BRUNSWICK, Maine — Town councilors are unwilling to accept a budget that will increase taxes more than 4 percent, and may look for changes in the school budget to avoid municipal service cuts.
A majority of councilors took a stand against a possible 7 percent tax increase following a presentation of the School Board’s proposed $36.2 million budget by Superintendent Paul Perzanoski in the Town Council chambers Monday evening.
Taxpayers will shoulder about $22.9 million of education spending, as proposed. State aid and other revenue sources will fill in the remainder, Perzanoski reported.
Combined with a $21.5 million municipal budget, the total proposed tax increase is 7.1 percent.
According to budget figures presented by interim Town Manager John Eldridge, schools represent 61 percent of the total, while municipal spending accounts for 37 percent. Two percent of the town’s budget is payment to Cumberland County.
The council’s stance may foreshadow a round of cuts to the proposed spending plan. Councilors are scheduled to adopt a final budget May 29.
Voters will act on the school budget in a ballot referendum on June 10.
The proposed fiscal 2015 school budget is only $644,500 more than this year. But cuts in state aid, reductions in tuition revenue, increases in the technical school and adult education budgets, payments to charter schools, and demographic changes are driving a local tax increase of 3.69 percent, Perzanoski told councilors.
The school budget also includes more than $415,000 to fund new full-time and stipend positions, including diving and indoor track coaches. All the new positions are considered top priorities by the School Board, Perzanoski said.
“My heart goes out to all the taxpayers of Brunswick, mainly because of the fact that it certainly appears that the school budget has gone up an awful lot in the last few years,” Perzanoski said.
“In reality … the school budget has not gone up substantially except for one year, 2013-’14,” he continued, noting that spending is only going up 1.8 percent from last year’s budget.
Councilors, however, contended that the proposed budget, coming on the heels of last year’s 6.59 percent tax hike, is unsustainable for the town’s taxpayers.
“This town, in my opinion, cannot withstand another 7 percent tax increase,” Councilor John Perreault said. “I have already stated in our budget meetings that I will be looking to reduce this budget more and more.”
Perreault was part of a majority of the nine-member council who said a 4 percent increase is the maximum they are willing to accept.
Councilors questioned balancing an increase in education expenses with further cuts to municipal spending. Councilor Jane Millett said she is concerned that cutting into the budgets would mean eliminating services.
Vice Chairwoman Sarah Brayman suggested that capping the budget increase at 4 percent and allowing the school department to soak up the majority of the hike at the expense of municipal services would be “Draconian.”
“I think both sides are going to have to give a little bit,” she acknowledged.
Chairman Benet Pols suggested the two budgets are flexible enough to avoid service cuts while reducing spending to an acceptable level.
“I think we can squeeze a percent out from both sides,” Pols said, referencing the School Board’s decision not to use $60,000 in carryover funds from federal Title One funding and $50,000 from the department’s food service program to offset increased spending.
But even after “fiddling” with the school budget to squeeze out revenue, the town office would still need to consider making cuts to level out spending, Pols said, possibly affecting the same services heavily used by people who defend the school budget.
“One of the more troubling aspects of trying to find the softer target on the municipal side in order to leave more funding for the schools is that the softest pieces of the municipal budget are the library and the parks and rec department, which have the exact same constituency, pretty much,” Pols said.
The council will continue its budget deliberations at a workshop Monday, May 12.