a $6,844,149 spending plan that is $282,000 — or 4 percent — lower than this year’s budget, Town Manager Susan Lessard pointed out in an overview during Monday night’s sparsely attended budget hearing.
That’s because the town’s local share of the $28.3 million school budget voters approved for SAD 22 requires $5.68 million in local tax dollars, an increase of 6.6 percent from this year. In addition, the county tax bill came in at $731,537, up 5.2 percent from this year.
Based on that, Lessard in May projected a tax rate increase of 50 cents per $1,000 in property valuation.
Although the proposed budget maintains the current level of services and staffing, it reflects flat funding or reductions in virtually every budget line, she said.
Hampden officials have taken several steps to reduce operating costs, including not giving pay raises to nonunion employees, slashing the annual paving budget in half and changing the police department’s vehicle replacement program from every year to every two years, at least for now, she said.
Despite all the cuts, Lessard has projected an increase in the town’s property tax rate, which has stood at $15.90 per $1,000 in property valuation for the last six years.
However, during the SAD 22 school budget hearing earlier this month, district voters increased the school budget by approximately $142,000 in an apparent attempt to save some of the teaching positions targeted for elimination in the coming school year.
For Hampden, which is responsible for 63 percent of the district’s local share, that amounts to an increased local burden of roughly $89,000, which in turn would result in an increase of 16 cents per $1,000 in property valuation.
“It’s not just the $142,000,” Brann said of the motion to reflect the increase on tax bills. “You have to stop at some point. All the times we appealed to them and asked them to cut back and asked them to be more conscientious of the taxpayers and all we’re getting is, ‘It’s not our problem. It’s your budget.’”
In a May 13 budget overview for town councilors, Lessard pointed out that other budget reduction measures include having police and fire department personnel clean their portion of the municipal building and change the way those departments schedule vacations, sick time and holiday coverage to reflect actual usage over the past five years.
The budget plan does not include any funding for social service and community groups, such as Eastern Area Agency on Aging and the Red Cross.
The final version of the municipal budget will be put up for adoption during a special council meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 24.