BELFAST, Maine — City councilors learned more details Tuesday night about the tough financial situation that Belfast taxpayers will be facing as the RSU 20 school district grapples with increased costs and sharply decreased funding sources.
“I do not bring good news,” RSU 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter told the three councilors present at the regular meeting.
Altogether, the city of Belfast is likely to have its share of the school district budget raised by as much as $2.6 million. In part, that’s because the new teachers’ contract — signed in January after a nearly four-year struggle — means that the district will pay nearly $1 million more in teacher and support staff salaries. Additionally, the district is grappling with Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed biennial budget, which proposes to essentially flat-fund general purpose aid for education and to shift some costs associated with teacher retirement from the state to the local level.
Carpenter said eight member towns of RSU 20 — Belfast, Belmont, Morrill, Northport, Searsmont, Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville — will have to pay an additional $424,000 for teacher retirement. The district’s ninth community, Frankfort, is currently far along in the process of leaving RSU 20 to join with SAD 22 to the north.
“The best thing that could happen right now is if the Maine Legislature decided not to put retirement on the local school system,” Carpenter told the councilors.
If Belfast has to find $2.6 million to fund its share of the district’s educational costs, that will mean property taxpayers will have to dig deep. That might add up to a tax rate increase next year of four mills just for education, according to Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum. For a property valued at $100,000, that would be $400 more in taxes.
“People are just going to be absolutely overwhelmed,” the city manager said Wednesday morning, adding that the municipal budget also is being squeezed by proposed state revenue cuts. “We’re sitting here watching Augusta play chicken. That’s exactly what we’re watching … It’s really scary. There’s no little town in this state that’s not scared.”
In other business, the city councilors voted to make 10 of the 53 parking spaces in the municipal Beaver Street parking lot into time-limited two-hour spaces. The spaces are next to the Belfast Opera House.
They also heard a report about the city’s proposed withdrawal from RSU 20. Kristin Collins, a city attorney working with the withdrawal committee, said that the Maine Department of Education has given approval for residents to vote on the matter. The election should take place in June, she said.