HOULTON, Maine — Although the town’s tax rate will increase slightly, Town Manager Douglas Hazlett said earlier this week it would have spiraled even higher had the SAD 29 board decided to leave its 2011-2012 school budget untouched.
Hazlett told the Town Council at its Monday meeting that the tax rate likely would be 18.95, which is up approximately half a mill over the current rate. In the past, the town has dipped into its surplus fund to offset taxation and hold or lower the tax rate, but that will not happen this year. The surplus account stands at approximately $256,000, which is well below the $1 million balance the town auditor recommends. The town is trying to build the surplus account back up to an acceptable level before spending any more of it.
Hazlett told councilors the primary reason the mill rate increased was because of the school budget, but action the school board took at its budget hearing last month saved the town from a significantly larger mill rate increase.
During a district budget hearing in June, voters agreed to take advantage of a state law that allows school districts to raise as little as 82.2 percent of the required local share and still receive the full state subsidy. That decision reduced the local tax burden on the four member towns by nearly $250,000. Despite that, Houlton taxpayers saw a 15 percent increase in their local commitment for education.
Before the end of Monday’s meeting, several councilors made it clear they weren’t happy with the school budget. Councilor Mike Jenkins said he felt that the only way the council was going to keep the mill rate as low as possible was to do it themselves.
“I don’t see the school board stepping up to help the taxpayers in any of the district’s towns,” he said. He was especially upset that school officials included funding for two new positions in the budget before the school board had approved them.
The district has advertised for an alternative education coordinator and an elementary guidance counselor, but the school board has not officially approved either position. Jenkins said on Monday evening he didn’t think either position was necessary, adding he didn’t think it was necessary for the district or its taxpayers to get into the “counseling business.”
Councilor John White was frustrated with the district for what he said were restrictive voting hours. White indicated he would have voted to oppose the SAD 29 budget, but he didn’t get out of work in time to vote.
Tax bills will be mailed out shortly, according to Hazlett.