BELFAST, Maine — Local property taxes are going to go up for the first time in four years, after the Belfast City Council unanimously voted this week for a tax bill that is about 10 percent larger than it was last year.
The jump means that taxes on a property valued at $100,000 will go up by about $170 next year, for a total tax bill estimated to be $1,970, according to City Manager Joe Slocum.
“In the previous two years, we had compensated for a lack of revenue by cutting into surplus,” Belfast City Councilor Marina Delune said Thursday. “In retrospect, we may have done the taxpayers a disservice. Now, the increase is even more dramatic.”
The city’s total financial obligations for the next fiscal year weigh in at $13.74 million, including the school and county portions of the budget.
Last year, the school, county and municipal budgets together added up to $12.39 million.
Much of the increase is due to the county and school budgets, which consume 71 cents of each property tax dollar paid by Belfast residents.
The city’s share of the school budget jumped by $715,000 this year.
In the three previous years, the city used a total of $873,000 from surplus funds to offset some of the increasing costs for education and the decreasing municipal revenue sharing funds from the state. The decision meant that the mill rate has held for three years at $18.10 per thousand dollars of valuation.
But the city’s surplus is now down to $2.5 million from $3.9 million, and officials said it would be wise to have more money than that on hand in case of emergency. The Tuesday night budget vote, in conjunction with the county budget and the school budget, raises the total mill rate in Belfast to an estimated $19.80 per thousand of valuation, according to Slocum.
The final figures have not yet been firmed up, according to City Assessor Bob Whiteley.
“We need the surplus to operate,” Councilor Eric Sanders said.
But the tax hike did spur a standing-room-only crowd of taxpayers to squeeze Tuesday night into the Belfast Council Chambers to register their discontent about the city’s finances just before councilors voted on the budget.
“We think it’s very hard,” said Noreen Liebmann, who retired to Belfast five years ago and was one of those who spoke at the meeting. “We’re all going to have to tighten our belts. It’s going to really hurt lower income people. Some people are going to have to move out of Belfast, into Swanville.”
She said she told the councilors to change their fiscal priorities, urging them to put the long-planned-for Harbor Walk project on hold, for instance.
“I don’t think it’s a time to use money for frivolities,” she said.
While councilors said they appreciated hearing from many of the dozens of people in attendance, some said it would be helpful to the budget drafting process if residents would speak up earlier in the year.
“The budget is the monetary expression of the goals that the city has,” City Councilor Nancy Hamilton said. “If people will become involved to help the council know what their priorities are, it’ll be the priorities of the entire town. Sometimes, if we don’t get that feedback, we kind of operate in the dark.”
She also said there appears to be a misconception that the city is responsible for the 10 percent tax increase.
“We are only responsible for a third of that,” she said. “I am sorry that taxes [will go] up, but we have insulated people from the effects of the increased school budget over the last several years.”
Delune said that delaying the Harbor Walk would not be a good decision right now, as the city has won grant funds to help with its construction and likely is not interested in giving the money back.
“It’s probably not a good idea to do that,” she said.
Sanders said he believes the city budget is reasonable for Belfast.
“I think the budget is great,” Sanders said. “Our downtown is booming. People are spending money, and the business owners pay taxes. The fact of the matter is that it costs money to operate.”
Correction: An early version of this story requires correction. Although Belfast’s overall tax bill will go up by 10 percent, the city budget will not.