VEAZIE, Maine — A lean spending plan became even leaner Monday night, after town councilors made their final round of cuts to the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, which kicks in on July 1.
The council’s overarching goal through this spring’s budget deliberations was to prevent the property tax rate — which now stands at $20.50 per $1,000 in property valuation — from climbing any higher.
The public hearing that preceded the council’s budget votes drew an estimated 130 residents to Veazie Community School, where the meeting was held because a larger than usual crowd was expected.
Nearly 20 of those residents weighed in on the budget plan during the one-and-a-half-hour hearing portion of Monday’s council meeting, as did members of the council, interim school committee and budget committee.
Chief among the budget issues dividing Veazie over the past month has been the school budget. The matter has received so much attention that it prompted Monday’s venue change.
Adding to the tensions are state biennial budget proposals put forth by Gov. Paul LePage that could mean less state revenue, the fact that Veazie is entering its first year as a standalone school unit and the council’s need to absorb a $150,000 sewer district assessment that was inadvertently left out of this year’s budget by the previous town manager.
During Monday’s hearing, some residents said that the town is spending too much to run Veazie Community School, that teachers’ salaries are out of line with other schools of similar size and that Veazie’s per-pupil cost is thousands of dollars over the state average.
Among them was Suzanne Malis-Anderson, a retired teacher, who noted that residents already were dealing with water and sewer rate hikes and soon will lose tax income due to the removal this summer of the Veazie Dam, all at a time of a record-high tax rate.
Others argued that budget cuts already have been made and to make further reductions would adversely affect local education, which would make the town less attractive to families with children.
Last month, school officials presented a $4,394,547 gross budget that called for $2,904,082 in local dollars, a roughly 3 percent drop from this year’s local burden.
During a special meeting on April 29, town councilors voted 3-2 to direct the school committee to trim another $200,000 from the local share. School officials last week identified only $100,000 in reductions — for a 6 percent drop in the local portion — saying that any more would hurt the quality of local education.
While town councilors opted not to seek the full $200,000 reduction on Monday night, they did vote 3-2 to cut an additional $26,000 from the total that must be raised from Veazie taxpayers, bringing the local burden down to $2,778,082.
Councilor Jon Parker made the motion to do so after confirming that that amount was the equivalent of the 2 percent salary increase that school officials had built into their budget proposal. School officials originally had budgeted for 3 percent raises and step increases for those eligible to demonstrate “good faith” bargaining intent as they move toward post-RSU 26 contract negotiations.
Going into Monday’s meeting, the municipal budget stood at $1,953,775, or $172,532 less than this year, according to Interim Town Manager Mark Leonard.
Earlier rounds of cuts included:
• A decision not to have a full-time town manager and a full-time police chief and continue to have Leonard split his time between those roles to save about $45,000;
• Reductions to the police and fire department budgets, community investments, contributions to reserve accounts and solid waste removal, which will cost substantially less because of a new contract. The town cut its sewer assessment from $150,000 to $110,000.
• Another $64,000 in reductions, including the elimination of the town’s last public works position, a $19,000 cut in the recreation budget that likely will mean no summer staff hires and a $12,000 cut in the administration budget that could result in the elimination of a part-time town office staffer.
• Councilors also authorized the sale of a 1991 fire engine, the oldest in the fire department’s fleet, as well as the fire chief’s vehicle, a move they expect will bring in as much as $50,000 in revenue.
On Monday night, they cut another $60,000 from the fire department, a reduction that could mean the loss of one of the department’s two-full time posts.