EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — Residents rejected the proposed $4.2 million school budget by a 246-145 vote during Tuesday night’s election, according to results released Wednesday morning.
The vote forces the School Board and residents to restart the budget process with another town meeting and validation vote, according to Superintendent of Schools Quenten Clark. No dates have been set.
“I am encouraging the board to take a few weeks and think it over,” Clark said Wednesday.
Clark said he wasn’t surprised at the rejection. The $4.2 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1, represents an $11,000 overall increase but a hike in the amount residents pay of $261,078, he said. Residents paid $1.2 million directly for schools in 2013-14.
“Let’s be real here,” Clark said. “Who knows what is going to happen with the mill here? Uncertainty is always a terrible thing, and it’s not looking good.”
The town’s single largest employer, the Great Northern Paper Co. LLC mill, is months behind in its $657,900 property tax payment for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The paper mill, which makes newsprint, closed in January, and 212 of its 256 workers were laid off on Feb. 6.
Officials at Cate Street Capital, which bought the East Millinocket and Millinocket mills for $1 in 2011 and created Great Northern Paper, announced when the layoffs occurred that they hoped to restart the mill in 16 weeks. That deadline lapsed in mid-May.
“I am not saying that they did the wrong thing,” Clark said of voters who opposed the budget. “They are in a hard place.”
The board had made in the rejected budget what members described as deep reductions, proposing to cut two elementary school teachers and a half-time high school guidance counselor.
Under the $6.8 million total town budget that voters approved at a June 3 town meeting, the town mill rate will increase from $21.93 per $1,000 of property valuation to $27 mills — with the rejected school budget included.
With the new mill rate, owners of $50,000 properties would face a tax increase of about $253.50 effective July 1. As part of the budget, town officials would transfer $700,000 from the approximately $2.1 million reserve account to cover the amount Great Northern Paper owes.
The town’s assessor has questioned the wisdom of using the reserve funds, saying that could imperil the town’s credit rating. Selectmen have said that they fear needing to set a $37 mill rate to cover town and school expenses if Great Northern Paper remains delinquent on its taxes.