Belfast mill rate rises, city manager points to rising school costs

Posted Sept. 20, 2013, at 12:43 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Municipal officials this week set the mill rate for Belfast at 20.8, a rise from the current rate of 19.8 which city officials largely attribute to an increase in costs for schools.

“It’s pretty clear to most people in Belfast that they’re having a tax increase, and it’s primarily because of the school,” City Manager Joe Slocum said Thursday. “The school would say that we’re having a tax increase, and it’s primarily because of the state. Is there a way to still provide a quality education and still save some money? The council is going to look at that issue directly.”

The city will issue tax bills at the end of September. With the increase, a person with property valued at $100,000 would pay $100 more this year — $2,080 in property taxes instead of the $1,980 it was the previous year. The mill rate increase allows for a small overlay of $85,442, which Slocum said is very small. The overlay is used in case the assessor has made any mistakes in valuing people’s property, he said.

“There are always some every year,” he wrote in his manager’s notes for this Tuesday’s regular city council meeting.

Slocum also told councilors that out of every tax dollar, 28.9 cents will go to the city, 9.5 cents will go to the county and 61.6 cents will go to the school district.

The $33.389 million Regional School Unit 20 budget that voters in the eight member communities passed Tuesday will cost Belfast $867,627 more than in the previous year. Slocum told city councilors that this figure represents a 10.46 percent increase in Belfast school taxes. In order to find this money, the city was forced to raise taxes, although municipal department heads worked hard to trim their own budgets.

The city has increased some user fees at the transfer station, raised fees at the Belfast Boat House and had zero increases in pay for all city employees. Additionally, Belfast cut five percent from all of its giving to social service agencies and made many other cuts in municipal departments.

“We’re down below the cuticle, for the city of Belfast,” Slocum said.

Recently, the city council approved the hiring of an educational consultant with the goal of getting independent advice about the city’s educational and financial plight. The city also is trying for a second time to withdraw from the unified school district.

“Tax increases are a challenge, no matter where they come from. Tax increases challenge our ability to keep housing affordable, to inspire small start-ups to happen” and more, Slocum said. “Education is not just about money, but it is about money. It’s got to be about both.”

He said that the numbers of students in the district have been dropping in recent years, making it extra upsetting for communities like Belfast to pay much more to educate fewer children. Slocum also cited the unpopular 2008 school consolidation law, which forced the former SAD 34 to merge with the former SAD 56, and created numerous hoops for municipalities to navigate if they wish to withdraw.

“We consolidated because the state forced us to do it,” he said. “To get out from underneath the mandate they put us under, they want us to hop on one foot up Mount Rushmore. They created this mess. I would really be ashamed to be a state legislator during any part of this whole process.”

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